Balancing Risk - Understanding & Preparing for Catastrophes

Space weather, nuclear, and catastrophic natural disasters are just lying in wait for the right combination of conditions. Although it is not possible to plan specifically for every type of threat – imaginable and unimaginable – it is necessary to weigh the risks associated with various threats and take sufficient actions to mitigate the devastating effects.

On 27 April 2016, William (Bill) Murtagh, assistant director for space weather at the Office of Science and Technology Policy, Executive Office of the President, addressed leaders from government and industry to share updates on the National Space Weather Strategy and Action Plan and the related tasks and subtasks that are now being assigned to various federal agencies. The strategy urges all community stakeholders to plan and exercise for long-term regional and nationwide blackouts, which would have profound implications for business continuity and disaster planning. Successful mitigation requires a higher level of local community sustainability, especially in lifeline infrastructures such as power, communications, water and sewer, healthcare, emergency management, and law enforcement. High-impact incidents may make it unlikely for outside help to arrive within four days. Forty or 400 days may be more likely.

Developing a National Strategy

Drivers behind the new strategy include: societal and economic impacts; and implications related to losing technology, electric power, and GPS because of the nation’s reliance on such technology. After 10 months of development by space weather scientists, preparedness professionals, and policy subject matter experts, the National Space Weather Strategy and Action Plan were introduced in October 2015. However, Murtagh acknowledged that developing the strategy and action plan was the easy part, implementing them will be much more difficult. Therefore, the following six goals were created:

  • Establish benchmarks with actionable numbers for space weather events such as induced geo-electric fields, ionizing radiation, ionospheric disturbances, solar radio bursts, and upper atmospheric expansion

  • Enhance response and recovery capabilities

  • Improve protection and mitigation efforts, such as public information templates for warning messaging

  • Improve assessment, modeling, and prediction of impacts on critical infrastructure such as vulnerability assessments of communication systems

  • Enhance space weather services through advancing understanding and forecasting

  • Increase international cooperation (international effects make it different than typical disasters; effects on magnetic field affect places around the world)

Following Murtagh’s presentation, a panel of subject matter experts shared their perspectives from various disciplines on how the strategy and plan will affect business/government continuity and disaster planning.

Healthcare Impacts

Terry Donat, M.D., is the co-chair of the InfraGard’s Electromagnetic Pulse Special Interest Group (EMP SIG) Health Advisory Panel and described healthcare as “an indoor sport,” with the objective of keeping people healthy. Although space weather may not seem to have a direct effect on healthcare, there are vulnerabilities such as the industry’s reliance on infrastructure, technology, fixed facilities, electronic medical records access, and global supply lines. He stated that limited contingent communication between facilities is a significant vulnerability that is often overlooked as circumstances leading to its use are deemed unlikely. As such, it is critical that healthcare providers understand how space weather could affect them directly.

He described two coordinating entities: the sector coordinating council of the U.S. Department of Homeland Security and U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, which released its sector-specific plan in May 2016 to specifically include space weather; and the joint commission on health coordination, which mandates a 96-hour power supply in many areas or aligned with each state’s regulations for healthcare facilities. However, space weather is not included in the risk assessment vulnerabilities, and the secondary and tertiary effects are not addressed. The joint commission and other medical organizations, particularly those engaging healthcare executives would help promulgate any necessary information for planning.

Donat explained that, although this problem is unfamiliar to many in the healthcare industry, some measurable factors could be used to inform healthcare workers – for example, threatening space weather conditions that could lead to greater impact. Murtagh reminded attendees that, before the 2010 volcanic eruption in Iceland, many in Europe were unaware of any local threat.

Mental Health Impacts

Dr. Judith Boch is a clinical psychologist at the University of Colorado, Colorado Springs, Trauma Health and Hazards Center and addressed the psychological effects of warnings and public messaging. She emphasized that people are a resource that require psychological resilience. If people are not functioning, then the physical infrastructure around them does not have as much significance. Preparedness and resilience for the human factor requires conservation of intangible resources, such as self-efficacy, problem-solving ability, social support systems, and knowledge. Individuals are part of a bigger system, so systemic issues require support in order to sustain the ability to garner existing or remaining resources for survival. A smartphone is not needed in order to help someone else.

Although the mental health sector cannot inoculate people, it can help them prepare for such events by practicing in advance with small- and large-scale exercises. She pointed out that human resilience needs a clear way to approach the space weather issue and psychology has a lot that it can contribute to the resilience discussion. For example, when telling the public about space weather, the warning information needs to be clear, with a plan attached, with expectations of the public and of the agencies. As people adjust to neweas and concepts, the topic becomes part of the language and the mitigation efforts a way of life.

Private Sector Impacts

In the private sector, Daniel Gregory is the chief executive officer for Pos-En, a microgrid developer. Over time, the perspectives on space weather effects have changed, with a lot of infrastructure now being protected against non-extreme events. He pointed out that people make 20-year investments, so they need to design the infrastructure to withstand 20 years of potential threats. Unfortunately, he added, many people do not adequately plan for electromagnetic and cosmic events, even though such incidents can have devastating consequences.

He suggested addressing issues with the public in a cost-effective manner in order to be meaningful. With technology that can protect the electric grid, reboot equipment, and provide sufficient back-up power when hit with an electromagnetic pulse, he said the problem is solvable. Attendee William Kaewert suggested finding ways to raise public awareness of this critical issue by leveraging popular media such as climate change activists have since the 1990s to force the spending of billions to avert a potential catastrophe far in the future. In contrast, no monies have been spent to protect the U.S. power system from EMP and space weather, the effects of which would be immediate and castastrophic. The destructive power of each these effects is massive, and has been measured and documented.

Public Sector Impacts

El Paso County Colorado Commissioner Peggy Littleton addressed the space weather issue from a public sector perspective. Her “You’re On Your Own” (YOYO) message helps her county better prepare for any possible catastrophic incidents. She encourages communities in her area to remember that they are their own first responders. Ways to do this include an annual zombie run with educational tools – for example, what to do for power, communication, medication, connection to family and friends, etc.

Other programs used by community members in her area include: Lighthouse Prime, which is a community-driven initiative to establish communication within the community; and SNAP (Seattle Neighbors Actively Prepare (SNAP). For catastrophic long-term incidents, resilient communities cannot become too dependent on first responders and military; businesses, organizations, and individuals must find ways to continue operations despite infrastructure failures. Littleton mentioned the Great American Campout and school initiatives (engaging parents through their children) as ways to get preparedness to the local level and help community members learn how to prepare.

Military Impacts

Captain Arthur Glynn is the Command Center Director for NORAD and USNORTHCOM, where aerospace defense is a daily concern because space weather affects the sensors protecting North America and the ability to respond to threats such as missiles, cyberthreats, etc. With the primary mission of protecting the homeland, the U.S. Department of Defense (DOD) has developed a keen ability to plan well, especially for crisis action planning. This ability could be used to facilitate planning efforts within communities.

With solar weather being a major concern, Glynn mentioned some solutions that the DOD is currently implementing, such as: cyber-secure smart grids; and islanding of military bases, with renewable energy, diversified resources, and back-up generators. Lessons should be taken from the DOD’s experience to apply such best practices to civilian areas. It is difficult to determine the exact implications of a long-term outage that lasts months or more.

As the chief executive officer for Jaxon Engineering and Maintenance, which performs electromagnetic pulse (EMP) testing, Randy White has observed significant changes and solutions develop over the years – for example, from missile warnings and communication technology to the ability to shoot missiles out of the sky. Being able to survive an EMP, solar flare, or other incident that disables the electric grid for long periods requires that equipment and technology be properly protected.

Public Policy Impacts

William Harris, J.D., is the attorney and a director of the Foundation for Resilient Societies and chair of the EMP SIG Legal Advisory Panel. As an international lawyer specializing in arms control, nuclear non-proliferation, energy policy, and continuity of government, Harris described the cost-recovery opportunities by hardening the electrical grid and implementing standards to require protected transformers. By providing more robust opportunities for cost recovery, more regulatory authority, and more reliable environmental impact statements, communities will become more resilient.

From a legal perspective on healthcare, Harris mentioned how recent studies have shown the effects of solar weather on health hazards, but public policy is challenged because some health studies show increased cardiac and blood pressure visits to emergency rooms during solar storms; whereas other studies show reduced cardiac stress indicated by patient-worn cardiac monitors. Meta-analysis could provide better statistics for space weather consequences – for example, to determine whether there would be an influx of patients with cardiac and other health issues when power is lost during solar storms.  

Legislation enacted in 2015 includes:

  • The Fixing America’s Surface Transportation Act (FAST Act, H.R. 22, Public Law 114-94), which vests emergency powers in the President and Secretary of Energy, pertinent to grid restoration during solar storms; and

  • Section 1089 of the National Defense Authorization Act for FY2016 (S. 1356, P.L. 114-92), which re-establishes the Congressional Commission on Electromagnetic Pulse (EMP) and requires assessment of both manmade and solar-derived electromagnetic pulse hazards.

A Global Challenge

Working closely with the United Nations for global standards on space weather and creating a national risk assessment that includes space weather, the U.S. federal government and other planning partners are introducing new space weather legislation to inform the private sector on what actions need to be taken. The new National Space Weather Strategy and Action Plan help communities build actionable items to address significant threats. Even though some people may not care about space weather, they should care about the consequences of space weather. Emergency response planning requires dependable predictions in order to make sound decisions. The global challenge now is to inform policy makers and leaders of partner nations to coordinate an international strategy through federal and nonfederal stakeholder collaborations.

A special thanks goes to Charles (Chuck) Manto for organizing the EMP-SIG space weather discussion, and to all the participants, authors, and sponsors who contributed to this edition of the DomPrep Journal. Click here to view the complete issue.

Catherine L. Feinman

Catherine L. Feinman, M.A., joined Domestic Preparedness in January 2010. She has more than 35 years of publishing experience and currently serves as editor of the Domestic Preparedness Journal,, and The Weekly Brief. She works with writers and other contributors to build and create new content that is relevant to the emergency preparedness, response, and recovery communities. She received a bachelor’s degree in International Business from the University of Maryland, College Park, and a master’s degree in Emergency and Disaster Management from American Military University.



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