Solar storms and the potential danger to critical infrastructure

A massive solar storm is headed for Earth, and those managing the smart grids, GPS systems and other satellite-based items should pay attention. This is NOT a warning about disaster. Just a note to be prepared.

From The AP:

WASHINGTON - (AP) -- The largest solar storm in five years was due to arrive on Earth early Thursday, promising to shake the globe's magnetic field while expanding the Northern Lights.

The storm started with a massive solar flare earlier in the week and grew as it raced outward from the sun, expanding like a giant soap bubble, scientists said. When it strikes, the particles will be moving at 4 million mph.

"It's hitting us right in the nose," said Joe Kunches, a scientist for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration in Boulder, Colo.

The massive cloud of charged particles could disrupt utility grids, airline flights, satellite networks and GPS services, especially in northern areas. But the same blast could also paint colorful auroras farther from the poles than normal.

Astronomers say the sun has been relatively quiet for some time. And this storm, while strong, may seem fiercer because Earth has been lulled by several years of weak solar activity.

While this flare up isn't that big of a deal, it reminds me of a conversation I had last year with some folks involved with the National Information Security Group (NAISG), of which I was a board member for six years (I stepped down last month because I have less and less time to devote to it). It was a random conversation about all the bad things that can happen.

Solar storms came up, with one friend, Paul Bowen, suggesting it's only a matter of time before a particularly ferocious solar storm hits us, causing major damage to a lot of the technology we've come to depend on.

Another member, Tom Sullivan, said he heard that there are fairly simple protections that can be deployed on the power grid to make it more robust to solar storm effects, but no one is investing in upgrading the power grid.  "Apparently, it involves grounding, and doesn’t look expensive to implement," he said.

Bowen, a NAISG board member and customer accounts and research director, GSA FAS New England, at GSA, said it's an issue emergency management associates have begun to talk about, and he expanded on the concerns in a message on the NAISG TechTips email list:

This should not be too big of a deal though it can effect things like GPS accuracy, radio transmissions etc....   It may lead to a nice night of viewing Northern Lights, but (a more damaging solar flare) is as inevitable as a tsunami hitting the coast of Japan; that someday we will get hit by a major one like the one that hit in 1859.  That could cause massive damage to our technology and could send us back to a pre electricity state for many months.

As security professionals we have to think differently.  No need to panic or be fear mongers (unless that is your business model) but we need to know the known knowns and the known unknows and what Black Swan events are.

By definition, Black Swan events are events that deviate beyond the norm and are extremely difficult to predict, like an undetected moon-sized asteroid hitting earth or an accidental nuclear catastrophe.

As for the 1859 solar storm Bowen referenced, Wikipedia has this detailed write-up.

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