Canada’s Power Grid at risk due to Space Weather

Space Weather - Artist illustration of events on the sun changing the conditions in Near-Earth space. Credit: NASA

Canada needs to invest in more Space Weather services and research to mitigate potential significant impacts to the electrical power grid according to a new economic study.

That’s one of the findings in the Space Weather Socioeconomic Impact Study on Canadian Infrastructure study by Hickling Arthurs Low prepared for the Canadian Space Agency (CSA).

The report was commissioned in 2017 and the report was presented to the CSA in March 2019 but was only recently released.

The study describes Space Weather as “the variations in the environment between the Sun and Earth and the phenomena that impact systems and technologies in space and on Earth.”

“The situation is illustrated in Figure 1. The sun emits energy during eruptions known as solar flares in the form of electromagnetic radiation (radio waves, infra-red, light, ultraviolet, X-rays). Energetic electrically charged particles may also be emitted as a result of the flaring process.”

Space Weather effects on infrastructures
Figure1: Space Weather effects on infrastructures. Credit: Source: Natural Resources Canada.

The impacts on infrastructure include the following areas which were detailed in the study:

  • Electrical Power Grid
  • Satellites
  • Satellite Communications
  • Polar Aviation
  • Polar Marine Transportation
  • Magnetic Surveying
  • Directional Drilling
  • Pipelines
  • GNSS (Global Navigation Satellite System) Positioning, Navigation and Timing
  • Surveying
  • Precision Farming

The economic impact to Canada’s infrastructure was outlined in three impact scenarios:

  1. Limited impacts (minutes to 2-hour service denial),
  2. Short-term impacts (24-hour service denial);
  3. Long-term impacts (14- day service denial for electrical power grid infrastructure, 1-year loss of Wide Area Augmentation System (WAAS)). Table 1 provides a summary of the economic impacts of space weather on Canada’s infrastructure sectors.
The assessment of economic impacts was based on three impact scenarios
The assessment of economic impacts was based on three impact scenarios. Credit: Hickling Arthurs Low.

The study states that “Space weather events can have a significant impact on Canada’s critical infrastructure that is essential to national security, the economy and the health of Canadians including the electrical grid, the transportation networks and space systems (satellites and their ground facilities). Concerns have risen over the years as a result of the complexity of critical infrastructure and our increasing dependency not only on a requirement for near-continuous availability of electrical power, but also on space-based technologies such as cellular/mobile telephones, the Internet and Global Navigation Satellite Systems (GNSS)/Global Positioning Systems (GPS). When autonomous vehicles are introduced our reliance on GNSS/GPS with higher precision will increase.”

To keep track of what’s happening with Space Weather, follow SpaceRef’s Twitter account @SpaceWeather.

The study showed that the largest economic impact would be on the electrical power grid and that there is a “very high” need to improve Space Weather services and research when it comes to the electrical power grid as outlined in table 3.

Also of note was the impact on pipelines. Even in the Limited Impact scenario 1, pipeline operators could see an impact of $238.2 million. The report states that pipeline operators “can incur costs associated with accelerated corrosion of pipelines and possibly delays in pipeline testing” due to a Space Weather event.

Infrastructure needs for improved Space Weather services and research.
Credit: Hickling Arthurs Low.

Study recommended goals

Based on the its findings, Hickling Arthurs Low recommended that a Canada Space Weather Strategy (CSWS) be developed. That recommendation proposes the following goals for the strategy.

  1. Improve Understanding of Space Weather Impacts: While infrastructure operators appear to be confident in their preparations to mitigate space weather impacts, there is strong interest in additional research to bolster their understanding of impacts. It was noted by interviewees and survey respondents that more funding for research on space weather impacts and mitigation is needed; Canada is far behind the US & UK . There is interest in understanding more about probabilities of severe events and in higher fidelity impact studies and risk assessments based on improved benchmarks.
  2. Increase Services Tailored to Canadian Latitudes: In order to manage the risk of space weather impacts, organizations need information upon which to base the formulation of their mitigation measures and take action in the case of significant events. It was noted by interviewees and survey respondents that information on the duration, intensity and geographic area (specific to Canadian latitudes) of space weather events is needed (i.e. US National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s (NOAA) forecasts are not always suited for Canada). There is also interest in extending the geomagnetic monitoring network.
  3. Promote Greater Awareness of the Risks and Impacts of Space Weather Events: The majority of respondents felt strongly that the federal government has a role to play in raising awareness of the risks of space weather and providing advice on how to mitigate the impacts of severe disturbances. Many noted that Canada had fallen behind and expressed concern that other countries, particularly the US and UK, are much more proactive in both raising awareness of the risks and making investments in space weather services. It was also suggested that “space” be added to the list of Canada’s critical infrastructure sectors, and included in future editions of Canada’s Emergency Management Framework and National Strategy and Action Plan for Critical Infrastructure.
  4. Create a Space Weather Preparedness Plan: The creation of a Space Weather Preparedness Plan would require a coordinated approach across all government departments/agencies (possibly lead by Public Safety Canada), academia and commercial partners to ensure a streamlined process. Key stakeholders would include federal departments of Transport, Defence and Natural Resources, as well as provincial and local government and private sector infrastructure operators. It would address how each government department should react in response to a severe space weather event (i.e. roles and responsibilities) as well as the selection of a singular entity that would play the coordination role.
  5. Continue and Enhance International Engagement: Engagement with the international community on observation infrastructure, data sharing, numerical modelling and scientific research should be continued and enhanced where appropriate. Enhanced collaboration can also provide solutions to regional challenges associated with space weather and exchange of best practices between Canada and the international partners. Overall this will help to strengthen global capacity to respond to extreme space-weather events. Progress is being made in this area with the recent release of voluntary guidelines by the United Nations Committee on the Peaceful Uses of Outer Space (UN COPUOS). The 21 agreed guidelines promote broader international collaboration and address the policy, regulatory, operational, safety, scientific, technical and capacity-building aspects of space activities including space weather. The implementation of these guidelines will support the development of practices to mitigate risks associated with the conduct of outer space activities so that present benefits can be sustained and future opportunities realized.

Canada has a Canadian Space Weather Forecast Centre, managed by Natural Resources Canada. The centre provides daily space weather forecasts.

Executive Summary

Space Weather Study Full Report

About Marc Boucher

Boucher is an entrepreneur, writer, editor & publisher. He is the founder of SpaceQ Media Inc. and CEO and co-founder of SpaceRef Interactive LLC. Boucher has 20+ years working in various roles in the space industry and a total of 30 years as a technology entrepreneur including creating Maple Square, Canada's first internet directory and search engine.

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