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Wireless on the Precipice: The 14th Century Revisited

Business continuity plans for the wireless world must address solar activity.
  1. Introduction
  2. Key Insights
  3. What is the Threat?
  4. What are the Risks?
  5. Business Environment
  6. Wireless on the Precipice
  7. Acknowledgments
  8. References
  9. Authors
  10. Footnotes
  11. Figures
  12. Sidebar: Solar Glossary
fiery planet

Europe suffered events in the 14th century that had a devastating effect on society, business, religion, and life itself. These catastrophic events were, in part, the Black Death, the Great (Papal) Schism, and the Hundred Years’ War, resulting in the breakdown of basic structures and services previously enjoyed by society. The lack of advances in communication technology precipitated the slow and painful recovery. Reflections upon these events bring about the realization that effective communication is the cornerstone of a successful business continuity plan. Any cataclysmic event that causes the failure of communication and associated technologies will have a devastating impact on the global economy.

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Key Insights

  • Business continuity relies on security; a major new threat to security is the predicated solar flare activity in the year 2012. Predictions include disruption to global communications electrical power by geomagnetic radiation as a result of increased cyclic sunspot activity.
  • History suggests that failure of wired and wireless communications as well as associated technologies will have a devastating impact on the global economy.
  • Risk assessment and organizational strategic planning for the wireless 21st century should monitor solar activities while providing methods of outages and costs; or focus disaster recovery plans at the wireless precipice.

Today, a significant amount of global communication and business transactions are conducted electronically, a major part handled wirelessly. Almost all technology that controls our life requires electrical power; so just imagine the simultaneous loss of wireless and wired devices. Even a regional loss covering North America, Europe, or Asia could have devastating consequences in a global environment. One event that can be a significant threat to wireless and electrical power is the occurrence of geomagnetic disturbances due to solar activity. These disturbances have historically presented the risk of power disruption as well as infrastructure outages. Current potential disruptions include all services that rely on satellite navigation data, such as aircraft navigation, emergency location systems, global positioning systems, and cellular services. Organizations that have worldwide locations have increased risk to solar activities.

While there are a number of dystrophic predictions about the year 2012, they do not include what may be the most significant; the potential disruption of global communications and electrical power by geomagnetic radiation as a result of increased cyclic sunspot activity. We are currently approaching a period of maximum solar storm activity (2012–2013). This solar maximum is certainly the first since the explosive growth in wireless technologies. The solar activity, at its highest, can produce powerful electrical surges that can disrupt any exposed wired or wireless technology. The very infrastructure of our society could be at risk. How real is the threat from solar storms? What are the associated risks? How might we mitigate these risks? This article addresses the vulnerabilities of this threat and present actions that seem warranted.

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What is the Threat?

Business innovations driven by wireless connectivity and associated new services for individuals, businesses, and societies are changing the world economic landscape. These capabilities are evolving from mobile voice and email to mobile intranet-access to mobile business applications.14 Technological changes in the 21st century are expected to be three orders of magnitude greater than the innovations of the 20th century; communications technologies, especially wireless network technologies, are one of the fastest growing sectors. Ask any business person or teenager to leave their cell phone or PDA at home and the dependence on wireless technology becomes painfully evident. We are accustomed to reliable, pervasive connectivity in our professional and personal lives. What happens when individuals find themselves disconnected and without basic structures and services? Couple our dependence on wireless communications with the increase in solar activity that can disable communications and produce powerful electrical surges to our infrastructure, and it becomes evident that our global business environment must take heed of the upcoming increase in solar activity.2,13

Solar storms, associated with solar flares and coronal mass ejections (CME), are caused by a surge of energy originating from the interior of our sun. Solar flares and CMEs produce electromagnetic radiation that can breach the magnetosphere, the earth’s natural protective barrier (see sidebar for more information). The amount of energy released is equivalent to the denotation of millions of 100-megaton hydrogen bombs!15 Solar storms have been tracked since 1843. Solar activity, as measured by the number of solar flares, follows a clear cyclic pattern with periods of low solar activity followed by periods of high solar activity. These periods last several years with the periods of high solar activity occurring approximately every 11 years.18 The years 2012–2013 are predicted to coincide with the peak levels of solar activity within the current 11 year cycle.9

The great solar megastorm of 1859 emitted large amounts of radiation, rendering telegraphs unusable in the U.S. and Europe as well as causing blackouts to power systems around the world. “Were it to happen today, it could severely damage satellites, disable radio communications and cause continent-wide electrical blackouts that would require weeks or longer to recover”.12

“On September 2, 1859, a billion-ton coronal mass ejection (CME) slammed into Earth’s magnetic field….Earth was peppered by particles so energetic, they altered the chemistry of polar ice. As the day unfolded, the gathering storm electrified telegraph lines, shocking technicians and setting their telegraph papers on fire. The ‘Victorian Internet’ was knocked offline. Magnetometers around the world recorded strong disturbances in the planetary magnetic field for more than a week….According to the National Academy of Sciences, if a similar flare occurred today, it would cause $1 trillion to $2 trillion in damages to society’s high-tech infrastructure and require four to ten years for complete recovery.17

Organizations, researchers, and scientists have dedicated resources and time to developing models and forecasting trends of solar cycles, which provide average severity level predictions for future solar activities.4,8,9 Scientists have conjectured that electromagnetic space storms will adversely affect telephone lines, television signals, cripple aircraft navigation systems, while leaving cities without power supplies.5

Major growth in the wireless industry has occurred during an unusually low activity phase of the solar cycle, while the projected storm frequencies of 2012–2013 may have as much as a 10-fold increase over the 2007–2008 period.9 Providers of wireless services would be well advised to compare electromagnetic disruptions from past solar storms with equipment sensitivity thresholds for strategic planning and risk assessment purposes.1 Organizations with global locations have a greater risk of being impacted by solar activities because of multiple sites in different time zones, that is, in the path of radiation as the earth rotates.

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What are the Risks?

Considering the devastation caused in recent years by earthquakes, tsunamis, hurricanes, tornadoes, and floods, it may seem far-fetched to be concerned with an increase in solar activity. History suggests otherwise. On March 13, 1989, six million people were without power for nine hours in the Quebec region of Canada.13 In 2000, China’s telecommunications services experienced 17 hours of disturbances due to solar storms. What is the outcome of a great wave of solar energy disrupting the magnetic field of the earth and halting a major electrical grid? Considering that Hurricane Katrina took out the wireless communication towers in New Orleans, Louisiana, with just wind and water, what would be the effect of this type of failure to all wireless services?

Just like hurricanes, the questions to be addressed: “should we expect one?” and “how long before impact?”; and just like any natural disaster, predictions are difficult at best. Weather experts seem to agree that we should expect cycles of intense solar activity with a particularly active period in the next few years. Providing warnings for solar storms is also difficult although not impossible. CMEs typically break earth’s atmosphere 24 to 60 hours after leaving the sun; the visual image of the disturbance will arrive in eight minutes. Although solar flares can be very powerful, CMEs pose the most significant threat; and combining flares and CMEs lays the foundation for disaster. “The largest CMEs typically coincide with one or more intense flares.”12 In the event that two CMEs occur back-to-back, the earth’s shield does not have time to recover, resulting in more ground induced electrical current from any new CMEs. Of concern is that major storms and CMEs can occur during weak solar cycles as well as active solar cycles just as a major hurricane can occur during years with mild hurricane seasons. The infamous geomagnetic megastorm of 1859, known as the Carrington event, occurred during a weak solar cycle and reached earth in less than 20 hours. Whereas, hurricane warnings may be issued days in advance, the warning times for actual CME events is measured in hours.

In an effort to explore these issues, we have reviewed data from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) Polar Operational Environmental Satellites (POES) solar activity tracking database.6 The database is a compilation of power flux solar activity, based upon 100,000 satellite passes, resulting in a repository that stores approximately 580,000 records for the years 1978–2009. Gigawatt power measurement represents severity of solar flares and solar storms. An additional feature of solar storms is the presence of CMEs. We compared the previous information with the CME database for 1996–2009 maintained by NASA.16 There were clear trends of solar flare and CME activity throughout solar cycles.

Four years (1989, 2000, 2003 and 2005) were selected to report what we believe exemplifies the nature of the risk from space weather. These reported storms had a significant impact on earth’s ground services, resulting in outages that directly influence wireless services. The first of the four years, 1989, has no data to report because a solar storm destroyed the satellite used to collect the reported measurements of solar activity. The geomagnetic storms in March 1989 were so intense that four Navy navigational satellites were taken out of service. In addition, this event caused the cascading failure of the Hydro-Quebec power grid in Quebec Canada as well as power outages in Sweden and the U.S.6 Specifically, in the U.S. the failure of a GSU transformer at a nuclear plant in New Jersey resulted in damage beyond repair.10 Moreover, the geomagnetic disturbances in October, 1989, produced arguably the worst storm of the space age.12

Strong solar flares were recorded in early June, 2000 with significant CMEs detected during this period. Figure 1 illustrates the strength of flares occurring during the period June 5–12. The data displayed in the graph are energy levels recorded by NOAA satellites over the polar region of the northern hemisphere. Satellites provide approximately 28 readings per day. High power measurements (in gigawatts) such as those occurring on June 1, 5, and 8 indicate solar flares. Solar flares may or may not be associated with coronal mass ejections. Significant CMEs are labeled on the graph. While solar flares impact the earth in hours, the slower CMEs may take from one to four days to reach earth. Although not considered among the most powerful storms, they certainly had a considerable impact. The solar storms during this period reeked havoc on China, interfering with shortwave radio services, communications satellites and navigational systems.11,13

The storms of 1989 and 2000 occurred during low activity solar cycles, while the years 2003 and 2005 produced some of the most intense storms on record (see Figure 2). The geomagnetic disturbances associated with the October 2003 solar storm shut down the Wide Area Augmentation System, a radio network that improves the accuracy of GPS position estimates, requiring commercial aircraft to resort to in-flight backup systems.12 In September, 2005, two solar storms disrupted the performance of the U.S. Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) GPS receivers, resulting in signal degradation of 50%.2 As we enter the first intense period of solar activity since the birth of the wireless industry, the threats from solar activity must be considered as being real and significant. So, what can we do to mitigate the risks?

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Business Environment

The reality for the global business environment is that major solar events can be economically devastating. On a regional level, the costs of a major solar storm could rival the costs of a major hurricane. However, as a wireless society, even a regional event can quickly escalate into a global problem. For example, recall the catastrophic events of September 11, 2001 when all aircraft in the U.S. were grounded. This one event in one country had an astonishing financial impact around the world. Powerful solar storms can disrupt GPS and other satellite-based systems and produce the same results, grounded aircraft, but for a much longer time period. So how do corporations mitigate these risks?

The U.S. Department of Defense estimates that solar disruptions to government satellites cost about $100 million annually.3 The costs grow exponentially, into billions of dollars, if you consider all the incremental costs to the organizations and customers that use these satellites. NOAA Space Weather Prediction center provides corporations the opportunity to monitor space events with daily reports, alerts and warnings.6 Executives must recognize these threats and determine the best mitigation strategies, such as, combination of internal and external monitoring.

The real issue is how to prepare for these geomagnetic events. Today’s wireless business environment will be impacted, but how can we minimize both the damage and the costs while continuing to conduct business; this calls for a good risk management plan. Space weather and satellite activity reports are necessary for organizational contingency plans. Contractual agreements with satellite service providers will certainly prevail, but organizations must consider the limitations of these service providers during major geomagnetic disturbances. The following are three risk strategies and possible responses.

The reality for the global business environment is that major solar events can be economically devastating.

Risk Strategy #1: Dependence on single-source wireless communications. Organizations that contract with a single wireless provider, often for the best financial terms, are at risk as the provider’s infrastructure is damaged.

Response: A standard security posture is defense-in-depth; having an alternate when the primary resource fails; hence, a strategic plan for the organization’s wireless capabilities. The first consideration would be an alternate wireless provider. The obvious weakness here is that alternate wireless providers will be affected in the same manner. Thus, a protected wired alternative must be found, one that is shielded from the disturbances or relies almost exclusively on fiber optic circuits. The defense-in-depth strategy should include a planned review of an organization’s response plan as well as equipment testing (for example, internal and external providers) to ensure they are consistent with recent equipment upgrades, equipment sensitivity levels, and business continuity plan procedures.

Risk Strategy #2: Dependence on single source electrical power. Electrical power grids may be as susceptible to damage from solar activity as wireless communications, and preventing a cascading failure of major power grids is paramount.

Response: The electrical substations and above ground (unshielded) long-haul distribution lines are the most vulnerable, but certainly all sources of power are at risk for disruption. Although power sources such as generation plants have a lower risk level, they will have limited distribution capabilities without distribution lines. The challenge to be addressed is how to provide normal levels of power for extended periods of time. Backup generators are generally designed and effective for limited outages, provided a continuous source of fuel can be ordered for the generators. Long-term problems call for long-term solutions, that is, weeks and months as opposed to hours or a few days. Renewable and nuclear energy prove to be excellent alternatives in European countries. Because alternative electrical sources may have the same problems as the primary, on-site long-term power may be the only possibility, which may involve significant cost to the organization. Therefore, organizations need to include plans for alternative energy sources in their contingency plans.

Risk Strategy #3: Failure to prepare globally. Global dispersion and customers require global communications. Not only is there a threat to wireless communications and electrical power locally or regionally, the threat is greater in global communications because all parts of the earth are exposed to this threat; thus, impacting business continuity.

Response: Organizations must develop a business continuity plan that protects their global corporate interest locally, regionally, and globally. The good news is that local wired networks often run in shielded conduit and much global communications is presently conducted via wired carriers, often on non-affected fiber optic circuits. The use of multiple regional and global carriers will become vital to ensure business continuity, but only if the multiple sources are protected via shielding or fiber circuits. This means the organization must determine how their data will be carried and to what extent it is secure from the threat of intense solar activity.

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Wireless on the Precipice

The omnipresent demands of wireless technologies have grown exponentially to facilitate the continued flow of information. “In fact, with an estimated three billion-plus mobile phones in use worldwide and approximately 80% of the world’s population within the reach of a cell tower, almost no corner of the globe remains untouched.”7 Daily life without these wireless conveniences is unimaginable; but organizations, such as emergency services and financial companies experiencing an outage of these capabilities, for any length of time, will be a recipe for disaster.

Terrorist attacks, natural disasters and other world events significantly impact our technical, economic, social, and political infrastructure. Just as it is very difficult to predict hurricanes, tornadoes, and tsunamis, it is difficult to predict solar flares and CMEs; but organizations must consider these possibilities as they prepare their business continuity plans. Risk assessment of powerful magnetic solar storms and their effect on wireless technologies as well as power systems proves to be crucial for organizational strategic planning. One important step in risk management is assessing consequences of potential disasters, thus, forewarning organizations while mitigating the associated risk factors. There is an urgent warning for organizations to prepare for geomagnetic disturbances in the upcoming period of high solar activity; however, the reality is that companies should manage and mitigate the consequences of solar storm activity at all stages of the solar cycle.

The world had more than four years to prepare for the potential Y2K disaster; with solar storms we have approximately two days. The threat to wireless devices and power systems supporting business transactions, GPS-based navigation systems, emergency services, and financial systems disrupted by geomagnetic disturbances can be mitigated with an effective risk management plan. Organizational business continuity plans for the wireless 21st century should monitor solar activities while providing methods of minimizing outages and costs; or engage their disaster recovery plan at the wireless precipice. Just as IT managers have come to understand the consequences of natural terrestrial disasters in the 1990s and 2000, they must now address the consequences of this natural, cyclic, and ignored phenomenon of solar activity. This does not require space weather science at the organizational level, it does, however, require a greater attention of the threats to the organization and to the business continuity plan.

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We would like to acknowledge and thank National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) Polar Operational Environmental Satellites (POES) and CDAW Data Center for their continued collection and sharing of solar activity and CME data sources. The CME catalog is generated and maintained at the CDAW Data Center by NASA and The Catholic University of America in cooperation with the Naval Research Laboratory. SOHO is a project of international cooperation between ESA and NASA.

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F1 Figure 1. Low Activity Solar Year—2000.

F2 Figure 2. High Activity Solar Years—2003 and 2005.

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