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“Space weather” can cause cascading collapse across critical human civilization infrastructure, blocking rail transport, aviation, and food delivery

The European Commission’s Joint Research Center (JRC) warns that extreme space weather can damage critical infrastructure in the European Union (EU). In their new report, researchers at the JRC identified gaps found in current industry and science policies regarding the reduction of risks related to space weather and provided recommendations that would close these gaps. The report is a summary of a summit organized in partnership with the Swedish Civil Contingencies Agency and the U.K. Met office, with the support of the U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) held late last year.

Space weather is defined by researchers as a collection of physical processes emitted by the Sun that affect the Earth and surrounding space. The Sun is constantly ejecting energy as flares of electromagnetic radiation. Most of these are in the form of radio waves, ultraviolet radiation, X-rays, infrared radiation, and light. The electrically-charged particles travel outward as solar wind, carrying projections of the Sun’s magnetic field with them. Eventually, these particles reach the Earth.

This, scientists say, is where the fun begins. A unique interaction between our planet’s magnetic field and the outer atmosphere take place. Sometimes, extreme space weather can cause large concentrations of energetic particles to collect around the magnetosphere and ionosphere, leading to magnetic variations. These variations can cause beautiful striations in the sky, which we know as auroras. However, beyond the beauty lies a potentially dangerous technological and societal problem.

 

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