NOAA's Response and Restoration Blog

An inside look at the science of cleaning up and fixing the mess of marine pollution

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NOAA’s Storm-Chasers … On the Sun

The Sun on March 8, 2012 during a period of high solar activity.

The Sun on March 8, 2012 during a period of high solar activity. (NOAA Space Weather Prediction Center, Boulder, CO)

When emergency managers think of all-hazards disaster response, the most common scenarios include events like tornado outbreaks and chemical spills.

Preparedness for severe weather on the Sun does not typically fall at the top of the list, but NOAA’s National Weather Service is currently working to monitor a solar radiation storm which has the potential to disrupt power grids, GPS applications, airline communications, and even oil and gas pipelines.

The National Weather Service’s Space Weather Prediction Center is the nation’s official source of space weather alerts, watches and warnings for solar events which could impact the Earth. To put the importance of this work in perspective, a 2008 report of the National Research Council [leaves this blog] estimated that a powerful solar storm could cause $1 to $2 trillion in damage globally.

Science of Solar Storms

A quiet sun during a period of low solar activity.

A quiet sun during a period of low solar activity. (NOAA Space Weather Prediction Center, Boulder, CO)

The Sun goes through cycles of high and low activity that repeats about every 11 years, with the next period of high activity expected in 2013. As we approach this period of high solar activity, the number of darker sunspots is increasing.

The magnetic field in sunspots stores energy that is released in solar flares — the most violent events in our solar system that can release a million times more energy than the largest earthquake.

How Does Severe Weather on the Sun Affect Us?

When solar flares occur on the side of the Sun facing Earth, geomagnetic field disturbances from these events may damage power systems and disrupt communications.

Although TV and commercial radio broadcasts are rarely affected, longer distance communication like navigation systems used by airplanes and ships can be “jammed” by increased levels of radio output from the Sun. Ships at sea require excellent navigation signals, and navigation errors caused by geomagnetic field disturbances can lead to wasted fuel, groundings, and spilled cargo.

During strong geomagnetic storms, electric power grids can experience fluctuating currents which can damage transformers and lead to widespread blackouts.  In 1989, the entire province of Quebec, Canada, suffered an electrical power blackout after a severe geomagnetic storm, leaving millions of people without power for 12 hours.

A somewhat surprising result of solar storms is damage to oil and gas pipelines. At ground level, the result of geomagnetic storms is a changing magnetic field which induces currents that usually flow through the ground unnoticed.  However, when good conductors, such as metal pipelines, are present, the currents travel through these as well.  Eventually, these currents can cause enough corrosion in pipelines that they begin leaking and require spill response and environmental cleanup.

What Can We Do About It?

Using a large number of ground-based observatories and satellite sensors from around the world, NOAA receives solar data in real time which is then used to predict solar and geomagnetic activity and issue worldwide alerts of extreme events. When a space weather storm is predicted, satellite operators can temporarily halt communication with the spacecraft in orbit to prevent the jumbling of messages. If navigators are alerted that a geomagnetic storm is in progress, they can switch to a backup system. Airlines have even rerouted planes on polar routes where pilots depend on radio communications that are especially vulnerable to disruptions by space weather.

NOAA’s advance warning systems provide information needed to prepare and respond to severe weather systems, whether here on Earth, or on the Sun.

Get up-to-date space weather alerts, watches, and warnings from NOAA’s Space Weather Prediction Center [leaves this blog].

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Why Does the Gulf of Mexico Need a Disaster Response Center?

Why is NOAA building a Disaster Response Center in the Gulf region? Images from a recent NOAA-wide photo contest tell the story.

Flooded New Orleans streets after Hurricane Katrina.

View of Hurricane Katrina destruction in the city of New Orleans taken from a U.S. Coast Guard helicopter during an aerial pollution survey, September 5, 2005, New Orleans, La. Credit: Ed Levine, NOAA.

Over the past decade, the greater Gulf of Mexico region has faced both natural and human-caused disasters, including hurricanes, oil spills, tornadoes, droughts, harmful algal blooms, and wildfire. While we often can’t prevent these severe events, we can reduce their impacts by helping to prepare federal, state, and local decision makers for a variety of threats. We can also use cutting-edge technology and the most up-to-date information to make coastal communities more resilient.

NOAA contributes a variety of services before, during, and after these kinds of disasters, from forecasting the paths of hurricanes to restoring the environment after an oil spill. Until recently, however, there was no central point in the Gulf of Mexico to coordinate access to these vital products and services.  Construction of NOAA’s Gulf of Mexico Disaster Response Center (DRC) [leaves this blog] in Mobile, Ala., is nearly complete, and the facility will streamline the delivery of NOAA services that will help the region prepare for and deal with disasters.

To gear up for the DRC’s grand opening, NOAA employees submitted photographs highlighting three areas: disaster impacts to human infrastructure, disaster impacts to the environment, and disaster response activities along the Gulf Coast. The photos themselves show most clearly the need for a Disaster Response Center in the Gulf.

Disaster Impacts to Human Infrastructure

Barbara Ambrose, a graphic artist with NOAA’s National Coastal Data Development Center in Mississippi, took her first-place photograph Folded House in September 2005 after Hurricane Katrina. The picture was taken on Beach Boulevard in Bay St. Louis, Mississippi. Hurricane Katrina severely damaged the city of Bay St. Louis and is the most destructive storm on record in terms of economic losses.

Folded house after Hurricane Katrina.

"Folded House." Credit: Barbara Ambrose, NOAA.

Disaster Impacts to the Environment

Ron Wooten, a biologist with NOAA’s National Marine Fisheries Service in Galveston, Texas, took his first-place photograph Sticking Together on April 29, 2010. While flying over the Deepwater Horizon/BP oil spill, Wooten captured the image of a large pod of striped dolphins swimming through rows of orange-colored, weathered oil that extended for miles. As the nation’s leading scientific resource for oil spills, NOAA was on the scene from the start, providing coordinated weather and biological response services to federal, state, and local organizations.

Striped dolphins swimming through oiled waters.

"Sticking Together." Credit: Ron Wooten, NOAA.

Disaster Response

Ed Levine, Scientific Support Coordinator with NOAA’s Office of Response and Restoration, took his first place photograph USCG Rescue Swimmer Perspective 2 on September 5, 2005. The image was taken in the midst of rescue operations conducted in New Orleans, La., following Hurricane Katrina, which will be remembered as one of the largest search-and-rescue operations in the history of the United States.

U.S. Coast Guard rescue swimmer during Hurricane Katrina

"U.S. Coast Guard Rescue Swimmer Perspective 2." Credit: Ed Levine, NOAA.

Winning photographs will be showcased throughout the new Disaster Response Center.  You can find all of the incredible photo contest entries at [leaves this blog].