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MARS Prepares For a modern Carrington Event

As I write this column, I am preparing for a major national communications exercise involving the Military Auxiliary Radio System (MARS) and the local volunteer radio operators in the Amateur Radio Emergency Service (ARES) and the Radio Amateur Civil Emergency Service (RACES).

MARS started as a network of military and volunteer civilian radio operators providing 'morale' communications for members of the military serving overseas. Many veterans and their families remember sending or receiving "MARSgrams" or communicating over HF radio phone patches provided by MARS operators.

With the advent of cell phones and global Internet connectivity, the need for MARSgrams and phone patches has diminished. The MARS mission has evolved to providing contingency voice and digital medium to long range HF radio communications in support of emergency response.

The strength of MARS is that operators are scattered across the US and are self-sufficient. HF radio does not depend on land lines, cell towers, radio repeaters or any other infrastructure which can be destroyed, damaged, or overloaded during a disaster or emergency situation.

MARS and ARES/RACES have one thing in common, which is that all civilian MARS members are also licensed Amateur Radio operators. Therefore, MARS and ARES/RACES can communicate using Amateur Radio frequencies.

ARES/RACES groups are typically activated to assist with communications at the local, county, or state level. MARS can also provide such assistance if necessary, but the focus is on providing communications at the national level, or between federal and state agencies.

The scenario for this November's exercise is a modern-day "Carrington Event" which causes extended loss of power, communications, and related infrastructure on a large scale. The possibility of such an event is very real.

In 1859, a massive solar flare (technically a coronal mass ejection) was observed by astronomer Richard Carrington. The resulting powerful geomagnetic solar storm caused major problems with the latest communications technology of the day. Telegraph systems failed, sparks flew from the equipment, wires caught on fire, etc. Auroras were seen all over the planet.

Back then there was no electric power grid, telephone network, Internet, or electronic devices - all of which would have been destroyed or at least severely degraded by the electromagnetic pulse resulting from the solar storm.

It's a different story today. Power distribution and communications systems could be wiped out on a national scale.

MARS and ham radio operators, who are distributed across the country and operate independently of public communications systems, would be called to assist with recovery efforts.

Of course this presumes the MARS and ham radio operators have protected their equipment against EMP or have backup equipment that can be put in to operation after the geomagnetic storm subsides. There is enough time between initial observation of initial solar activity and when the resulting radiation hits the earth to disconnect and shield equipment.

In this exercise MARS will communicate with ARES/RACES to gather information on the status of county infrastructure such as power, water, sanitation, communication, transportation, and medical facilities.

Volunteer communications groups such as MARS, ARES, and RACES are generally less in the public eye than some other emergency organizations. They may not be active in 'routine' emergencies, but when a major disaster strikes communications can quickly become a major need. If you are interested in getting involved please contact me.


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