Damage to space-based infrastructure is one of the more esoteric risks covered in the Global Risks 2013 report.

Members of the World Economic Forum’s Global Agenda  Council on Space Security believe that a lack of broad awareness of the importance of satellites explains why this risk consistently ranks at the bottom of the global risk landscape. Few people appreciate how much we depend on satellites to support our most critical infrastructure and to live modern and mobile lives:

– The daily operations of telephony and Internet networks, financial markets, the banking industry, data centres and energy networks all rely on precise timing information conveyed by satellite.

– The €300 billion global TV industry would not be possible without satellites. Nor would accurate weather predictions, estimated to equal €60 billion in socio-economic benefits a year in the EU alone.

– Rescuers in emergency situations depend on satellites for communication, when mobile networks are overloaded. Peacekeeping and military missions also rely on secure satellite communications.

Satellites are at risk of three main “black swan” events which are captured in our global risk landscape: being targeted in a conflict between states; a strong geomagnetic storm; and collisions with space debris. These low-likelihood but high-impact risks are, however, not those that keep satellite operators awake at night. They worry far more about near-term risks on Earth. As society becomes increasingly dependent on invisible signals from space, the unforeseen long-term consequences of short-sighted management of the spectrum – the term for radio waves which satellites use to communicate – threaten essential satellite services. The desire to share scarce spectrum resources to deliver new-age digital services is taking regulators by storm, while invisible yet crucial services are squeezed into silence.

These global risks are not only physical risks to satellites but also are risks which would greatly weaken our ability to respond and prevent some of the most likely and high-impact global risks in the landscape.

Rising greenhouse gas emissions and Climate Change Adaptation: Satellite imaging, data and communications can be used to provide early warning systems for extreme weather events and to monitor floods, desertification, and rising sea levels and temperatures in real time.

Food and water crises: Satellite imagery allows food supplies to be tracked and the availability and quality of arable land and potable water resources to be assessed, as well as the locations and density of the populations that rely on them. Satellite communications allow effective and secure food distribution, as well as tracking for the personal safety of aid workers who distribute it.

– Severe income disparity: Connecting the world via satellite broadband has fundamental and far-reaching effects on individual lives, whether by enabling universal primary education in the most remote areas, bringing healthcare and telemedicine to those who might otherwise die because their homes are too far away from healthcare facilities, or making critical solutions such as micro-finance possible in areas where no other communications infrastructure exists.

– Critical Systems Failure: With virtually every network infrastructure using satellite for its timing reference – whether telephony, Internet, financial markets or banking, from data centres to energy networks – risks to satellite infrastructure could result in a global communications meltdown.

– Land and waterway use mismanagement: Governments have started to use satellite images in near real-time to monitor activities such as forest clearing in the Amazon rainforest and to identify illegal logging.

– Diffusion of weapons of mass destruction and Failure of diplomatic conflict resolution: Satellites play a critical role in the control of weapons of mass destruction by monitoring disarmament agreements. They can provide irreplaceable means for improving transparency and measures for building confidence.

Through their ability to see and speak to all corners of the world, land, air and sea, satellites are enablers that strengthen our resilience to a wide range of global risks. Broader awareness of this fact is needed to ensure that our critical space-based infrastructure is managed sustainably and that we do not underestimate the potential impacts if these critical systems fail.

Image: Storm clouds are seen on the east coast of the United States in this NASA handout satellite image REUTERS/NASA/NOAA/GOES