Solar flares and storms: the economic cost


It's a very sunny March day in Boston.

In fact, my GlobalPost colleagues and I enjoyed a lovely lunch outside, basking in our happy star's radiance. 

It was a great time until, of course, I read this GlobalPost story by Jessica Phelan about the massive solar flare storm bearing down on earth.

After fretting about UV protection and the right level of SPF to withstand such geomagnetic force, my mind naturally went to the economic costs of such a big space weather event.

This isn't a trivial matter for the economy.

Aircraft communications, satellites and GPS systems, oil pipelines, and even the water supply are among the many critical things that can be affected by significant space weather. 

Fortunately, scientists at NASA were also curious.

A 2009 NASA-funded study by the National Academy of Sciences looked into that very question. (And, yes, I know 2009 isn't exactly fresh, but when you consider that the universe is 14 billion years old this will have to do).

So what did they find in the paper titled Severe Space Weather Events—Understanding Societal and Economic Impacts?

For one, a really big solar storm (one that is much, much larger than the one forecast for today) could end up costing a lot of money.

Think 20 Hurricane Katrinas.

The first problem is power.

The nation's power grid, which is critical to just about everything we do, is particularly vulnerable to solar flares.

That's because these kinds of geomagnetic storms can trigger ground currents that can fry the copper wiring of transformers.

To make matters worse, America's aging electric power infrastructure is already in bad shape, and as this infographic painfully illustrates, everything in today's modern economy is interconnected:

In other words, a problem in one area can quickly lead to failures in other areas.

To figure out just how much a major storm could cost, scientists looked at some of the biggest solar storms on record, including the so-called Carrington Event of 1859, which set telegraph papers ablaze and produced Northern Lights so bright that they woke sleeping campers as far south as the Rocky Mountains.

So what would happen if something that big hit earth today?

Here's their dire conclusion:

"A contemporary repetition of the Carrington Event would cause … extensive social and economic disruptions," the report warns. Power outages would be accompanied by radio blackouts and satellite malfunctions; telecommunications, GPS navigation, banking and finance, and transportation would all be affected. Some problems would correct themselves with the fading of the storm: radio and GPS transmissions could come back online fairly quickly. Other problems would be lasting: a burnt-out multi-ton transformer, for instance, can take weeks or months to repair. The total economic impact in the first year alone could reach $2 trillion, some 20 times greater than the costs of a Hurricane Katrina….

Clearly, we need to be prepared for such an event in the future.

Our economy depends on it. 

Here's what NASA says will work best:

Reliable forecasting is key. If utility and satellite operators know a storm is coming, they can take measures to reduce damage—e.g., disconnecting wires, shielding vulnerable electronics, powering down critical hardware. A few hours without power is better than a few weeks.

Good advice, from people who know a thing or two about space.

Heads up, everyone.

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