It’s common knowledge in the scientific community that Earth is scheduled to be hit by a major solar storm at some point in the near future. Our life-giving sun has battered our planet with such storms numerous times throughout history, but the way we live our lives these days leaves us incredibly vulnerable to the next major space weather event. In fact, a new study published in Space Weather suggests that a storm of major significance could cause so much disruption to daily life that it could hammer the economy to the tune of tens of billions of dollars….every day.
A solar storm occurs when the sun releases radiation, X-Rays, and highly charged particles in an explosive eruption known as a Coronal Mass Ejection (CME). CMEs are not a rare occurrence, in fact, they occur with varying degrees of severity quite often. These events are directional, which means for Earth to be impacted, our planet needs to be right in the crosshairs of the burst. A blast from a CME hitting Earth isn’t particularly rare, either. Earth’s chops are regularly slapped with light to moderate solar storms, most of which have very little effect on us. However, when a more powerful storm comes our way, the effects can be significant.
In 1989, a powerful solar storm caused multiple satellites to short out and temporarily lose control. That same blast also brought about the collapse of the Quebec power grid, resulting in a blackout that lasted for just over 9 hours. The 1989 event, which is only thought to have been moderate in its severity compared to what might be coming our way in the future, also saw trading halted on the Toronto stock exchange, proving that space weather can have a surprisingly profound impact on national and global economies.
The last time a massive solar storm hit Earth was the 1859 Carrington Event, which saw trillions of kilograms of material erupt from the sun with the power of more than 10 billion Hiroshima bombs. But, because society wasn’t dependent on electrical grids and satellites back then, the impact on day to day life was minimal. Today, though, a storm of a similar intensity could disrupt the economy in a big, big way.
(Chart depicting the disruptions to electrical customers and potential blackout zones following a major solar storm – AGU)
Experts are divided over the severity of the impact a solar storm could wreak on our power grid, and many feel that the safeguarding of power facilities against such an event should be sufficient. This latest study, however, looks at the more extreme side of the argument.
“We felt it was important to look at how extreme space weather may affect domestic U.S. production in various economic sectors, including manufacturing, government and finance, as well as the potential economic loss in other nations owing to supply chain linkages,” said study co-author Edward Oughton of the Cambridge Centre for Risk Studies at Cambridge Judge Business School. “It was surprising that there had been a lack of transparent research into these direct and indirect costs, given the uncertainty surrounding the vulnerability of electrical infrastructure to solar incidents.”
The study only looked at the impacts on the US, but in reality, given the global economy that exists today, a major event striking the likes Europe, Asia, or Africa would still cause disruption for us here in North America. As we become more and more dependent on satellites and electricity for day to day life, monitoring space weather and devising ways to counter their effects becomes increasingly important. The study highlighted the vulnerabilities of an interconnected economy, suggesting that it wouldn’t just be the blackout zones that see major economic losses.
“If only extreme northern states are affected, with 8 percent of the U.S. population, the economic loss per day could reach $6.2 billion supplemented by an international supply chain loss of $0.8 billion,” said an AGU Statement. A scenario affecting 23 percent of the population could have a daily cost of $16.5 billion plus $2.2 billion internationally, while a scenario affecting 44 percent of the population could have a daily cost of $37.7 billion in the US plus $4.8 billion globally. (The study is calculated using 2011 U.S. dollars.)
Manufacturing is the U.S. economic sector most affected by those solar-induced blackouts, followed by government, finance and insurance, and property. Outside of the U.S., China would be most affected by the indirect cost of such U.S. blackouts, followed by Canada and Mexico – as ‘these countries provide a greater proportion of raw materials, and intermediate goods and services, used in production by U.S. firms.’”
Surprisingly, it wasn’t until 1995 that NASA and ESA embarked on a joint venture to monitor solar storms. Given the divided nature of expert opinion in the area, it’s clear that we’re a long way from truly understanding what these events could do to our technology-reliant society. This was a fact recognized by the Obama administration last year when it charged a multi-industry task force to prepare contingency plans to help deal with the potentially catastrophic effects a solar storm could have on the areas such as aviation and utilities.
While it’s hard to draw a conclusion from this research, it does highlight the need for everyone to be prepared. The fact remains that a major solar storm could see regular joes like you and me unable to use our communications devices struggling to access basic necessities such as mass transit or even our bank accounts. Those doomsday preppers might seem crazy, but studies like this sure do give us food for thought.