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Geomagnetic storms: the fire next time?

23 February 2011
by Patrick Love

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The Millennium Bug was a great disappointment to me. While everybody else drunkenly counted down the seconds separating 1999 from 2000, I froze in patient greed at an ATM waiting for it to start spitting banknotes into my waiting bag. It didn’t happen, and none of the other celebrations we’d been promised materialised either. Air traffic stayed controlled, life support systems went on supporting life, and even lifts went on lifting.

Still, the verified reports of Y2K incidents did show how dependent we’ve become on technology. In the most serious case, slot machines at a racetrack in Delaware stopped working, forcing gamblers to give their money to the bookies directly.

But what if the world’s electronic systems really did get seriously damaged? This year’s annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science had a session called Space Weather: The Next Big Solar Storm Could Be a Global Katrina. Space weather could affect a surprising range of activities. Anything using a satellite, obviously, but that includes a load of things that aren’t so obvious. For example, those ATM machines and many other credit card devices rely on spaceborne communications networks to interrogate your bank.

The OECD’s Future Global Shocks project looks at these issues in a new study on geomagnetic storms. The most powerful storms ever recorded were during the Carrington Event in 1859 (named after the amateur astronomer who recorded the solar outburst). The only important electrical infrastructures at that time were the telegraph networks. In some cases, operators could disconnect their batteries and continue sending messages using current generated by the storms, but the storms also caused outages.  

If a storm similar to the Carrington ones happened today, the costs would be enormous. In 2009, the US House Homeland Security Committee heard that: “The impacts could persist for multiple years with the potential of significant societal impacts; in addition the economic costs could be measured in the several trillion dollars per year range and could pose the risk of the largest natural disaster that could affect the United States.”

At the AAAS meeting, Sir John Beddington, the UK government’s chief scientist, put the bill at a more modest $2 trillion and warned that the potential vulnerability of our systems has increased dramatically.

On Tuesday of this week, a storm brushed the Earth provoking spectacular displays in the northern night sky, but the China Meteorological Administration reported that the solar flare also caused “sudden ionospheric disturbances” and jammed shortwave radio communications in the southern part of the country.

The space weather forecast isn’t great. We’re enjoying a calm period in the 11-year solar cycle just now, but it’s coming to an end, so hold on to your hat in 2013.

Useful links

OECD Project on Future Global Shocks

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