November 27th, 2013

Solar Weather Activity

Posted at 1:00 AM ET

Solar weather is a space-related risk that has the potential to cause huge disruption to infrastructure and businesses around the world. Geomagnetic storm activity is not a new development but technological advancements and an increasingly interconnected global economy have resulted in increased vulnerability. Although extreme solar storms are relatively rare, there have been several notable recent events that have had a damaging impact on Earth. More are certain to occur in the future.

Major solar disturbances have the potential to cause significant losses as they can severely disrupt electricity supply, cause satellite damage and trigger GPS signal disturbance. The cascading impact of this would cripple critical infrastructure, including transportation and fuel supplies. Global supply chains would likely fail. If an extreme event were to occur today and result in long-term blackouts across highly populated areas, the impact on society and national economies would be devastating, causing billions or even trillions of dollars of losses. The impact on the (re)insurance sector would also likely be profound, affecting several lines of business.

Solar Activity

Space weather refers to the variable conditions on the surface of the sun that can influence the performance of technology on Earth. Sudden bursts of plasma and magnetic field structures from the Sun’s atmosphere (called coronal mass ejections (CME)), together with solar flares, can cause disturbances that are capable of impacting satellites and technology on Earth’s surface in a matter of hours or days.

Severe CME events that hit Earth have the potential to cause significant damage and disruption. Although we can currently anticipate their arrival (the waves can reach Earth within 14 hours), the severity of the event cannot be determined until they are about an hour away. Mitigation by way of forecasting is therefore not currently possible.

While the Earth’s atmosphere acts as a protective barrier against the milder effects of CMEs, extreme events have the potential to impact the Earth’s magnetic fields and trigger geomagnetically induced currents (GICs). GICs flow through expensive conducting structures that are grounded to the surface and, depending on the extent of the disturbance to the Earth’s magnetic field, can massively disrupt electricity supplies by damaging transformers or tripping relays. Earthed electrical conducting material such as pipelines and railway lines could also be vulnerable.

Severe space weather also produces solar energetic particles, which can permanently damage high-value satellites in the Earth’s orbit described earlier in the report. Global communication networks, broadcasting and GPS technologies would consequently suffer significant disruption.

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