December 4th, 2013

Extreme Solar Events: Exposed Areas and Industries

Posted at 1:00 AM ET

As the majority of historical events illustrate, higher geomagnetic latitude countries such as the United States, Canada and Nordic countries are most at risk of suffering the effects of extreme solar storms. (1)  However, lower geomagnetic latitude regions such as the Caribbean and more central and southern parts of Europe could also be affected during extreme events. Other factors such as geology, proximity to the coast and location and fragility of power grid infrastructure help determine the risk posed by solar activity.

The impact of an extreme geomagnetic disturbance similar to the Carrington storm would be devastating in today’s technological and interconnected world. A recent joint study by Lloyd’s of London and Atmospheric and Environmental Research (AER) that assesses solar storm risk in North America (2) estimates such an event would cut power to up to 40 million people along the Eastern U.S. seaboard between Washington and New York City. According to the study, power outages would last 16 days to two years and the economic costs would be between USD600 billion and USD2 trillion for this region alone. The fallout could also be felt elsewhere, including parts of Europe. In addition, estimates indicate a repeat of the Carrington event today would likely trigger a number of satellite anomalies and cause losses of up to USD30 billion for satellite operators.

Transformers would likely be severely damaged or destroyed during such an event, disabling power grids for a sustained period as they are repaired or replaced. Such a scenario would have huge cascading effects, likely impacting electrical lighting systems, computer systems (including the Internet), water/wastewater distribution systems, perishable foods and medications, emergency response capabilities and fuel pipelines/distribution systems (see Figure F-4). Most industries that rely on these services would also grind to a halt. Hospital systems to manufacturing, energy, IT, banking and finance and transport networks would all be severely affected.

In addition, the interconnected systems that now exist around the world mean the effects of a severe space weather event would be felt in every corner of the globe, with significant implications on business supply chains.

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Notes:

1. The relevant latitude for space weather is geomagnetic latitude (and not geographic latitude).

2. Solar Storm Risk to the North American Electric Grid.

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