How a solar flare could send us back to the Stone Age
A powerful enough solar flare could knock out our power grids, disrupt our GPS satellites, and bring the global economy to a halt, warns a British scientists.
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The storms can also disrupt communications on transoceanic flights. Sometimes when that happens, they will either divert or cancel flights. So that would be the like the disruption we had in Europe from the volcano two years ago, where they had to close down airspace for safety reasons.Skip to next paragraph
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Q: What went wrong in the 1989 storm?
A: In the U.K., there were two damaged transformers that had to be repaired. But no power cuts. The worst thing is what happened in Quebec. In Quebec, the power system went from normal operation to failure in 90 seconds. It affected around 6 million people. The impact was reckoned to be $2 billion Canadian in 1989 prices.
We had lots of disruption to communications to spacecraft operations. The North American Aerospace Defense Command has big radars tracking everything in space, and as they describe it, they lost 1,600 space objects. They found them again, but for a few days they didn't know where they were.
Q: Is that the biggest geomagnetic storm on record?
A: We always describe the storm in 1859 as the biggest space weather event. We know there were huge impacts on the telegraph, which suggests there would be similarly severe impacts on modern power grids. It's hard to compare it to the 1989 event because of the changes in our technology.
Q: Many systems have been built to withstand a storm as big as the 1989 event. Is that good enough?
A: A serious concern would be whole regions losing electrical power for some significant time. Here in the U.K., the official assessment is that we could lose one or two regions where the power might be out for several months.
Q: What would the consequences be?
A: In the modern world, we use electricity for so many things. We require electrical power to pump water into people's houses and to pump the sewage away. (You can imagine) what could happen if the sewage systems aren't pumping stuff away.
If you don't have power, you can't pump fuel into vehicles. If you don't have any fuel, traffic could come to a standstill.
Q: Could the economy function?
A: Most of the time you're using credit cards, debit cards or you'll be getting money out of an ATM. If you've lost the power, the computers in the bank that keep track of our money will have back-up power, but not the ATMs or the machines in the shops. So if you had a big power outage, it wouldn't be long before we'd be trying to find cash.
Q: What are the chances that something like this will happen soon?
A: A recent paper (published in February in the journal Space Weather) tried to estimate the chance of having a repeat of 1859 and came up with a value of a 12 percent chance of it happening in the next 10 years. That's quite a high risk.
Q: What can be done?
A: The biggest step is to make more and more people aware of the issue, so they're thinking about it in the way they design things. That's the most critical part.
I think it's also getting a better picture of these very violent past events. We'd like to find out more about the scope of those events. We have a lot of old data from past events that's on paper – in newspapers and so on – and we're busy trying to find ways to turn it into digital.
Q: We had a recent flare-up of publicity in March thanks to a solar storm that didn't really amount to much. Is this sort of coverage a good thing or a bad thing?
A: It makes such a good scare story, and it's entertaining. It was a mildly interesting event, certainly, but not at all big-league stuff. It makes people think, "Oh it's nothing really," so experts like myself are in danger of being in the crying-wolf situation. That's something that is a concern to me, personally.
(This interview was edited for space and clarity.)
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