Researchers calculated the economic cost of a major solar storm – and it's big

An electricity blackout caused by a major solar storm could cost the United States tens of billions of dollars a day, according to new research.

A Coronal Mass Ejection erupts from the sun as viewed by the Solar Dynamics Observatory on June 7, 2011.

Electricity blackouts caused by solar storms could cost the United States tens of billions of dollars per day, according to a new study published in the journal Space Weather. 

These researchers were not the first to calculate the price of solar storms. But scientists in the past have focused only on the economic costs within the blackout zone – which amounts to just 49 percent of the total potential cost when indirect domestic and international supply chain losses are factored in. 

Under the most extreme blackout scenario calculated, which would affect 66 percent of the US population, the daily domestic economic loss could total $41.5 billion, plus an additional $7 billion loss through the international supply chain. 

"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," study co-author Edward Oughton, of the Cambridge Centre for Risk Studies at Cambridge Judge Business School, said in a press release. "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."

Solar storms have proven themselves particularly disruptive in the past. On Valentine's Day, 2011, a solar flare and its attendant torrent of solar wind glanced off of the North Pole, warping the electric currents in our upper atmosphere and resulting in a blackout of shortwave radio transmissions in southern China. But that scenario could have had a much more disastrous ending, as Eoin O'Carroll reported for The Christian Science Monitor at the time: 

In March 1989, a blast of solar wind tripped circuit breakers on Hydro-Québec's power grid, leaving six million people without electricity for nine hours. Later that year, another solar eruption caused computer crashes that brought trading on Toronto's stock market to a halt.

And 1989 was a mere ripple compared to the solar tsunami of 1859, which saw the biggest disruption of the earth's magnetic field in recorded history. In September of that year, the sun threw a massive cloud of charged plasma our way, lighting up the night sky with auroras as far south as Havana. Telegraph wires shorted out, igniting papers and shocking telegraph operators.

There is about a 12 percent chance that we'll see another solar storm of the same magnitude as the 1859 storm, known as the "Carrington event," one widely-cited 2012 paper claims. But a report released the next year by insurer Lloyd’s and Atmospheric and Environmental Research concluded that while the probability of an extreme solar storm is "relatively low at any given time, it is almost inevitable that one will occur eventually." 

There is some disagreement among electrical engineering experts regarding how long potential blackouts caused by coronal mass ejections, the stream of electrically charged plasma that erupts during solar flares and other explosions on the sun, would last. Some believe that electrical outages would only last a few hours or days because electricity-generating facilities would be protected by the electrical collapse of the transmission system. Others say a blackout could last weeks or months if those transmission networks are knocked out and need to be replaced. 

You've read  of  free articles. Subscribe to continue.
Real news can be honest, hopeful, credible, constructive.
What is the Monitor difference? Tackling the tough headlines – with humanity. Listening to sources – with respect. Seeing the story that others are missing by reporting what so often gets overlooked: the values that connect us. That’s Monitor reporting – news that changes how you see the world.

Dear Reader,

About a year ago, I happened upon this statement about the Monitor in the Harvard Business Review – under the charming heading of “do things that don’t interest you”:

“Many things that end up” being meaningful, writes social scientist Joseph Grenny, “have come from conference workshops, articles, or online videos that began as a chore and ended with an insight. My work in Kenya, for example, was heavily influenced by a Christian Science Monitor article I had forced myself to read 10 years earlier. Sometimes, we call things ‘boring’ simply because they lie outside the box we are currently in.”

If you were to come up with a punchline to a joke about the Monitor, that would probably be it. We’re seen as being global, fair, insightful, and perhaps a bit too earnest. We’re the bran muffin of journalism.

But you know what? We change lives. And I’m going to argue that we change lives precisely because we force open that too-small box that most human beings think they live in.

The Monitor is a peculiar little publication that’s hard for the world to figure out. We’re run by a church, but we’re not only for church members and we’re not about converting people. We’re known as being fair even as the world becomes as polarized as at any time since the newspaper’s founding in 1908.

We have a mission beyond circulation, we want to bridge divides. We’re about kicking down the door of thought everywhere and saying, “You are bigger and more capable than you realize. And we can prove it.”

If you’re looking for bran muffin journalism, you can subscribe to the Monitor for $15. You’ll get the Monitor Weekly magazine, the Monitor Daily email, and unlimited access to

QR Code to Researchers calculated the economic cost of a major solar storm – and it's big
Read this article in
QR Code to Subscription page
Start your subscription today