Solar storm: how bad would the consequences be?

But a blackout in the US could cause billions of dollars in damage

An extraterrestrial solar storm strikes the Earth once every 100 bsi 200 years on Earth © NASA
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Consequential blackout: Should a strong solar storm hit the earth, the consequences could be worse than previously thought. In the US alone, up to two-thirds of the population could be affected by power and telecommunications failures, researchers said. The financial consequences for the economy and infrastructure amount to eight to just over 40 billion US dollars - daily.

Outbreaks of giant plasma clouds on the sun are not uncommon. However, most of these solar storms do not reach our Earth or are intercepted by the magnetic shields of our planet. But a solar storm turns out to be particularly strong and if it is polar opposite to our magnetic field, it can become a real danger.

Cascade of episodes

"Such superstorms can paralyze satellites, GPS, air traffic, and the electrical networks our economy and society rely on, " explain Edward Oughton of the University of Cambridge and his colleagues. "Above all, a failure of the power grid is problematic, because this can affect a whole cascade of other dependent infrastructures."

In 1989, a strong solar storm caused a more than nine-hour blackout in much of Quebec, a nearly twice as strong solar storm raced in 2012 fortunately past the earth. In 1967, even the weakest disturbances of a solar eruption almost caused a nuclear war.

Germany is also in the risk zone

The big question is therefore: How often does a super solar storm hit the earth and what would be the consequences? "Extreme geomagnetic storms usually occur in a band between the 50th and 55th parallel, " explain the researchers. "This would mean that globally important cities such as New York, Washington, London, Paris, Frankfurt and Moscow would be in this zone." According to estimates, strong, potentially momentous solar storms could strike the earth once every century to once in 200 years. display

"Even if the risk at a given time rather low, it is almost inevitable that such a solar storm will come, " said a report by Lloyd insurance 2013th What concrete impact such an event for human technology and Infrastructure, Oughton and his colleagues have now used the example of the US and four scenarios. They started from an event similar to that of 1989 in Quebec, which reaches to different degrees to the south.

Economic consequences of a solar storm caused blackout in four different areas of the United States. American Geophysical Union

Billions of dollars a day

The result: In the case of such a solar storm, not only the regions in which the electricity flows would be affected. "The economic costs directly caused by the blackout account for only about 49 percent of total damage and loss, " says Oughton. The rest are indirect consequences, for example due to disrupted supply chains and thus forced production failures elsewhere.

For example, if such a blackout hit just one strip across the US at the 50th level, then 44% of the US population would be directly and indirectly affected, the researchers said, The economic damage is $ 37.7 billion daily the longer the blackout lasts, the more expensive it will be.

Impact into other countries

And not only that: even if the solar storm only in this part of the United States, the power would fill, it would have worldwide consequences, as the researchers report. Because companies today source raw materials and components from around the world through complex supply chains, companies in other countries would also be affected. The international cost alone in this scenario already at five billion US dollars.

If the solar storm were significantly stronger, even two-thirds of the US could be affected by power outages and telecommunications failures. In this case, the costs incurred each day are more than 40 billion US dollars, and abroad, another 7 billion US dollars.

True costs are much higher

This calculation is even incomplete, as the scientists emphasize. Because they have only taken into account the consequences of a blackout in the US. "In reality, however, such a solar storm would be a multi-level, cross-regional event, " says Oughton and his colleagues. Therefore, other countries in the risk zone would also be affected by power and satellite failures.

"To understand the full implications of such an event, we need to identify the consequences in other regions, notably in Europe and East Asia, and include multiple blackout areas, " the researchers emphasize. These studies are pending. (Space Weather, 2017; doi: 10.1002 / 2016SW001491)

(American Geophysical Union, 20.01.2017 - NPO)