Solar Storms in 2015 Could Leave New York Without Power for Months

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A study released last week by researchers UK insurance company Lloyd’s of London and the US’s Atmospheric and Environmental Research painted an apocalyptic picture, the kind of thing of only seen in end of the world disaster movies, as it warned that large solar storms, could leave tens of millions of people in North America without electricity for months on end, if not years.

The Lloyd’s report: Solar Storm Risk to the North American Electric Grid investigated how solar storms, which give off huge blasts of plasma which once they enter the earth’s magnetic field can interfere with electrical equipment on the ground or even in the atmosphere such as satellites.

Such massive geomagnetic storms are thankfully relatively rare. Although there have been large solar storms in recent years – a storm in 1989 in Quebec left six million Canadians without power for nine hours – the massive storms that the report warns of are seen once every 150 years.

When was the last storm like this?

The last massive solar storm to hit the earth was back in 1859, and we’re now overdue another. The so called Carrington Event of 1859 is considered by many as one of the most severe storms on record, and which if it hit the US today would impact on some 20-40 million people, with blackouts last anywhere from a few weeks up until a couple of years. The report claims that the economic costs of such a storm could run into $2.6 trillion, with the knock-on effect in terms of the repercussions to the global economy far higher – leading to prolonged periods of recession and potentially civil unrest.

With solar storms recurring in cycles, researchers have predicted that the next massive storm could hit our planet in 2015. And with only a couple of years until such a possible event, governments and those companies who are most likely to be impacted, and looking at ways to manage the risk and reduce disruption should a massive storm strike.

Whilst the doomsday report primarily assesses the risk to electrical and power infrastructure, in a world driven by electronics – all of which could be rendered useless by the storm – the impact could be truly frightening. Global air travel would almost certain be grounded. Not only would the storm interfere with the control systems of the aeroplanes themselves, but the satellites that we all rely on for GPS and communications would almost certainly be knocked out.

Without electricity and communications hospitals would struggle to support patients whose lives depended on electrical equipment. Schools and offices would be unable to open.

Those areas most likely to be hit by such a solar storm include the UK, and within the US New York and Washington DC would almost certainly be affected.

Following that solar storm in 1989 the Canadian government spent £0.77bn on measures to block massive surges in electricity along its power lines – small change compared with the £8.72bn it cost to repair the system that was knocked out in just a couple of minutes. Prevention is clearly far better, and cheaper, than cure.

James Barnes,

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