A power outage could leave Western nations without electricity for months in the event of a strong geomagnetic storm, a new report claims, adding that it is “almost inevitable in the future” while the sun is approaching the peak of its solar cycle.
It is a known fact that solar activity is interconnected with the our planet’s geomagnetic fields that are known to affect life on Earth, including widespread electrical disruptions. Currently the Sun’s activity is ramping up toward what is known as solar maximum as the peak of the 11-year solar cycle is expected in 2015.
According to the report, produced by Lloyd’s in cooperation with Atmospheric and Environmental research (AER), super solar storms normally occur approximately every 150 years, the last being the Carrington Event in 1859 – a geomagnetic storm that caused disruptions in telegraph lines all over the world and the brightest auroras. However that was long before people were so dependent on electricity.
The report outlines a doomsday scenario - the cancellation of the services the public has come to depend upon every day. For example, the systems for controlling air-traffic would stop, potentially grounding entire fleets. The satellites that power the world’s telecoms networks would be knocked out. Hospital patients dependent on electrical equipment would be put at risk.
Aurora.Reuters / Lehtikuva / Pekka Sakki
This could lead to liability claims if customers believe companies did not take enough protective measures during a blackout, which would have significant implications for the insurance industry.
Sunspots concentrate extreme magnetic activity on the sun’s surface. Magnetic field lines “looping out” of sunspot regions can reconnect and release a large amount of energy, that can cause solar storms or coronal mass ejections (CME). During a CME the sun releases bursts of plasma , intense magnetic fluctuations, that can reach Earth’s atmosphere. This material compresses the earth’s magnetic field. It results in an increase of electric current in the atmosphere , generates electromagnetic fields that induce ground electromagnetic fields. Large amounts of geomagnetically induced currents (GIC) flowing through a power grid can damage power transformers and lead to voltage collapse, resulting in power outages
All this can occur as a result of strong geomagnetic storms - severe disturbances in the upper layers of our atmosphere caused by solar storms. The geomagnetic storms induce currents in long conductors such as power lines. These additional currents can trigger voltage collapse or damage extra-high voltage transformers. The economic costs would be catastrophic, according to the report.
The total cost of such a scenario today in Europe and North America is estimated at $2.6 trillion for a five-month blackout period, though it could be as low as $0.6 trillion, the Telegraph reports.
In 1859 a solar superstorm, the so-called Carrington Event, hit Earth’s magnetosphere and induced the largest observed geomagnetic solar storm, causing bright auroras that were seen around the world. People who happened to be awake in northeastern US could reportedly read a newspaper by the aurora’s light. During the storm telegraph wires in North America and Europe were reportedly destroyed , giving operators electric shocks and knocking out the telegraph network as far away as Australia and Asia for two days. That was before modern methods were used to calculate the force of the solar storms.
In March 1989, the strongest measured geomagnetic storm caused the collapse of Hydro-Québec’s electricity transmission system in Canada. More than six million people lost electric power for nine hours. That cost the government $12.7 billion.
Historical auroral records suggest a return period of 50 years for storms like the one in Quebec and about 150 years for extreme storms such as the Carrington Event.
The researchers mapped potential effects on the US territory of an extreme solar storm much alike the Carrington Event in the report.
Geomagnetic latitude, ground conductivity and distance from the coast’s highly conducive seawater can measure the region’s susceptibility to geomagnetic storms. For example such populated regions as New York and Washington DC strongly attract the sun’s electric energy. Other regions include the US Midwest and the Gulf Coast states.
According to the data in the report the total US population at risk of extended power outage from a Carrington-level storm is between 20-40 million, with durations of sixteen days to one or two years.
“The duration of outages will depend largely on the availability of spare replacement transformers. If new transformers need to be ordered, the lead-time is likely to be a minimum of five months,” it says.
“They are very limited in terms of numbers of replacements and manufacturing new transformers takes quite a long period of time, up to almost two years” said Neil Smith, Research Manager at Lloyd’s of London as quoted by the Telegraph. “These are huge pieces of equipment. Building and transporting it is a huge job” he added.”This could take weeks, even years, in the event of a really big storm.”
There are currently four satellites that can warn Earth of the coming CME and allow grid operators to prepare and take preventative measures before the storm, though the report adds that the force of the storm can only be measured in 15-30 minutes before it hits. The satellites are also past their mission lives and need replacement.
However the cost of prevention is reportedly much smaller than the price of damage caused by a single storm. For example, after the Quebec power outage the Canadian government has taken preventative measures by investing $1.2 billion into protecting the Quebec grid infrastructure, potentially saving billions of dollars if the incident should occur again.