Stormy sun could knock out power grids - report
Dec. 2, 2011 - Ethan Bilby - in.reuters.com
(Reuters) - An upcoming cycle of stormy solar activity
risks causing damage to electrical transformers and
threatening vulnerable energy infrastructure around
the globe, a report by an insurance group says.
The sun follows a predictable 11 year activity cycle,
with the next period of stormy activity expected
to begin in 2012-13.
The report by German insurance group Allianz (ALVG.DE)
said a high impact solar storm, not easily predicted
due to its recorded rarity, could cause blackouts
and economic losses of over $1 trillion and that
the worst case scenario would be even worse.
"What we're coming into at the moment is the
bad (space)weather period," Jim Wild of Britain's
Lancaster University, an expert in solar plasma physics,
A large explosion on the surface of the sun could
release billions of tonnes of superheated magnetically
charged gas at a speed of a million miles per hour,
and when that gas hits the earth's magnetic field,
it can trigger a big solar storm.
The severity of a potential disruption has made
experts at insurance and national security institutions
"When you start to imagine not having electricity
in a sizeable fraction of a country or a continent
for weeks or even months ... it's serious business," Wild
SMALL LEAD TIME
The difficulty lies in predicting how often serious
solar type events occur.
The small lead time given by satellites is also
a problem for preventing solar storm damage, as currently
no satellite is close enough to the sun to give more
than an hour's warning, Wild said.
Updating the satellites to give the earth more preparation
time would cost around $1 billion, he added.
Space weather is a relatively new area of study,
with sophisticated observations going back only 50
years and lacking an international coordinated tracking
system such as that found with normal meteorological
"We have very little on a solar time scale," Wild
The most damaging storm in recent memory was a 1989
outage in Quebec, Canada, which affected six million
The first scientific recording of a large solar
storm was made in 1859 by English astronomer Richard
Carrington, who observed a white light explosion
on the surface of the sun.
Wild said: "what they didn't know back then
was why about two or three days later you could see
the northern lights over Cuba and all of the telegraph
system was disrupted by geomagnetic activity."
According to the Allianz report, an event on the
same scale today would cause extensive damage to