It is now insurers, rather than geeks, warning of an inevitable, catastrophic, solar storm:
The sun erupted on Monday, releasing a powerful flare that happened to point away from earth, a lucky break for earthlings. In 1859, a similar solar eruption knocked out telegraph systems across Europe and North America, and had Rocky Mountain gold miners up for breakfast at 1 a.m. because they thought it was daytime. Analysts say that another solar storm as severe as that 1859 event is inevitable, will be much more costly — and they note ominously that the sun is now near the peak of its activity cycle.
The consequences are likely to be more severe than in the horse-and-buggy 19th century. According to a new report from SCOR they could include long power blackouts affecting millions of people, and causing trillions of dollars in damage. “The more we rely on the Internet, the availability of all sorts of communication channels, GPS, etc., the more we are dependent on power. That’s the major exposure driver,” said Reto Schneider, head of emerging risk management at Swiss Re, which has also raised concerns about the risk. Lloyd’s last year reported that a major solar storm is “almost inevitable”, estimating the frequency at one every 150 years, and said that 20 million–40 million people in the U.S. are at risk of power outages lasting from two weeks to two years. Of course, it has been 155 years since that last really big one in 1859.
The threat of solar storm is serious enough that in January, the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission proposed adoption of new standards to address “potentially severe, widespread effects on reliable operation of the nation’s bulk-power system,” according to a statement. Last year, Commissioner Cheryl A. LaFleur said in a statement, “While there is debate over whether a severe GMD [geomagnetic disturbance] event is more likely to cause the system to break apart due to excessive reactive power consumption or to collapse because of damage to high-voltage transformers and other vital equipment, there is no debate that the widespread blackouts that could result under either scenario are unacceptable.”