One global threat I blog about from time to time is a massive disruption in the power grids from a severe solar storm. While many Americans may dismiss such an event as something out of science fiction, other parties take it seriously.
Enter Lloyd’s of London.
This morning, I read a new report from the British insurance market entitled “Solar Storm Risk to the North American Electrical Grid.” Put together with scientists from the Lexington, Massachusetts-based Atmospheric and Environmental Research (AER), the findings are quite alarming. Those living and working along the I-95 corridor between Washington D.C. and New York City, the Gulf Coast, and the Midwest (Michigan, Wisconsin) might find it particularly concerning. From the “Executive Summary”:
A Carrington-level, extreme geomagnetic storm is almost inevitable in the future. While the probability of an extreme storm occurring is relatively low at any given time, it is almost inevitable that one will occur eventually. Historical auroral records suggest a return period of 50 years for Quebec-level storms and 150 years for very extreme storms, such as the Carrington Event that occurred 154 years ago.
The risk of intense geomagnetic storms is elevated as we approach the peak of the current solar cycle. Solar activity follows an 11-year cycle, with the most intense events occurring near the cycle peak. For the current Cycle 24, the geomagnetic storm risk is projected to peak in early 2015.
As the North American electric infrastructure ages and we become more and more dependent on electricity, the risk of a catastrophic outage increases with each peak of the solar cycle. Our society is becoming increasingly dependent on electricity. Because of the potential for long-term, widespread power outage, the hazard posed by geomagnetic storms is one of the most significant.
Weighted by population, the highest risk of storm-induced power outages in the US is along the Atlantic corridor between Washington D.C. and New York City. This takes into account risk factors such as magnetic latitude, distance to the coast, ground conductivity and transmission grid properties. Other high-risk regions are the Midwest states, such as Michigan and Wisconsin, and regions along the Gulf Coast.
The total U.S. population at risk of extended power outage from a Carrington-level storm is between 20-40 million, with durations of 16 days to 1-2 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. The total economic cost for such a scenario is estimated at $0.6-2.6 trillion USD (see Appendix).
Storms weaker than Carrington-level could result in a small number of damaged transformers (around 10-20), but the potential damage to densely populated regions along the Atlantic coast is significant. The total number of damaged transformers is less relevant for prolonged power outage than their concentration. The failure of a small number of transformers serving a highly populated area is enough to create a situation of prolonged outage.
Creepy stuff, huh?
The existence of early-warning satellites is often pointed out in discussions about how serious a threat solar superstorms really are. However, keep in mind the following from the Lloyd’s report:
Currently, four space satellites (SOHO- Solar and Heliospheric Observatory, ACE- Advanced Composition Explorer, and STEREO A/B- Solar Terrestrial Relations Observatory) monitor the Sun. Situated between the Sun and Earth or along Earth’s orbit, these satellites can provide warnings of incoming CMEs on a timescale of a few days to hours. These warnings allow electric grid operators to take protective measures (i.e., decrease the electric load in the grid and increase reactive power production) before the storm hits. However these satellites are all several years past their planned mission lives and only one has a replacement scheduled to launch in 2014.
(Editor’s note: Italics added for emphasis)
You can read the entire Lloyd’s of London report (.pdf) on their website here.
By Christopher E. Hill, Editor
Survival And Prosperity (www.survivalandprosperity.com)
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