COVID-19 ISO Insights

Actually, It Can Happen to Us: Solar Storms

July 13, 2020

By: David Geller, CPCU, SCLA

20 million U.S. jobs wiped out in March and April. TSA screenings in April 2020 (around 3.1 million) roughly 4% of what they were in April 2019 (nearly 67.6 million). 12.3 million people attending a concert… on a video game platform.

These are just a few statistics that would have seemed improbable as the ball dropped on New Year’s to bring in 2020. But COVID-19, and all the hardships it has wrought, may have served to recalibrate our perspectives on risk. Despite remarkable progress in technology and innovation, we continue to be vulnerable to natural threats that predate our generation by centuries.

In the coming weeks, with the wounds inflicted by COVID-19 still fresh, the ISO Emerging Issues team will take a look at some high-severity risks that have been rare—or even unprecedented. As COVID-19 has shown, “it can’t happen to us” is not a justification to overlook possibilities, no matter how remote, that can produce devastating impacts.

This post will take a look at solar activity, specifically solar flares and coronal mass ejections (CMEs) produced by the sun that, per Forbes, could cause over $1 trillion worth of damage.

Solar Flares and CMEs: What are They?

According to the European Space Agency (ESA), solar flares are “a tremendous explosion on the Sun that happens when energy stored in ‘twisted’ magnetic fields (usually above sunspots) is suddenly released. In a matter of just a few minutes they heat material to many million degrees and produce a burst of radiation across the electromagnetic spectrum, including from radio waves to x-rays and gamma rays.” To illustrate just how powerful these events are, NASA states that the amount of energy released “is the equivalent of millions of 100-megaton hydrogen bombs exploding at the same time."

Space.com notes that flare activity typically follows the same 11-year cycle, including peak periods that can include the launching of several solar flares per day.

The ESA cites three major categories of solar flares that are dependent on their brightness in the x-ray wavelengths. They include:

  • X-class flares – These are the most severe, and “can trigger radio blackouts around the whole world and long-lasting radiation storms in the upper atmosphere.”
  • M-class flares – These “can cause brief radio blackouts in the polar regions and the occasional minor radiation storms.”
  • C-class flares – “Few noticeable consequences.”

As evidenced above, X-class flares appear to be the only type of event that could impact our day-to-day lives.

With respect to CMEs, while the ESA notes that they were thought to only be triggered by solar flares, it turns out that this is not necessarily the case. According to Space.com, here is how they form:

The magnetic field lines that twist up to form solar flares occasionally become so warped that, like rubber bands under tension, they snap and break, then reconnect at other points. The gaps that form no longer hold the sun's plasma on its surface. Freed, the plasma explodes into space as a coronal mass ejection (CME).

As one may expect, plasma being launched from the sun is an awe-inspiring event. Per Space.com, “the cloud of hot plasma and charged particles may be up to 100 billion kilograms (220 billion lbs.) in size.” They can also reach speeds of 7 million MPH. And according to Gizmodo, they are the most dangerous form of solar activity.

Solar Activity in Recorded History

The Sun is about 4.6 billion years old, but our intel on these solar storms appears to be extremely limited. Here is a list of solar activity, per Space.com, that has led to some disruption on Earth, and/or has captured the attention of scientists.

  • 1859 – The first documented solar flare that actually impacted Earth, known as the “Carrington Event”, also appeared to generate the biggest effects. According to Space.com, NASA scientists have claimed that this solar storm was the largest one recorded in the last 500 years. The results from this storm were in equal part troublesome and breathtaking. While aurora displays were conjured as far south as the Caribbean, telegraph communications experienced significant disruptions, sparking fires and even shocking the human operators themselves.
  • 1972 – com reports that, per a NASA account, this solar flare prevented long-distance phone communication across various U.S. states, and “‘caused AT&T to redesign its power system for transatlantic cables.”
  • 1989 – This solar flare, which NASA reportedly maintains was nowhere near the caliber of the Carrington event, resulted in six million people in Canada losing electricity for nine hours.
  • 2012 – According to NASA, this CME was comparable to the Carrington Event. And while it did not plow into Earth, the sheer power of it reportedly garnered significant attention from the scientific community. According to com, one study determined that this superstorm was actually a “‘double-CME’”, which are CME’s separated by merely 10-15 minutes, that would have made it significantly more powerful than an ordinary CME. Additionally, the article notes a study’s finding that if this event occurred a week earlier, it would have intersected with Earth’s orbit, leading to damages that would have been felt for multiple years afterwards.

Given that essentially all of our information available pertaining to solar activity extends back a mere 160 years, which pales in comparison to the 4.54 billion years of Earth’s existence, projecting these events into the future would appear to be an uphill battle.

How Exactly Can These Events Cause Damage on Earth?

This remains somewhat of a mystery given that contemporary technology continues to advance at incredible speeds. The 1859 Carrington Event, per Cnet, knocked out telegraph lines for eight hours. Needless to say, in the mid-19th century, there were no satellites, GPS systems, or billions of handheld computers to contemplate. In the event of a similarly powerful storm, what do the exposures look like in modern society? In a word: significant.

Per Cnet, a science and engineering firm warned in 2008 that another solar storm of Carrington’s caliber could result in damages exceeding $1 trillion and take four to ten years to recover from. This firm’s primary concern revolves around the power grid. Cnet explains:

The basic problem stems from electrical currents that solar storms generate in the Earth's ionosphere. Those, in turn, induce currents in the power grid that can lead to two unfortunate outcomes. One is voltage collapse — a type of power blackout that can affect entire electric grids. The other is transformer failure.

Transformers change one voltage to another — increasing it for long-distance power transmission and decreasing it for household use. Solar storms could destroy power grid transformers, which can be as big as a house, cost more than $10 million and take 12 to 18 months to replace.

Cnet does mention that these lofty projections have been countered by transformer experts who maintain that voltage collapse would be more likely than a large power transformer overheating. However, as Cnet explains, this also could coincide with major issues:

While not as devastating, voltage collapse can still cause regional problems. And the more widespread the blackouts, the harder a recovery becomes because broader outages require power plants to initiate a "black start": using their own power sources, like diesel generators, for the electricity needed to restart the whole plant.

Cataclysmic disruptions in the power grid could have a cascading effect on our hyper-connected world. Here are some potential issues that may emerge:

  • Cnet points out that these charged particles could cripple satellites that we have grown so dependent on for phone calls, internet data transfers, and the many other features that are enabled from the navigation radio signals they cast to Earth. As satellites continue to be launched into low earth orbit (LEO) at an exponential rate, so may our dependency on them.
  • Sciencealert notes that GPS systems would be disrupted, which not only would affect navigation but also the banking system, which “relies heavily on GPS to synchronize financial transactions.”
  • Per Gizmodo, this event could also lead to the failure of heating and air conditioning systems, the stoppage of toilets and sewage treatment systems, the disabling of gas pumps, and disruption of ATMs.

Is Anything Being Done to Protect Against “The Big One”?

Unsurprisingly, the potential scale of the damages that could unfold from a CME have reportedly facilitated efforts to protect Earth from its worst effects. Also unsurprisingly, it is no small feat to guard against a titanic event conjured by the Sun, which is projected to weighs about 4,400,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000 lbs. Among some of the projects in the works to mitigate the effects of a major CME include:

  • In 2010, subsequent to a 2009 report from the North American Electric Reliability Corporation (NERC) that modern power systems have a "significantly enhance[d] vulnerability and exposure to effects of a severe geomagnetic storm", NASA announced project “Solar Shield.” This undertaking would, in part, predict which transformers would be hit hardest by an incoming solar storm, and disconnect them from the power grid to avoid a worst-case scenario from occurring.
  • While this post has discussed the most severe CME events, even moderate ones, which sometimes may be difficult to detect, can reportedly cause damage. In 2017, Science Daily reported that a team of scientists has developed a model to help understand the appearance of so-called "stealthy" coronal mass ejections (CME), and that they hope this model could "help researchers better understand how the sun affects near-Earth space, and potentially improve our ability to predict space weather."
  • According to Cnet, a rule passed in 2016 “requires utilities to test transformers for vulnerabilities to big disturbances in the earth’s magnetic field and replace problematic hardware within four years.” Cnet also notes that shifting to renewable energy sources could enable power to be produced by more localized sources, thus limiting the interconnectivity of the power grid and increasing resiliency overall.

Could we be entering into another active solar cycle? Scitechdaily has reported that, at the end of May 2020, the Sun produced the largest solar flare (an M-class one) since October 2017. While this resulted in no tangible consequences, the article notes that scientists will try to determine in the coming months if the Sun may be awakening from a relatively dormant period that has transpired over the last few years.