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Space Science Technology

One In Eight Chance of a Financially Catastrophic Solar Storm By 2020 337

An anonymous reader writes "A privately employed solar scientist named Pete Riley estimates there's a 12 percent chance of a massive solar storm comparable to the Carrington Event in 1859 which resulted in breathtaking aurorae across the United States and other temperate regions of the globe. The electromagnetic surge from the 1859 event caused failures of telegraph systems across Europe and North America. A similar storm today could knock out power grids, GPS and communication satellites, data centers, transportation systems, and building and plumbing infrastructures and wreak $1 trillion or more of economic damage in the first year alone, according to a 2008 report from the National Academy of Sciences."
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One In Eight Chance of a Financially Catastrophic Solar Storm By 2020

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  • by Krneki (1192201) on Friday March 02, 2012 @10:57AM (#39220669)

    that it will happen in 2012?


  • by Hatta (162192) on Friday March 02, 2012 @11:03AM (#39220751) Journal

    Your car is already an electromechanical device. EMP would disable modern gasoline vehicles just as surely as it would electric vehicles.

  • A lot of confusion. (Score:5, Informative)

    by Anonymous Coward on Friday March 02, 2012 @11:07AM (#39220811)

    I think a lot of people are very confused.

    This won't directly break your car or your computer. It affects long runs of conductive cable.

    It will break power distribution and telecom. It might break your computer if it's plugged in, but absolutely will not break your computer if it is not plugged in. Likewise with cars. If you own an electric car, just hope that it's unplugged when this happens.

  • Re:BS Flag (Score:4, Informative)

    by rndmtim (664101) on Friday March 02, 2012 @11:20AM (#39220967) Homepage

    There was an event in the 1920's (less than the 1859 event) and another in the 1990's (less than the 1920's event but it took down pieces of the Quebec grid). Doesn't do anything to help measure the frequency of the 1859 level events. Also, it kind of doesn't matter, since power facilities like the one I work at are required to prepare for things like the "maximum possible flood" not a "500 year flood". If your sample set has at least one of these, and we can't quantify it to be say less than a 1 in 10000 - and we certainly can't - then we should be working on this problem. Not as if the sky is falling, but we've been working on changing out some stuff in my plant for a decade, so we definitely should get on it, since remediation is going to take a long time, and the consequences would be very bad.

  • Re:If only :) (Score:5, Informative)

    by phantomfive (622387) on Friday March 02, 2012 @11:29AM (#39221075) Journal
    That's the broken window fallacy []. It would immediately suck $1Trillion out of the economy that would have been spent other ways, it would prevent a lot of useful work from being done while the infrastructure was down, and it would most likely be rebuilt in a crappy, haphazard way, not in some nice, well-designed way that would make everything better.
  • by EllisDees (268037) on Friday March 02, 2012 @11:38AM (#39221193)

    Solar flare != EMP

    While the power grid would be knocked out by a massive solar flare, your electric car would be just fine. Unless it happened to be plugged in when the power grid was fried...

  • by X0563511 (793323) on Friday March 02, 2012 @11:39AM (#39221203) Homepage Journal

    Good thing this storm isn't an EMP effect.

    What happens is you get large induced currents/voltages in transmission lines (power, cable etc) which smoke things connected to them. This happens because they resonate with the solar radiation.

    Small shit like the wires and traces inside of your car resonates at far too high a frequency for that to happen.

    As for GPS etc - those die because they are in orbit, either outside the majority of the earth's EM field's protection - or their path happens to make that same protection their death-sentence as it tends to concentrate the radiation into distinct bands/layers.

    The sun would still be the sun, and the GPS satellite would be the ant. The earth's EM field would be the magnifying glass. Poof.

  • by X0563511 (793323) on Friday March 02, 2012 @11:42AM (#39221227) Homepage Journal

    Solar storms do not resemble EMPs. []

    But, like you said - all the other infrastructure that would release magic smoke will certainly cause more than enough trouble.

  • by EllisDees (268037) on Friday March 02, 2012 @11:47AM (#39221295)

    The difference is that this sort of thing has happened before [], and not that long ago (1859).

    "Telegraph systems all over Europe and North America failed, in some cases even shocking telegraph operators. Telegraph pylons threw sparks and telegraph paper spontaneously caught fire."

    The world was much less wired in 1859 than it is today. At a minimum, the power grid would be fried for months. I certainly wouldn't want to live somewhere like the Southwest part of the US, where if the power is gone you can't get water and the gas pumps stop working, so you can't go somewhere else.

  • by X0563511 (793323) on Friday March 02, 2012 @11:47AM (#39221299) Homepage Journal

    Nope - because satellites don't get all the protections of being in the atmosphere. They get raw solar radiation.

    Down here in the dirt, it's only the (relatively) low frequency stuff that makes it through - and that's the stuff that long runs of wire pick up (or any long conductor - metallic piping could potentially pick it up too)

    If they are lower in orbit, they are still at risk - since the EM of the Earth actually focuses the incoming radiation into bands/layers that the satellite might pass through. Think "ant under a magnifying glass".

  • by X0563511 (793323) on Friday March 02, 2012 @12:00PM (#39221469) Homepage Journal

    Yes, but such a tiny amount that it shouldn't cause trouble.

    You run into issues when they are resonant (or near resonant) because that allows standing waves to form - and the stuff that makes it in through the magnetosphere is the lower frequency (longer wavelength) stuff.

Computers are unreliable, but humans are even more unreliable. Any system which depends on human reliability is unreliable. -- Gilb