Tags: Economic | Bugaboo | Solar | Flares

Need a New Economic Bugaboo? Here's One: Solar Flares

By Michael Kling   |   Monday, 11 Aug 2014 06:38 PM

A massive solar flare could cause widespread power outages, radio blackouts, and catastrophic economic damage. Anything relying on electricity, including many public water supplies, would fail.

The National Academy of Sciences, noting that damaged multi-ton transformers might take years to repair, estimates that economic damages could exceed $2 trillion, according to an article published by NASA.

Physicist Pete Riley of Predictive Science Inc. says the chances of a destructive solar flare affecting the Earth happening are not remote — about a 12 percent with the next decade, according to NASA. Although those are fairly substantial odds, the danger of solar flares has garnered little publicity.

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"Initially, I was quite surprised that the odds were so high, but the statistics appear to be correct," says Riley. "It is a sobering figure."

In fact, the Earth narrowly missed an extreme solar storm, called a coronal mass ejection (CME) two years ago. It swept through the Earth's orbit on July 23, 2012, but fortunately missed us by just a week.

"If it had hit, we would still be picking up the pieces," says Daniel Baker of the University of Colorado, in the NASA article. "If the eruption had occurred only one week earlier, Earth would have been in the line of fire."

Extreme solar flares have hit the Earth before. English astronomer Richard Carrington saw a solar flare in 1859, just before it fired up the Northern Lights as far south as Cuba and knocked out telegraph communications.

"In my view the July 2012 storm was in all respects at least as strong as the 1859 Carrington event," says Baker. "The only difference is, it missed."

We're much more vulnerable today than in 1859. Instead of using telegraphs, we rely on transformers that regulate our electrical currents, explains astronomer and author David Goldsmith in an article for PBS. A strong CME could burn out those transformers and knock out the electoral grid.

It could also short circuit anything using electricity, including home appliances, office equipment, water pumping stations and vehicles.

A relatively small CME hit the Earth in 1989, causing power failures through out Quebec, damaging transformers in New Jersey and the United Kingdom, and prompting hundreds of power troubles across the United States, Goldsmith says.

"But when the big one comes, and it seems sure that it will, all hell will break lose, semi-metaphorically."

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