March 25, 2009


Over the last few decades, western civilisations have busily sown the seeds of their own destruction. Our modern way of life, with its reliance on technology, has unwittingly exposed us to an extraordinary danger: plasma balls spewed from the surface of the sun could wipe out our power grids, with catastrophic consequences. The projections of just how catastrophic make chilling reading. ‘We’re moving closer and closer to the edge of a possible disaster,’ says Daniel Baker, a space weather expert based at the University of Colorado in Boulder, and chair of the NAS committee responsible for the report. . . .

There are two problems to face. The first is the modern electricity grid, which is designed to operate at ever higher voltages over ever larger areas. Though this provides a more efficient way to run the electricity networks, minimising power losses and wastage through overproduction, it has made them much more vulnerable to space weather. The high-power grids act as particularly efficient antennas, channelling enormous direct currents into the power transformers.

The second problem is the grid’s interdependence with the systems that support our lives: water and sewage treatment, supermarket delivery infrastructures, power station controls, financial markets and many others all rely on electricity. Put the two together, and it is clear that a repeat of the Carrington event could produce a catastrophe the likes of which the world has never seen. . . .”If a Carrington event happened now, it would be like a hurricane Katrina, but 10 times worse,” says Paul Kintner, a plasma physicist at Cornell University in Ithaca, New York.

In reality, it would be much worse than that. Hurricane Katrina’s societal and economic impact has been measured at $81 billion to $125 billion. According to the NAS report, the impact of what it terms a “severe geomagnetic storm scenario” could be as high as $2 trillion. And that’s just the first year after the storm. The NAS puts the recovery time at four to 10 years. It is questionable whether the US would ever bounce back. “I don’t think the NAS report is scaremongering,” says Mike Hapgood, who chairs the European Space Agency’s space weather team.

As I’ve noted before, we need to be hardening our infrastructure. This is just another reason why these things need to be tougher and more fault-tolerant. It’s also an argument for more distributed power-generation sources, like wind and solar — and, to a degree, for sources less dependent on frequent resupply, like nuclear.

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