Among his many other skills, Phil is obviously also a gifted mentalist. In his previous post he raises exactly the set of questions that occurred to me (perhaps not expressed in my own mind so succinctly or eruditely…) when I read about another issue that could possibly define “low probability, high consequence” events, solar storms:
While a video of the eruption captured by NASA’s Solar Dynamics Observatory showed an enormous plume spraying from the sun, this solar tantrum would not be the big one — it would not be the 1859 event all over again.
Sept. 1 of that year saw the largest solar flare on record, witnessed by British astronomer Richard Carrington. While tracing features of the sun’s surface, which Carrington had projected via telescope onto paper, he saw a sudden flash emerge from a dark spot. Although such sunspots had sparked curiosity for centuries — Galileo famously drew them, too, in the early 1600s — Carrington had no idea what the flash could mean.
Within hours, telegraph operators found out. Their long strands of wire acted as antennas for this huge wave of solar energy. As this tsunami sped by, transmitters heated up, and several burst into flames. Observers in Miami and Havana gaped skyward at eerie green and yellow displays, the northern lights pushed far south.
What could possibly happen during such an event? The Washington Post article I noted gives a taste:
Such a “Carrington event” will happen again someday, but our wired civilization will suffer losses far greater than a few telegraph shacks.
Communications satellites will be knocked offline. Financial transactions, timed and transmitted via those satellite, will fail, causing millions or billions in losses. The GPS system will go wonky. Astronauts on the space station will huddle in a shielded module, as they have done three times in the past decade due to “space weather,” the scientific term for all of the sun’s freaky activity. Flights between North America and Asia, over the North Pole, will have to be rerouted, as they were in April during a weak solar storm at a cost to the airlines of $100,000 a flight. And oil pipelines, particularly in Alaska and Canada, will suffer corrosion as they, like power lines, conduct electricity from the solar storm.
So there is a potential storm heading our way at some point, but if it wasn’t so bad in the past, could it possibly have a greater impact now?
But the biggest impact will be on the modern marvel known as the power grid. And experts warn that the grid is not ready. In 2008, the National Academy of Sciences stated that an 1859-level storm could knock out power in parts of the northeastern and northwestern United States for months, even years. Report co-author John Kappenmann estimated that about 135 million Americans would be forced to revert to a pre-electric lifestyle or relocate. Water systems would fail. Food would spoil. Thousands could die. The financial cost: Up to $2 trillion, one-seventh the annual U.S. gross domestic product.
Utilities say they’re studying the issue, with an eye toward understanding how to protect the grid by powering down sections of it during an hours-long solar storm.
However, getting exactly to the core of one of Phil’s questions:
Representatives of the power industry take issue with the worst-case scenarios.
Leaders do acknowledge that huge solar flares are a serious issue, one the industry is addressing. But “the idea of 130 million people out of power for 10 years is an overstatement,” said Gerry Cauley, president of the North American Electric Reliability Corp., or NERC.
Reinforcing the unpredictable nature of the issue of when it will happen is Tom Bogdan, head of the Space Weather Prediction Center at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration:
“It’s the extreme solar events I’m worried about,” he said. “It might not happen this solar cycle. But sometime in my lifetime or my children’s, that storm will be here. The question is ‘Will we be prepared for it?’?”
Scientific advisers to leaders in both the U.S. and UK suggested mitigation fixes several months ago:
And there is much that can be done to reduce risks. The possibilities include back-ups for crucial systems such as GPS, tougher protective shielding for satellites, and blocking devices to harden power grids; and replacements for aging scientific satellites are needed to provide advanced warnings.
Some of these measures can bear fruit quickly, while others will pay off over the longer-term. What is key now is to identify, test, and begin to deploy the best array of protective measures practicable, in parallel with reaching out to the public with information explaining the risks and the remedies. There is commitment on both sides of the Atlantic to doing exactly that.
All of which should again bring up Phil’s insightful questions:
- What is the appropriate place of low frequency, high consequence events in planning, preparedness, and — especially — public engagement?
- How and when does our desire to manage risk unintentionally increase our risk exposure?
- What is the appropriate balance of public sector accountability, private sector accountability, and personal accountability in preparedness, prevention, mitigation, response, and recovery?
I am already on record with a previous blog post expressing my doubt about the risks of an EMP attack from any non-celestial adversary. However, as an advocate for dealing with nuclear and biological terrorism, I do have to point out the obvious differences represented by a massive solar storm.
I, and many others, consider both nuclear and biological terrorism within the realm of possibility to a degree that both should be considered top-tier national security threats. I can also understand arguments against that notion, in particular concerning intent and technical ability.
Here we have a potential natural disaster that is not likely to re-occur within the span of a lifetime, but one that will happen again. A black swan not directly swayed by any direct action.
In tight fiscal times should we be spending money on such threats or take our chances that we have time to kick these particular cans down the road? Should future generations live under the same risks because we are concerned about our current fiscal situation? How can the government, and citizens, judge various risks and decide upon a generally agreed upon threat ranking which allows some sort of acceptable allocation of scarce resources?