Homeland Security Watch

News and analysis of critical issues in homeland security

June 26, 2011

A “Carrington Event” — How Seriously Do We Take Low Probability, High Consquence Events?

Filed under: Catastrophes — by Arnold Bogis on June 26, 2011

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?

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Comment by William R. Cumming

June 27, 2011 @ 7:11 am

It was always of great interest to me to watch the rise of NUCLEAR WINTER, EMP and Solar Storm issues on nuclear command and control issues, safety and surety issues in the nuclear priest hood from my initiation in 1968 until the present and its impact or lack thereof on MAD-Mutual Assured Destruction—as the national strategic doctrine. MAD of course is STILL our nation’s strategic doctrine. Again one of my major criticisms of this administration and always hoping a NO FIRST USE doctrine adopted. IMO we will have a NUDET at some point in the USA and just hoping our preparedness and polity will minimize impacts. Of course AQ can see how little preparedness progress we (US)have made on WMD issues (my and the NUNN-LUGAR Defense Against WMD ACT starting point) and the key mission assigned DHS (grade of F) when established.

Well wondering how many in DHS can spell EMP or have read in detail the history of this issue. CIP and cyber security directly related of course.

Terrific post!

Comment by Philip J. Palin

June 27, 2011 @ 2:34 pm


Several hours after you posted OECD (Paris) released a preliminary version of a new report on future global shocks that among other risks gives keen attention to:

Large, violent eruptions of plasma and magnetic fields from the Sun’s corona, known as coronal mass ejections (CMEs), are the origin of geomagnetic storms (National Academy of Sciences, 2008). Not all CMEs head towards the Earth, but when they do it takes two to three days for its particles to reach and interact with the Earth’s geomagnetic field (NERC ,1990). Disturbances in the Earth’s geomagnetic field can disrupt the operation of critical infrastructures relying on signals from satellites involved in the Global Positioning System (NAS , 2008, 2009). They can also cause geomagnetically induced currents (GICs) that overload the circuits and trip breakers of terrestrial electrical systems, and in extreme cases melt the windings of heavy-duty transformers, causing permanent damage (NOAA , 2004a). Worldwide manufacturing capacity of high-voltage power transformers is limited to about 70–100 units per year, and thus widespread transformer damage could lead to very long duration outages in extended geographical areas

Lots more. See: http://www.oecd.org/document/62/0,3746,en_21571361_44315115_48231166_1_1_1_1,00.html

Comment by Managing Risk and Budget Woes

June 28, 2011 @ 5:03 am

While I certainly agree a “terrific post” one I will surely share with those at MIT who may like to share their perspective in the comment section, however once again, when will those in position understand that every dollar and how spent makes a difference in the long run…we are lagging further and further behind in s many sectors as we have been bankrupted by the selfishness of those self-indulgent, greed and arrogance forcing us into national bankruptcy, so unprepared, so partisan in so many ways…what have we done…our Republic stands so naked – so insensitive to the next generation and our uncertain future….so unfortunate and very shortly, the realization whether it be in the science and engineering sector, education and other, our global position so weakened, heads hanging down unable to look to the stars and heavens above, to dream, to benefit from exploration…all lost and unable to gain a foot hold….

Preparedness, I really doubt we can handle much. This nation, our beloved Republic has become so corrupt and so inept in its ways…indeed quite discouraging!

Christopher Tingus
PO Box 1612
Harwich, MA 02645

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