The American Geophysical Union (AGU) recently published a report about the devastating effects a mega solar storm could have on the U.S. The report was released in the journal Space Weather and predicted that a solar storm could cost the U.S. upwards of $40 billion dollars a day.
While previous studies focused on the direct expenses in the blackout zone, if a solar storm occurred, the studies did not consider the indirect costs both domestically and internationally. Researchers from the University of Cambridge Judge Business School’s Cambridge Center for Risk Studies, the British Geological Survey, the British Antarctic Survey, and the University of Cape Town contributed to the report.
A solar storm begins with solar flares. A solar flare is a sudden flash of brightness near the surface of the sun. One usually occurs when the sun’s magnetic energy builds up in the solar atmosphere and is suddenly released. Many times of energy is released when this happens from radio waves, optical emissions, gamma rays, and radiation. The energy released is equal to millions of 100-megaton hydrogen bombs. The frequency of these flares line up with the sun’s eleven-year cycle.
At the minimum, solar flares are few but increase as the cycle reaches the maximum. Coronal mass ejections (CMEs) come with the strongest solar flares where plasma and magnetic fields are projected out from the sun. Material from the sun’s surface can be flung to a million miles per hour sending shock waves through the solar system. This event is called extreme space weather.
In a press release from the AGU, researchers studied the “extreme blackout scenario, affecting 66 percent of the U.S. population.” The domestic cost of a solar storm would cost just over $40 billion dollars with an additional $7 billion dollar loss from the international supply chain. While the solar storm or extreme space weather occurs often, they are not aimed usually towards Earth. However, there have been episodes where solar storms have caused damage on Earth.
In 1989, a solar storm could be seen in Florida and Texas and caused satellites to lose control. It also resulted in the collapse of the Hydro-Quebec power grid causing an electrical blackout for nine hours. A solar storm may not be harmful to human life, the havoc to technologies would be worse.
According to EarthSky, NASA launched a “fleet of heliophysics observations in space” to watch for extreme space weather. NOAA’s Space Weather Prediction Center then uses data gathered to run models and make predictions if a CME comes to the planet. If this happens, power stations, airlines, hospitals, and other industries that use technologies can take measures to protect themselves and the population. The models that scientists have created show different outcomes if a solar storm lands in the U.S.
By Cheryl Werber
Photo Courtesy of Johnny Henriksen/Spaceweather.com/NASA