There is virtually no aspect of human life and civilization today that does not depend on terrestrial electricity. From the fabric of the global economy, to the technological, to transport, or even industrial operations, our lives are more interwoven with terrestrial electricity than ever before. Since its discovery, electricity has not only fuelled civilization but has become an irreplaceable tool in the modern day. Unfortunately, life could change suddenly with a single occurrence of a strong solar flare that overpowers the planet’s terrestrial power systems. So, what is at risk and how do things play out should a strong solar flare hit the Earth today?
We are living in an era where technology and humans are on a co-evolutionary growth path of collaboration, adaptation, enhancement, competition, and enablement. Some of the key technological advancements include 5G, Artificial Intelligence (AI), machine learning, big data, Internet of Things (IoT), blockchain, cloud computing, virtual/augmented reality, and cybersecurity. Using highly sophisticated ground and space-based sensors and imaging systems, scientists are now able to monitor the activity of the Sun. Commercial and research satellites, aircraft electronics, submarine cables, oil and gas pipelines, health systems, communication and security infrastructure, and transport systems all thrive on a technological landscape. Clearly, technology has vastly improved the quality of life for billions of people globally.
But wait! Are technologically reliant equipment and gadgets at risk? Unfortunately, yes. Electrical power is the lifeline of technology and this is where the danger lies. While technology has added unquantifiable value to humanity, it has also exposed the same humanity to extreme risks and vulnerabilities. If a solar storm of the magnitude of the1859 Carrington Event or X-class strength occurred on the Earth today, it would most likely result in a wide scale digital darkness. Nearly all essential services – water, food, health, communication, and security - would be curtailed. Technology reliant manufacturing systems would cease. Satellite equipment would possibly stop functioning or would be fried. Critical information on the Sun activities, weather, and security systems would not be available. Basically, decades of civilization gains would be lost in an instant.
How about the economy? Historically, solar storms have had serious impact on economies of affected zones or countries. Economists estimated a $13.2 million worth of losses in Quebec following the 1989 solar flare that affected six million people. In 2017, researchers estimated that a strong solar flare storm would cost the US economy over $40 billion per day and freeze nearly the country’s entire manufacturing sector. Indirectly, such a solar storm would have resulted in $7 billion worth of economic losses in the rest of the world. According to solar physicists, countries within low and mid latitudes such as South Africa, Spain, Brazil, China, Japan, Australia, New Zealand, and Turkey are more at risk of a solar flare than others. This growing vulnerability of most global economies is also attributed to increased reliance on high voltage and low-resistance power lines. As such, the economic losses due to an X-class solar storm on Earth today would be hard to account for.
Some of the vast economic losses would arise from the cost of replacing transformers and power lines. Data from ExtremeTech shows that domestically and internationally manufactured transformers may take 5 to 12 and 6 - 16 months respectively to replace. Cumulatively, the resulting economic impact from such replacements, those from the lead time before manufacturing, during installation, and replacement of the automated manufacturing systems would be colossal. Other solar flare associated economic burdens may arise from the banking sector, e-commerce, and transport. For instance, prolonged blackouts could destroy livelihoods of millions of small-scale entrepreneurs who move billions of business value through mobile handsets. Worse still is the economic ripple effect that would occur from highly affected zones to surrounding areas. Depending on the extent of the affected zones, such economic ripple effects could cripple both domestic and international economies.
Technology reliant communication and security systems would not be spared in the event of a strong solar flare. This was the case in the 1859 Carrington Event. The solar storm destroyed telegraphic equipment both in the United States and Europe. The 2012 solar storm would possibly have had a worse impact on global communication equipment were it not the fact that the Earth was at a different alignment in its orbit. Loss of communication equipment would have a serious effect on security and social trust. This was the case in 1967 when failure of communication equipment almost triggered a nuclear war as the U.S raced to determine whether a radio blackout was due to Soviet jamming signals or a natural event.
How vulnerable are food and water supplies to a solar storm? Most cities today rely on water distributed by powered systems. Therefore, a strong flare would easily shut down both clear water and waste water treatment plants in a city. What would follow would be an acute water shortage, contamination of clean water sources, and a widespread disease outbreak. Under such circumstances, the most vulnerable would be those with ill health who need to access to both medicine and food.
How about food supplies? A few days after a solar flare hits, domestic food sources would begin to diminish. Demand for food would rise sharply compared to supply. Those affected most would try to leave to areas with food shortages, against the backdrop of disrupted transportation. A growing population tension, diminished food sources, communication breakdown, and limited information supply would result to increased social distrust and possible security unrest.
Are there hopes of a transformative future? Yes, although emerging at a slower rate compared to the anticipated solar flare threat. Today, solar physicists are monitoring the activity of the Sun using sophisticated satellite technology and increasingly warning humanity on possible incoming solar storms. These types of alerts provide time to governments, power companies and astronauts to prepare for strong storms ahead and undertake strategic forecasting. Additionally, there is growing appreciation of the dangers of a solar flare and its possible devastating impact on humanity. As a result, investment on solar flare safety and mitigation measures are growing, though at a slower speed than expected. Efforts to avert possible digital darkness, breakdown of global economy, compromised global security, as well as further deterioration of social trust are under underway.
Why then would a solar flare be important? A solar storm remains one of the most dangerous things that faces humanity today. A solar flare may not have a direct impact on humanity, but its impact could cripple life on Earth and destroy the gains of civilization. This is because almost all aspects of human support systems rely on terrestrial electricity, which is highly vulnerable to a solar flare. From technology, economy, satellite, climate, food chain, water, health, transport, communication, security, name it – electricity has become the central nerve that runs through them all. As a result, the impact of a strong solar flare on the Earth could be disastrous. Fortunately, there is a growing awareness and appreciation of the danger of a solar flare and the global community is heeding the call from scientists and lobby groups to prepare for it.
© Anne Kyoya 2021