Solar storms wreak havoc on global technology as the radiation which pummels our planet heats up the outer atmosphere, causing it to expand. This means satellite signals will struggle to penetrate the swollen atmosphere, leading to a lack of Internet service, GPS navigation, satellite TV such as Sky and mobile phone signal. Additionally, increased currents in the Earth’s magnetic field – or magnetosphere – could theoretically lead to a surge of electricity in power lines, which can blow out electrical transformers and power stations leading to a temporary loss of electricity.
Rarely does an event such as this happen, with the last technology-crippling solar storm coming in 1859, when a surge in electricity during what is now known as the Carrington Event, as it was observed by British astronomer Richard Carrington, was so strong that telegraph systems went down across Europe and there are reports that some buildings set on fire as a result of the electricity surge.
An event such as this is predicted to happen once every 100-250 years, according to a report from insurance firm Lloyd’s, which analysed how much damage a Carrington-style solar storm could cause in a modern world so dependent on technology.
The report states that up to 40 million people in the US could be without power for “extended periods” which could last up to two years if a huge solar storm were to hit, with New York and Washington DC being most vulnerable.
The report read: “The total U.S. population at risk of extended power outage from a Carrington-level storm is between 20-40 million, with durations of 16 days to 1-2 years.
“The duration of outages will depend largely on the availability of spare replacement transformers. If new transformers need to be ordered, the lead-time is likely to be a minimum of five months.
“Considering physical and technological risk factors such as magnetic latitude, distance to the coast, ground conductivity, and transmission grid properties, it is clear that the corridor between Washington DC and New York City are at the highest risk for power outages from damaged transformers.”
According to the study, this could cost the US up to $2.6trillion (£1.99trillion).
And the report warned that this is a matter of when, not if.
It said: “The hazard posed by geomagnetic storms is one of the most concerning due to the potential for long-term, widespread power outage.
“While the probability of an extreme storm occurring is relatively low at any given time, one will occur eventually.”
The Met Office has previously warned that we will face a monumental solar storm in the future, which could knock out Britain’s technology and cost the UK almost £16billion in damages.
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The weather forecaster believes the UK does not have sufficient infrastructure to prepare ourselves for such an event.
A researcher from the Met Office said: “We find that for a one-in-100-year event, with no space weather forecasting capability, the gross domestic product loss to the United Kingdom could be as high as £15.9bn.
“With existing satellites nearing the end of their life, forecasting capability will decrease in coming years, so if no further investment takes place, critical infrastructure will become more vulnerable to space weather.”
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