It's always interesting to consider all the weird and wonderful ways life on Earth could be affected by a cataclysmic disaster from space - but it seems that only when you attach a dollar amount to the damage that can be caused, the world takes morbid notice.
For example, we know an asteroid impact would kill a lot of people, that's a given. But if the economic cost of an asteroid hitting a financial center was estimated at a few trillion dollars, it's the latter that grabs the headlines.
Space weather, on the other hand, may seem a fairly abstract concept for us planet dwellers. We live under a thick, protective atmosphere that is shielded by a powerful magnetic shield, called the magnetosphere - solar radiation isn't a daily concern unless you're an astronaut in orbit taking a spacewalk. But should the perfect (solar) storm hit, we could be looking at a lot of dead satellites and, potentially, vast power outages across nations or even continents. A power outage may seem like no big deal, but if the very infrastructure that delivers our electricity supplies is crippled or destroyed, lives are at stake; lines of communication will fail, supply infrastructure will collapse, governments could cease to function and the resulting economic fallout would have repercussions for years, if not decades.
Now, in a new study focusing on this economic fallout, researchers have put the financial cost on a severe solar storm should it knock out a large portion of the US power grid, and it turns out that most of the financial impact will be felt well beyond the blackout zone.
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"On average the direct economic cost incurred from disruption to electricity represents only 49 percent of the total potential macroeconomic cost," the researchers say in a paper published in the American Geophysical Union (AGU) journal Space Weather. To put the damage into a dollar amount, they say that in an extreme blackout scenario, where 66 percent of the US population is without power after a devastating solar storm, the domestic economic loss could be nearly $42 billion... per day. In addition, $7 billion per day would be lost through the international supply chain.
This may sound like science fiction, but it's not without precedent.
In 1859, a powerful solar flare was observed deep inside the sun's atmosphere, called the corona. Known ominously as the "Carrington Event" - named after British astronomer Richard C. Carrington who recorded it - this flare produced an energetic Earth-directed coronal mass ejection (CME) that sped through interplanetary space, hitting Earth within hours. This CME generated the most powerful solar storm ever recorded on Earth, causing vast quantities of energetic solar particles (called ions) to rain through Earth's atmosphere. This produced some stunning bright auroras around the globe at surprisingly low latitudes.
The interesting thing about solar storms is their ability to generate powerful electrical currents through the Earth's atmosphere. These global currents, in turn, induce powerful magnetic fields on the ground. In the case of the Carrington Event, these magnetic fields themselves induced a surge of electricity along telegraph cables, creating sparks that injured telegraph operators, caused fires and damaged equipment.
Today, our entire planet is wrapped in cables that deliver power and communications; should an event like the one hit today's high-tech ultra-connected world, it's hard to estimate what kind of damage it could cause. Though, in 1989, we did get a taste.
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During a powerful solar storm on March 13, 1989, the Hydro-Quebec power grid became overloaded and collapsed, triggering a nine hour blackout in Quebec, Canada. Our planet's magnetosphere was slammed by a "geoeffective" CME that induced a powerful electrical surge through the power supply. Though the damage was limited, and the blackout more of a public relations crisis than an economic meltdown, it was a warning shot. The Quebec blackout is often used as the poster child for space weather prediction science as the better prepared we are, the better we can react to such a storm.
As there's a 12 percent chance of another Carrington-scale event happening in the next decade, the damage it might cause needs to be considered as it will be uncharted territory for our modern, electricity-dependent civilization.
"We felt it was important to look at how extreme space weather may affect domestic U.S. production in various economic sectors, including manufacturing, government and finance, as well as the potential economic loss in other nations owing to supply chain linkages," said Edward Oughton, study co-author of the Cambridge Center for Risk Studies at Cambridge Judge Business School in the UK. "It was surprising that there had been a lack of transparent research into these direct and indirect costs, given the uncertainty surrounding the vulnerability of electrical infrastructure to solar incidents."
Though preparing for the worst-case scenario is prudent, the research also took into account more moderate solar-induced power blackouts and realized that the US manufacturing industries would suffer the most economically in all cases, followed by government, finance and insurance, and property. Beyond the US, the impact would reverberate, causing most financial damage to China, followed by Canada and Mexico, as "these countries provide a greater proportion of raw materials, and intermediate goods and services, used in production by U.S. firms," according to a statement.
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