12% Chance of Grid Crippling Solar Storm in Next 10 Years

Today another stunning Coronal Mass Ejection (CME) erupted from the Sun’s corona.  Fortunately, the massive flare was not directed at the Earth. 

A CME like this sends a cannonball of superheated plasma, energetic particles and radiation barreling through space.  If the Earth is unlucky enough to be in the path of one of these monsters the consequences can be dire.  Notable effects can include spectacular auroras, widespread communication failures and massive blackouts.

In 1859 a large solar storm struck the earth in an event known as the Carrington Event.  The Carrington flare caused telegraph stations to burst into flame due to induced currents in the copper transmission lines.  Auroras caused by the event were seen as far south as Havana. 

In 1921, another huge solar storm and geomagnetic event struck the Earth.  John Kappenmann, from the Metatech Corporation (and co-author of the NASA/NRC report on the economic impact of space weather), modeled the 1921 storm on the modern power grid.  The map of power system collapse and utility transformer damage is a stark warning of the threat of space weather to power distribution systems. 


More recently, in 1989 a large flare caused the collapse of the Hydro-Quebec power grid.

In 2008 solar scientists predicted that a Carrington scale solar event today could cause blackouts effecting 130 million people and result in economic losses of “$1 trillion to $2 trillion during the first year alone…with recovery times of 4 to 10 years.”

So, the consequences of the Earth being struck by a massive solar storm are potentially severe.  But such an event can surely be classified as a High Impact/ Low Probability/ (HILP) event, Right?  Not so fast my friend.  Pat Riley, a predictive science expert, just published a paper in the scientific journal, SPACE WEATHER: THE INTERNATIONAL JOURNAL OF RESEARCH AND APPLICATIONS in February of 2012.  In his paper Riley places the “Probability of a Carrington event occurring over next decade is ~12%”

Around 12%!  Yikes! Those Doomsday Preppers on NatGeo may be on to something.

I outlined the near earth and terrestrial effects of a massive solar flare/geomagnetic storm in my blog here.

I covered the potential effects of space weather on the infrastructure that supports data centers for Mission Critical Magazine here