The real disaster situation
So my fantastic disaster movie scenario appears totally unexciting, as I am saying that just a reasonably large sunspot event is capable of destroying large sections of the electricity grid, and sunspot activity of an adequate destructive scale is not particularly rare. The only difference now, compared with earlier major sunspot events, is that we have immense electrical grid systems linked together that would act as antennae to feed in the destructive power. At local levels, there will of course be precisely the same types of damage with destruction of equipment and a spate of electrically driven fires (as for the 1921 and later events). There are enough previous examples of failure that the only discussion is about how often is it likely to happen on a large enough scale to have a real impact on the survival of a nation. Nevertheless, the possibility is so real that both Europe and America (because of their northern latitudes) have commissioned studies to see the probable scale of the catastrophe, to guess at the death tolls and the economic losses, as well as the time it would take for the nations to recover. The official reports make grim reading.
The ‘official’ US-based study is actually considerably more optimistic than some others. My guess is that this is because within the USA the most vulnerable region in terms of latitude and electrical conductivity of the ground (actually an important factor) means that only the eastern seaboard north of, say, New Jersey and New York are at major risk. The assumption is that supplies and assistance can be mobilized from the more southern and western states. Personally I think this is overly optimistic, as earlier claims of the 1960s—that in the event of a nuclear attack, the main facilities would all be running within eight hours— definitely did not match the reality of an electricity grid problem in the same period. Cities such as New York were powerless for well over 24 hours. That was a trivial event compared with the probable sunspot- driven electrical failures.
Using the 1859-size Carrington event as a benchmark and applying it to current grid supplies, I can quote an official US study as suggesting that the storm would have dramatic impact directly on ‘between 20 to 40 million people with durations of 16 days to 1 or 2 years’! The economic downside from this is guessed at as being a few trillion dollars. Now reread this paragraph, and consider what these bland words mean to real people.