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When will it happen?

I will remind us that nothing on the scale of the Carrington 1859 event (or anything larger) has hit the earth since then. Although an equally powerful storm in 2012 crossed Earth’s orbit, it fortunately missed us by nine days. In solar terms, these events are not rare, or particularly large, and the records suggest that Earth is struck roughly once or so every 100 to 150 years with magnetic storms on this scale. Much bigger flares are known to have existed, as they left chemical signatures in the ice caps. The big ones may only be once every 500 years. These are semi-random events, so an average of, say, one every 100 years could be misleading, and we might have several in a much shorter space of time. Nevertheless, 1859 is already well over a century ago, so the probability of a new comparable bombardment is rising rather steeply; experts on this topic cite a 10 per cent chance that the next major one will happen within a few years, with a 100 per cent value by the end of the century.

The other unfortunate feature of the US study is that much of the data and estimates have not been made available to the public. This may mean that the information used in the analyses is considered to be classified, as it might be demonstrating weaknesses, or potential terrorist targets, or, equally, it may be that the data are not published to avoid fear and anxiety.

The very unwelcome conclusion is that a real disaster scenario is either imminent within our lifetime or very highly probable for the next generation. We need to look seriously at the potential consequences of our love affair with electronics and the danger of solar flares. The news is not good. Starting with the electrical power distribution lines, there is an immediate and urgent priority to ensure they will survive, even if there are closures for a few days. Relative to the money needed for repairs, this is small, but the concern is that for short-term economic reasons, no power companies will make adequate investments. There is the further concern that in some countries, power generation and distribution are run by different companies, and each will of course have shareholders who assume that the protection and the costs involved are the responsibility of the other group. The logical suggestion is that the funding should come from a governmental source, as the collapse of the power networks would hit all the country, both civilian and military.

US estimates of power failures lasting more than a few days, as have occurred in the last ten years in a number of countries, put the costs for each of them in billions of dollars from lost productivity and insurance claims. So far all the power loss events have been localized or minor, and mostly due to human error and equipment failure, not from natural events such as solar flare activity. Predictions on more significant power loss, for, say, a month, run into trillions of dollars, with very different guesses at the overall outcomes and death tolls. In my scenario of a truly major event equivalent to that of 1859, there would be a total collapse of a country such as the UK. Therefore, I believe that protective energy grid measures should be funded as a priority by central governments. A power grid collapse would be more disastrous than anything we have experienced in the past, and it would expose us to civil and military chaos on an unprecedented scale.

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