Solar prominence that shot away from Earth, via NASA/GSFC/SDO
The space weather vanes are wobbling, the solar winds are shifting, ominous space clouds are gathering; there’s a space storm a-brewing, and Lloyd’s of London wants businesses to be ready.
In an attractive PDF available on their website, Lloyd’s said, “the purpose of this report is for businesses to look at their potential exposure to space weather and plan accordingly, because it is not just the plot of a Hollywood movie, it is a real risk for today’s businesses.”
The report focuses on the risk coming from the upswing in solar activity that is projected to peak before 2015. The Sun is on an 11-year cycle of calm, even radiation and magnetism, alternating with a stormy season of eruptions of energy and matter bombard the Earth and threaten to disrupt satellites, power grids and even oil pipelines.
"We are in late autumn and heading into winter"
Oddly, the upswing in solar energy started two years later than projected. Lloyd’s warn, “Between 2006 and 2010 there has been the lowest level of space weather activity for nearly 100 years. There is also much historical evidence suggesting that severe space weather events have been unusually rare over the past 50 years, and there are concerns that we will see more frequent events in the coming decades.”
The subtext? Hold on to your butts. "In terms of cycles, we are in late autumn and heading into winter," Tom Bolt, Lloyd's performance management director, said.
As they’ve syndicated the insurance policies for Keith Richard’s fingers, Tina Turner’s legs and Troy Polamalu’s hair, you can’t accuse Lloyd’s of complacency. Once again, the famous specialist insurance market is leading the way, warning that “[r]eliance on more advanced technologies has made businesses more vulnerable to the effects of space weather.”
Globalized businesses and markets are held together by wire, magnets and electricity--just the things that can be felled by radiation and magnetism by a solar sturm und drang.
One business that’s particularly vulnerable is aviation, which relies on satellites and satellite communication for navigation. Solar storms are felt more acutely in the polar regions, where airliners going between America and Asia are flying at a higher altitude and exposed to more risky radiation. Lloyd's recommend that airlines start accounting for solar weather just like they do for terrestrial weather, and that international standards be developed for everyone to refer to.
As a matter of fact, anything that relies on satellites, your mobile phone for instance, is vulnerable in the face of a Sun-fit. "During the space weather events of October 2003," the report states, "more than 30 satellite anomalies were reported, with one being a total loss."
But Lloyd’s is most worried about what they call “a systemic risk” from solar storms. A strong solar flare could knock out a vulnerable power grid—as they have in Canada and South Africa in the past—which almost every citizen relies on in some way. “A loss of power could lead to a cascade of operational failures that could leave society and the global economy severely disabled,” the report states.
Artist rendering of living conditions post-solar knock out, or Hippolyte Sebron's painting of Broadway in 1840, via
As we saw in Manhattan in the days following Hurricane Sandy, our dense urban way of living is really only viable with electricity. “Sustained loss of power could mean that society reverts to 19th century practices,” according to Lloyd’s, painting a grim picture of our lives without electrically-aided luxuries like food, clean water, sewage systems, etc. Even our most abstract of human endeavors--the financial market--is governed by computers making instant trades. Lloyd's are worried that if the power goes down in New York or Tokyo, the markets are going to follow.
The biggest solar storm on record, known as the Carrington Event, happened in 1859. A solar astronomer, Richard Carrington found and was drawing an enormous group of sunspots he found with his telescope, when, as NASA tells it, “two brilliant beads of blinding white light appeared over the sunspots, intensified rapidly, and became kidney-shaped.” After five minutes the light disappeared.
According to NASA, the following night the skies all over the Earth, even up and down to the tropics erupted in red, green and purple auroras bright enough to read a newspaper by. At the same time, the world's latest communications technology—telegraphs—all when nuts. Telegraph operators were getting electrocuted and telegraph paper lit on fire, and the wires were so overcharged that even without their batteries attached, telegraphs could be sent.
A geomagnetic storm from the Sun washes the Earth in charged particles, which can hurt infrastructure in subtle ways too. Lloyds warns that "cathodic protection systems" on oil pipelines, an electrical treatment process to prevent corrosion, can be undone by magnetic storms and shorten the lifetime of pipelines. In higher latitudes like Alaska and Finland, this effect has already been observed, but it's unclear what a strong solar storm would do to pipelines closer to the equator.
It's clear to even an 18th century institution like Lloyd's that we're an electric world, subject to the whims of a close stormy star, capable of doing much more than just giving a wicked sunburn.
On the other hand, according to Lloyd's, if you're in a solar-stormproofing consultant, the future (dons sunglasses) is bright.