Volatile space weather may sound like a far-fetched business risk, but is in fact inevitable. Without adequate preparation, trillions of dollars in global economic damages could follow.
Risks associated with extreme weather events are well known. However, many businesses are unaware of the costs and odds of space weather. Volatile solar weather, or coronal mass ejections (CMEs) result in drastic spikes in electromagnetic and radiation levels. The results of these CMEs can have highly disruptive and costly ramifications for the global economy.
Space weather is no storm in a teacup
CMEs are tsunamis of solar particles that can disrupt and destroy GPS and communication satellites. Consequently, the elements of our global society which rely on space-borne technology and accurate electronic communication suffer the worst of the fallout. Furthermore, long-distance electricity transmission and electrical grids become overloaded during CMEs and cause ripple effects throughout the rest of the economy: food refrigeration, water, fuel and sewage pumping, medical equipment, stock markets, air traffic are all affected.
This may sound like doomsday conjecture, yet the global economy has already been repeatedly buffeted by such events. Dangerous space weather is not a question of if, but rather when. As such, businesses and governments would do well to heed the lessons of recent history in order insulate the global economy from space borne risks.
Our collective economic memories are short, and electoral cycles make them even shorter—yet in the last 150 years, our electric civilization has been severely shaken by space weather several times. The largest CME event in recorded history occurred in 1859, resulting in auroras all the way to Cuba that you could read by at night. This event also knocked out the fledgling global telegraph system. Fortunately, society had not yet become overly reliant on electricity or the effects would have been much worse. For instance, another solar super storm in 1921 left 130 million people without power.
Indeed, if the 1859 event had occurred today, the resulting costs would have been $2 trillion just in United States for the first year alone.
More recently, even small solar events have had significant effects, as the number and complexity of our electrical devices increases. For instance, in 2000, efforts by UK utilities to limit long-distance transmission to hedge against a space weather event resulted in prices jumping from $20 to $70 per megawatt-hour.
In October 2003, 30 satellites experienced anomalies, and one failed. Similarly, in April 2010 Intelsat’s Galaxy-15 satellite was lost due to solar activity, a $150 million loss. By way of comparison an event on the scale of the one in 1859 would result in $30 billion worth of satellite losses.
While all countries are at risk from space weather, the nature of Earth’s magnetic field and distance from the sun means that states closer to the poles face the greatest risks. This heightened regional risk also has serious ramifications for international travel, as many popular connections (Chicago & Washington to Beijing, Shanghai, Hong Kong) follow transpolar routes.
Due to a CME in October 2003, the FAA issued excessive radiation warnings to all aircraft north or south of 35 degrees. Similarly, in January 2005, United Airlines had to re-route 25 transpolar flights to avoid heightened solar radiation.
Due to the country’s northerly position, the UK’s Met Office—the national weather service provider—has done substantial research into space weather risks, especially in Scotland. Similarly, Space Weather Canada is a government agency that tracks solar activity.
Canada has first hand experience dealing with CMEs. In 1989 a 92 second burst in solar activity resulted in the collapse of the entire Hydro Quebec grid, leaving six million people in Canada and the U.S without power for over nine hours. In Quebec alone, the costs from grid damage and lost productivity were $1.53 billion.
Energy markets at particular risk
An additional wrinkle in the risks faced by northern countries is the effect on regional and international energy markets. High CME activity can shut down pumping systems in pipelines and refineries, as well as compass use for directional drilling. CMEs also damage the electricity transmission systems that supply oil and gas operations.
Moreover, space weather has the potential to destroy large transformers; linchpins of the electric grid. These high voltage transformers are only produced by a limited number of companies, and at a rate of only a few hundred per year. Consequently, replacing these transformers can take anywhere from 12-16 months. Yet in the 1989 incident, 150 transformers were damaged and one destroyed. This highlights a structural weakness in global supply chains that needs to be addressed.
Consequently, a major disruption in either Canadian, North Sea, or Russian production would have major repercussions. With regards to the first two regions, this would lead to revenue loss for energy companies and greater trade deficits from oil and gas imports in the short to medium term. In Russia’s case, Moscow’s dependence on oil could see both an economic crash and significant political uncertainty.
Foot dragging by Washington a major economic risk
Given the potentially devastating consequences of space weather, one would expect governments to take action. Yet, while much has been made in the U.S about the threats from cyber attacks on infrastructure, Congress has failed to tackle space related risks. Unlike terrorism, violent space weather is an inevitability, not a potentiality, and thus has far more destructive power than any terrorist group could ever muster. In 2007, the Grid Reliability and Infrastructure Defense Act (GRID) was tabled in Congress. Its homeland security emphasis nevertheless included elements on space weather, and in any case infrastructure hardening benefits both counter-terrorism and anti-CME measures.
Specifically, the GRID Act sought to formally recognize and hedge against space weather, ensure large transformer availability, and establish task groups to tackle the issue.
Unfortunately, the bill died in the Senate in 2010, following lobbying from utility companies who feared that the bill would give the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) too much power over the industry. The GRID Act was reintroduced by Democrats in 2014 in both the House and Senate, and yet again it went nowhere—a result of election season sensitivities, legislative deadlock, and combative Republican majorities.
Instead, in 2014, Congress passed the National Cybersecurity and Critical Infrastructure Protection Act, which takes a purely counter-terrorism and national security standpoint. While similar to GRID, this act lacks any mention of space weather.
Consequently, those pushing for greater action on space weather have lost a valuable foot-in-the-door; namely the appeal to national security. As climate change advocates can attest, trying to get Washington to address complex, large scale, non-military threats is hard. Fortunately, the executive branch and its agencies issued the National Space Weather Action Plan in 2015.
Though its success will depend on cooperation within an increasingly contentious U.S political environment, the plan represents the beginning of a push to enhance national space weather preparedness.
This is indeed a welcome start. Yet, when it comes to disasters that could have appeared anytime—and with effects apparent in mere minutes—”better late than never” is hardly a winning strategy.