Solar storms could cause blackouts and leave Britain with £16 billion worth of damage, warns Oxford University

Earth is vulnerable to space weather events such as solar flares, or coronal mass ejection, which fling huge amounts of electromagnetic radiation at the planet, potentially causing severe disruption to power grids, air transport, and satellite communications. Experts at Oxford University in the United Kingdom (U.K.) have called for urgent updates to space weather forecasting satellites to prevent solar storms from causing Britain £16 billion worth of damage, as the first economic risk analysis has projected, which was published in Risk Analysis journal.

The inability to forecast and prepare for solar flare events could be catastrophic for the economy, Oxford University warned, due to the ripple effects on vital infrastructure, businesses, and homes. The most severe incident, known as ‘the Carrington Event’, occurred in 1859, shorting Telegraph circuits, starting fires, and causing the northern lights to dance in the sky as far south as Hawaii. In 1989, a geomagnetic disturbance caused a voltage collapse of Canada’s Hydro-Québec power grid, leaving six million inhabitants without power for nine hours. In 2005, X-rays from a solar flare disrupted the GPS system for about 10 minutes. More recently, a solar flare narrowly missed Earth during London’s 2012 Olympic Games. Oxford’s model suggests that blackouts would be likely in the northeast and north west of England, East Anglia, and Wales, where power supplies are most vulnerable and where transformers failed in the 1989 solar storm.

Dr. Edward Oughton of the Infrastructure Transitions Research Consortium (ITRC), currently at the University of Oxford, said, “If the Earth were to experience a Carrington-sized event without upgrading our current forecasting capability, it could cost the UK up to £16bn in the most severe scenario. The ‘do nothing’ scenario where the UK fails to invest or invests minimally in replacing satellite monitoring capabilities means existing forecasting skill levels will decline. This increases the risk of critical national infrastructure failure because there may be little early warning that an event is taking place. There would be less time for infrastructure operators to implement mitigation plans.

A solar storm of the size which hit Earth during the Carrington Event is estimated to happen every 100 years, and the planet is already overdue such a catastrophe. If it happened today, researchers estimate there is a 71 percent chance the British power grid would be affected, while mobile phone reception could die, and airlines would be grounded without GPS.

Many of the satellites which currently monitor coronal mass ejections are nearing the end of their lives. The research authors, which include experts from The Met Office, are calling for a fleet of new spacecraft equipped with Heliospheric Imagers and Solar Coronagraphs, in different locations to monitor the Sun. Such a system would increase the current early warning system from a maximum of four days to up to a week ahead and would be more exact in predicting when the storm would hit Earth, narrowing the current window of six hours to four.