[ Question ]

Are we prepared for Solar Storms?

by Self-Embedded Agent1 min read17th Feb 20216 comments


World Optimization

The COVID19- Pandemic has brought one awful fact to global attention: 

The Powers that Be are woefully unprepared for once-in-century global risks. 

Are we prepared for Solar Storms (solar flares, coronal mass ejection events, etc)?


A basic summary:

A more advanced explanation (that concludes fears are mostly overblown):  

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Open Philanthropy did a pretty deep investigation into Solar Storms in 2014: 

The Open Philanthropy Project has included geomagnetic storms in its list of global catastrophic risks of potential focus.

To be honest, I hadn’t heard of them either. But when I was consulting for GiveWell last fall, program officer Howie Lempel asked me to investigate the risks they pose. (Now I’m an employee of GiveWell.)

It turns out that geomagnetic storms are caused by cataclysms on the sun, which fling magnetically charged matter toward earth. The collisions can rattle earth’s magnetic field, sending power surges through electrical grids. The high-speed particles can also take out satellites critical for communication and navigation. The main fear is that an extreme storm would so damage electrical grids as to black out power on a continental scale for months, even years. The toll of such a disaster would be tallied in economic terms, presumably in the trillions of dollars. It would also be measured in lives lost, since all the essential infrastructure of civilization, from food transport to law enforcement, now depends on being able to plug things in and turn them on (NRC 2008, pp. 11–12).

Having examined the issue, especially its statistical aspects, I am not convinced that this scenario is as likely as some prominent voices have suggested. For example, as I will explain in a later post, Riley’s (2012) oft-cited estimate that an extreme storm—stronger than any since the advent of the modern grid—has a 12%-per-decade probability looks like an unrepresentative extrapolation from the historical record. I put the odds lower. My full report has just been posted, along with data, code, and spreadsheets.

Worth noting that studying the effect of damage to GPS systems was not considered in the Open Philanthropy report (beyond a mention that it is beyond the scope of the report), but GPS going down could be very bad indeed, given power grids' and supply chains' near-total dependence on it: https://www.nytimes.com/2021/01/23/opinion/gps-vulnerable-alternatives-navigation-critical-infrastructure.html . On the plus side, an emergency backup system for GPS has already been mandated by U.S. law, but it sounds from the NYT article like it's been 3 years and the government and business interests still can't agree on who's going to pay for it. Might be a good topic for some political advocacy.

David Denkenberger also points to this paper reporting evidence of two extremely large solar storm events in AD 774 and 993, the larger being "five times stronger than any instrumentally recorded solar event": https://www.nature.com/articles/ncomms9611. On that basis he predicts  "~10% chance of loss of industrial civilisation this century."

2RedMan15dWhen you see the sephirot in the sky.... http://www.theplasmaverse.com/pdfs/Characteristics-for-the-Occurrence-of-a-HighCurrent-ZPinch-Aurora-as-Recorded-in-Antiquity-squatter-squatting-man-Anthony-Peratt.pdf [http://www.theplasmaverse.com/pdfs/Characteristics-for-the-Occurrence-of-a-HighCurrent-ZPinch-Aurora-as-Recorded-in-Antiquity-squatter-squatting-man-Anthony-Peratt.pdf] Paper is long, but I find the description of ancient humans across the world independently doing science (observing and recording observations about the natural world) to be incredibly inspiring, especially because I am fortunate enough to live in an age when this phenomenon can be understood. The talk from the author on youtube was worth the time for me, but maybe not for you unless you really like the paper.
2habryka15dThose are interesting points. I haven't looked into this topic myself very much, but they could make it worth reevaluating this.
2 comments, sorted by Highlighting new comments since Today at 8:15 PM

You might need to narrow you question down by clearly defining just what you mean by "prepared".

For example, we (most governments and international organizations) were not prepared to respond and protect people in general nor prepared with some fallback plan for  continuing needed economic and social activity during the event. We muddled though and in many cases individuals and individual organizations figured out what to do.

However, if we look at what happened when Trump got sick maybe government was prepared to perserve itself. The was a recent story about how he was actually much sicker than let on, almost to the point of putting him on a respirator. That was the report and I did not attempt to verify so.... If that was the case then clearly we have something that works wonders for the virus -- it's just not something the general public is being offered.

We might see the same with regards to any big electromagnetic event that causes sever damage to power grids and electronic things we depend so much on in our 21st Century lives. One might think that power to key government, military and research facilities will have a different experience than say, payment platforms, Amazon or Google processing data centers or even your local power provider or gas stations.

To me the big wakeup call here is less about what social institutions like government can do or could be expected to do and much more about everyone realizing the nature of the world we do live in. It's not safe, it's not kind and caring and in the end it is very important for everyone to take that into consideration as they live their own lives. While I am not a doom's dayer or survivalist I do think they get that aspect of living right. 

In other words, I think people in general have gotten very complacent about the risky and unpredictable nature of our world. Adjustments on that margin will probably make the world as a whole a bit more robust than calls for government or international actions -- not that such is not also needed but I think it only gets so far due to the inherent problems of that type of collective action.

What I want to know is how bad an effect, exactly, will a solar storm be likely to have. It’s all very vague.

How long will it take to get the power back on? A couple of days? Weeks? Months? Those are very different scenarios.

And, can we do something now to turn the monty long scenario into a week? Maybe we can stockpile a few transformers or something.