Are our institutions prepared to cope with the effects of a “space weather Katrina,” a rare, but according to the historical record, not inconceivable eventuality?
America’s National Research Council has issued a book, free to read online, on understanding the societal and economic impacts of severe space weather events. It is rich with Grim Meathook Futurity.
Electric power is modern society’s cornerstone technology, the technology on which virtually all other infrastructures and services depend. Although the probability of a wide-area electric power blackout resulting from an extreme space weather event is low, the consequences of such an event could be very high, as its effects would cascade through other, dependent systems. Collateral effects of a longer-term outage would likely include, for example, disruption of the transportation, communication, banking, and finance systems, and government services; the breakdown of the distribution of potable water owing to pump failure; and the loss of perishable foods and medications because of lack of refrigeration. The resulting loss of services for a significant period of time in even one region of the country could affect the entire nation and have international impacts as well.
The evil geniuses at New Scientist summarise it with a speculative scenario:
IT IS midnight on 22 September 2012 and the skies above Manhattan are filled with a flickering curtain of colourful light. Few New Yorkers have seen the aurora this far south but their fascination is short-lived. Within a few seconds, electric bulbs dim and flicker, then become unusually bright for a fleeting moment. Then all the lights in the state go out. Within 90 seconds, the entire eastern half of the US is without power.
A year later and millions of Americans are dead and the nation’s infrastructure lies in tatters. The World Bank declares America a developing nation. Europe, Scandinavia, China and Japan are also struggling to recover from the same fateful event – a violent storm, 150 million kilometres away on the surface of the sun.