Preparing Infrastructure for a New Kind of Natural Disaster: Solar Storms

31 Jul 2023, Posted in All Posts, Blog Posts
solar storms

Severe natural disasters are increasing in frequency –at least as measured by cost impact – in the United States, costing billions of dollars to infrastructure and property every year. Roads in the U.S. need more investment to stand up to floods and earthquakes, and insurance for natural disasters are becoming unaffordable to Americans living in certain disaster prone areas. Much of the talk has been focused on hurricanes, flooding, and earthquakes, but a less known type of natural disaster could wreak havoc on the world without effective communication and preparation: solar storms. 

Most of the time, solar activity poses no threat to humanity, even if it ‘hits’ earth. The sun naturally emits solar plasma in all directions, called solar wind, and regularly discharges larger amounts of plasma in Coronal Mass Ejections (CME). Coronal Mass Ejections happen all the time, caused by the flowing magnetic forces in the sun, and are flung into space near the speed of light. Normally geomagnetic solar storms pose no existential threats to humanity because of the Earth’s magnetic field, which deflects such unpleasant solar activity. Some plasma ends up at the magnetic poles of the Earth, materializing as the beautiful Aurora Borealis and Aurora Australis. 

Normal solar activity is deflected by the magnetic field, but satellites, spacecraft, and some radio communications can be affected. In February of 2022, a solar storm knocked out 40 of 49 recently launched satellites from SpaceX by heating up the atmosphere slightly and increasing drag. Again, most of the time this is not a major problem and causes no real damage to ground infrastructure, but if a large storm hits the Earth in the right way, it could merge with our magnetic field and cause catastrophic damage to electrical systems.

In 1859, the largest solar storm ever recorded occurred, called the Carrington Event. The only real electrical technology at the time, telegraph systems, failed across the world and sent sparks flying. Massive auroras were seen as far south as the Caribbean, dazzling mystified onlookers around the world. Today, a solar storm as powerful as the Carrington Event would do far more damage, knocking out power grids and blowing out transformers, not to mention destroying satellite communications and GPS. 

Interestingly, similar to storm damage from hurricanes and wildfires, part of the calculation of severity is its impact and associated costs. A Carrington Event today – being exactly as powerful and large in scale – would cause more harm and higher costs due to our level of technology. We can often perceive natural disasters as growing in intensity and force by viewing them through infrastructure impact and costs, which is truly a reflection of our storm preparedness and state of infrastructure, not the strength or severity of the natural forces themselves.

A 2013 study found that a solar storm as powerful as the Carrington Event could cause up to $2.6 trillion in damages in the U.S. alone to energy infrastructure, far surpassing even the most expensive hurricanes damages. The 1989 Quebec blackout, caused by a solar storm, left millions without power for hours as repairs were underway. The storm also affected the electrical grids in the United States, but not enough to lose power completely. 

Solar storms are not quite the same thing as an Electro-Magnetic Pulse (EMP) that disables all electronics, but they contain electromagnetic waves to damage anything running on electricity. If the U.S. was caught off guard by a severe solar storm similar to the Carrington Event, it could take as many as four to ten years for the U.S. to fully recover. In 1859, the world was virtually electricity free, but a large solar storm today would affect every part of our lives. Perhaps most alarmingly is a report stating that the probability of a Geomagnetic Storm equivalent to the Carrington Event occurring over a decade is 12 percent. 

So should we be worried? Well, kind of. The most heartening thing about solar storms is that they can be detected in advance. Solar flares move at the speed of light, but CMEs, the part that causes severe solar storms, move much slower. Scientists can detect CMEs hours or even days before they will hit the earth, and can give proper warnings. The easiest way to prevent damage from solar storms is simply to turn everything off, so if a major storm is headed towards earth, the government might shut down the electrical grid in an intentional blackout. 

We cannot simply rely on a warning system however, and shutting down the electrical grid for several hours could cause severe safety issues and economic damage. GPS systems and satellite communications could be knocked out regardless of intentional blackouts on the ground, lasting for upwards of three days. Upgrading critical infrastructure to be more resilient, as well as having available backups could be enormously beneficial. Upgrading the electrical transformer infrastructure could cost upwards of $25 billion dollars, but would save much more in damage prevention. Other problems, such as backup cooling for spent fuel rods at nuclear power plants, also require consideration and careful measures. 

A solar storm as severe as the Carrington Event would be sure to have nations temporarily disable power-grids, but less severe storms could also pose a problem. A powerful but not catastrophic storm could still cause damage to electrical infrastructure, but the U.S. might not want to enter a temporary blackout. With properly upgraded infrastructure, a smaller solar storm could be weathered easily without major inconvenience, while improved detection technologies can help identify a severe storm that requires damage prevention measures. 

It seems absurd to spend billions of dollars on infrastructure upgrades preparing for a disaster that hasn’t happened since the 19th century, but failing to act could be far worse. A report from the Royal Academy of Engineering on extreme space weather urges maintenance of current mitigation strategies, development of new approaches and technology, and increased vigilance for “this recently recognised threat.” If caught unprepared, a solar storm could cause trillions in damages to the infrastructure and economy, but careful investments in infrastructure can minimize our susceptibility and risk. 


Written by Owen Rogers, Public Policy Intern


The Alliance for Innovation and Infrastructure (Aii) is an independent, national research and educational organization. An innovative think tank, Aii explores the intersection of economics, law, and public policy in the areas of climate, damage prevention, energy, infrastructure, innovation, technology, and transportation.