When you run into a story with an opening line like this, you just have to read further:

“Did you know a solar flare can make your toilet stop working?”

So begins the overview of the results of a new NASA funded study of the effects of so-called super solar flares.

The report, officially titled Severe Space Weather Events – Understanding Societal and Economic Impacts, provides 132 pages of detailed analysis and speculation about the effects of major flares and their accompanying magnetic storms on our modern technical infrastructure.

The problems begin with the electric power grid, which is directly effected by solar flare activity. As the overview explains:

[The grid] is particularly vulnerable to bad space weather. Ground currents induced during geomagnetic storms can actually melt the copper windings of transformers at the heart of many power distribution systems. Sprawling power lines act like antennas, picking up the currents and spreading the problem over a wide area.

How serious is the threat?

The strongest geomagnetic storm on record is the Carrington Event of August-September 1859, named after British astronomer Richard Carrington who witnessed the instigating solar flare with his unaided eye while he was projecting an image of the sun on a white screen. Geomagnetic activity triggered by the explosion electrified telegraph lines, shocking technicians and setting their telegraph papers on fire; Northern Lights spread as far south as Cuba and Hawaii; auroras over the Rocky Mountains were so bright, the glow woke campers who began preparing breakfast because they thought it was morning.

But the real danger is cascade effects, in which relatively local failures which can take out whole grids:

According to the report, power grids may be more vulnerable than ever. The problem is interconnectedness. In recent years, utilities have joined grids together to allow long-distance transmission of low-cost power to areas of sudden demand. On a hot summer day in California, for instance, people in Los Angeles might be running their air conditioners on power routed from Oregon. It makes economic sense but not necessarily geomagnetic sense. Interconnectedness makes the system susceptible to wide-ranging cascade failures.

Thus, a serious failure involving transformers in one area could effect the power supply over a much wider area. All aspects of the essential services on which we rely in our daily lives — but too often take for granted¬† — could fail, some within hours others within just a few days.

The report essentially asks: Are we prepared to withstand, or at least deal with, the effects of a super flare?

The overview, which includes links to the full report and related resources, is available at the NASA Web site.

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