A Perfect Storm of Planetary Proportions

John Kappenman | IEEE Spectrum | February 1, 2012

The approach of the solar maximum is an urgent reminder that power grids everywhere are more vulnerable than ever to geomagnetic effects

Luminous fingers of intense red, green, and violet light flicker and pulse across the northern and southern skies like a vast cosmic conflagration. Within minutes, millions of people are tweeting, texting, and blogging about the wondrous sight. But then the sky turns a deep blood red, and fascination turns to panic.

Linked to the celestial spectacle are enormous fluctuations of the magnetic field in Earth's magnetosphere, which are causing immense flows of electric current in the upper atmosphere over much of the planet. Those huge currents disturb Earth's normally quiescent magnetic field, which in turn induces surges of current in electrical, telecommunications, and other networks across entire continents. Streetlights flicker out; electricity is lost. A massive planetary blackout has occurred, leaving vast swaths of North and South America, Europe, Australia, and Asia without power.

Within a few months, the crisis has deepened. In many areas, food shortages are rampant, drinking water has become a precious commodity, and patients in need of blood transfusions, insulin, or critical prescription drugs die waiting. Normal commerce has ground to a halt, replaced by black markets and violent crime. As fatalities climb into the millions, the fabric of society starts to unravel...The doomsday scenario described above is based closely on the warnings of numerous government panels and industry studies I've participated in during my more than 30 years of investigating the problem that extreme space weather poses to power grids...