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Solar Storm Blackouts Could Cost $40 BIllion Daily

Illustration of events on the Sun changing the conditions in near-Earth space. Credit: NASA

Illustration of events on the Sun changing the conditions in near-Earth space. Credit: NASA

By David Reneke

Solar storm blackouts could cost $40 billion daily, and volunteers spot an exploded star that pre-dates the dinosaurs.

The American Geophysical Union has calculated that the daily US economic cost from solar storm-induced electricity blackouts could be in the tens of billions of dollars, with more than half the loss from indirect costs outside the blackout zone.

Previous studies have focused on direct economic costs within the blackout zone, failing to take into account indirect domestic and international supply chain losses from extreme space weather. Under this study’s most extreme blackout scenario, affecting 66% of the US population, the daily domestic economic loss could total $41.5 billion plus an additional $7 billion loss through the international supply chain. If only extreme northern states are affected, a scenario affecting 44% of the population could have a daily cost of $37.7 billion in the US plus $4.8 billion globally.

Electrical engineering experts are divided on the possible severity of blackouts caused by coronal mass ejections and magnetic solar fields ejected during solar flares and other eruptions. Some believe that outages would last only hours or a few days, while others fear blackouts could last weeks or months if the transmission networks were knocked out and need replacement.

Extreme space weather events occur often, but only sometimes affect Earth. The best known geomagnetic storm affected Quebec in 1989, sparking the electrical collapse of the Hydro-Quebec power grid and causing a widespread blackout for about 9 hours.

A 2013 report by insurer Lloyd’s, produced in collaboration with Atmospheric and Environmental Research, said that while the probability of an extreme solar storm is “relatively low at any given time, it is almost inevitable that one will occur eventually”.

“We felt it was important to look at how extreme space weather may affect domestic US production in various economic sectors, including manufacturing, government and finance, as well as the potential economic loss in other nations owing to supply chain linkages,” says study co-author Edward Oughton.

Volunteers Spot Exploded Star Pre-Dating Dinosaurs

Online volunteers have helped astronomers at The Australian National University to find a star that exploded 970 million years ago, predating the dinosaurs’ time on Earth. Dr Brad Tucker of the ANU Research School of Astronomy and Astrophysics said his team was able to confirm that a previously unknown object was a real exploding star in just a day, thanks to the efficiency and dedication of more than 700 volunteer supernovae hunters.

Seven potential supernovae have been reported via their server, and the team are tracking 18 other possible exploding stars. Co-lead researcher Dr Anais Möller said the Ia supernova discovered through the ANU project had already been named SN2017dxh.

“We are recognising volunteers by listing the first three people to find a previously unknown supernova in the discovery when we report it to the International Astronomical Union,” Möller said. In the first 24 hours the team had over 30,000 classification reports, and more than 1300 images have been categorised since the launch of the project.

Astrophysicists use supernovae as light sources to better understand dark energy, the cause of the universe’s acceleration. Scientists can measure the distance of a supernova from Earth simply by calculating how much the light from the exploding star fades.

The ANU project allows citizen scientists to use a web portal on Zooniverse.org to search images taken by the SkyMapper 1.3-metre telescope at the ANU Siding Spring Observatory for the SkyMapper Transient Survey. Citizen volunteers scan the SkyMapper images online to look for differences and mark up those differences for the researchers to follow up.

SkyMapper is the only telescope that is undertaking a comprehensive search of the southern sky for supernovae and other interesting transient events at these distances.


David Reneke is an astronomy lecturer and teacher, a feature writer for major Australian newspapers and magazines, and a science correspondent for ABC and commercial radio. Subscribe to David’s free Astro-Space newsletter at www.davidreneke.com