NASA's new IRIS telescope could foresee extreme solar storms

Scientists worry an extreme solar storm could cause blackouts of as long as two years in the U.S. (see video below)

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A recent report by Lloyd's of London predicted that another Carrington-level event is "almost inevitable in the near future" and paints a concerning picture of its potential effects. Should the U.S. be hit head on by such a storm, the report says, 20 million to 40 million people could be left without power for anything between 16 days and two years. The recovery time is so long because high-voltage transformers are such specialty items. Power utilities don't keep spare ones lying around, and they take up to 16 months to build.

The economic impact of such an event could be as high as US$2.6 trillion, the Lloyds report said.

The power industry isn't ignoring the threat. An April 2011 workshop between electricity grid operators from the U.S. and Canada resulted in the creation of a space weather alert system for the industry, and plans for coordination should a major geomagnetic storm be detected. Grid operators would have between 15 hours and two days to prepare for the storm by increasing reserves, reducing power transfers and lightening the load on susceptible equipment.

But any reduction in the availability of power could itself have an economic impact, so it's a situation to be avoided unless the likelihood of serious damage to the power grid is high.

Learning more about the sun's weather can only help scientists to provide warnings for such events.

"What we don't know is how it works, what in detail it will damage, or how likely it is that that damage will spread," Schrijver said. "And the difficulty with it is that these things happen only rarely. Once a century is when a really big solar event occurs, and our technological infrastructure has changed so much, we've never been exposed to it."

Martyn Williams covers mobile telecoms, Silicon Valley and general technology breaking news for The IDG News Service. Follow Martyn on Twitter at @martyn_williams. Martyn's e-mail address is martyn_williams@idg.com

Copyright © 2013 IDG Communications, Inc.

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