COBRA: Could a solar flare wipe out power on Earth?

New disaster series COBRA opened with a mayday call and a pilot in distress as a plane lost control over the UK.

The resulting crash is just one of the devastating effects of a space weather phenomenon – a severe geomagnetic storm caused by a huge solar flare, which wipes out power and shuts communications down across the country.

The Sky One TV show follows prime minister Robert Sutherland, played by Robert Carlyle, as he tries to deal with the fallout.

But could this kind of emergency happen for real? Sky News has spoken to scientists to find out.

Image: A geomagnetic storm caused by a solar flare wipes out power in new series COBRA. Pic: Sky UK

What is a solar flare?

A solar flare is an intense burst of radiation coming from the release of magnetic energy associated with sunspots, says NASA. Large solar flares can generate geomagnetic storms, which impact Earth within hours and potentially affect satellites in space and disrupt power.

“Solar flares are big explosions on the sun caused by sunspots, mostly,” says Dr Robert Wicks, associate professor of space risk at UCL’s Institute for Risk and Disaster Reduction.

“Often associated with solar flares are coronal mass ejections – when you have these huge explosions, they release huge amounts of very hot gas called the solar wind, which hits the Earth. And that’s what causes the geomagnetic storm. This is what would cause a power blackout.”

Has this ever happened?

It happens more frequently than most would be aware of – just not on a large scale. The sun’s magnetic field goes through a solar cycle approximately every 11 years. During the height of the cycle, solar flares and coronal mass ejections increase, with the activity having possible effects on Earth.

The solar storms can cause lights in the sky, called aurora – hence we see the Northern Lights – but can also affect electricity grids and satellites.

“We’re right at the minimum of the solar cycle at the moment, so the sun’s not being active at all,” says Dr Ciaran Beggan, a geophysicist for the British Geological Survey. “But in about three to five years’ time, the sun will start getting more and more active.

“We could be getting geomagnetic storms every couple of weeks. But it’s only really the big ones that would be visible.”

Handout from the NOAA/National Weather Service's Space Weather Prediction Center shows a solar flare erupting from the sun late January 23 2012. The flare is reportedly the largest since 2005 and is expected to affect GPS systems and other communications when it reaches the Earth's magnetic field in the morning of January 24. (Photo by NOAA/National Weather Service's Space Weather Prediction Center via Getty Images)
Image: A photo from the Space Weather Prediction Center shows a solar flare erupting from the sun in January 2012

What big geomagnetic storms have hit Earth?

The biggest on record is known as the Carrington Event, which hit Earth in 1859 and caused telegraph systems across America and Europe to fail.

In 1989, a geomagnetic storm caused a nine-hour power outage in Quebec, Canada. It released a billion-tonne cloud of gas, “like the energy of thousands of nuclear bombs exploding at the same time,” says NASA. And this storm was (by some measures) only about a third of the size of the Carrington Event, Dr Beggan says.

In 2012, a solar storm of similar magnitude to the Carrington Event missed Earth’s orbit by a margin of just over a week.

There have been several incidences of smaller storms, with one in 2015 giving people as far south as Austria a glimpse of the Aurora Borealis, without causing problems.

In 2018, research confirmed that a solar storm was the cause of the sudden detonation of dozens of sea mines in Vietnam in the 1970s.

Northern lights (aurora borealis) illuminate the sky over Reinfjorden in Reine, on Lofoten Islands, Norway, Arctic Circle, on September 8, 2017
Image: The Northern Lights, or the Aurora Borealis – seen here in Norway in 2017 – are caused by geomagnetic storms

What are the chances of a geomagnetic storm happening on the same scale as in COBRA?

With modern technology and the world now so reliant on power and communications, a solar storm of the same magnitude as the Carrington Event could cause widespread disruption if it were to hit Earth.

Don’t panic, but Ilan Kelman, professor of disasters and health at UCL’s Institute for Risk and Disaster Reduction and also its Institute for Global Health, says it is “100% certain, at some point” that a solar storm of the same magnitude will occur.

“It is 100% certain that at some point a Carrington Event, or larger, will happen,” he says. “It is 100% certain that at some point a Carrington Event, or larger, will hit the Earth. The event happening and the event hitting the Earth could each be soon – within years – or centuries into the future.”

But with many factors at play, the potential impact is difficult to predict.

“In order to shut down the UK electricity grid, it would have to be an extremely large event,” says Dr Wicks. “Bigger than any we’ve seen for 160 years.”

The Carrington Event occurred about 10 years after scientists started measuring geomagnetic storms seriously, he says. We don’t know of the solar storms which occurred, and how large they were, before that.

Dr Wicks agrees it is 100% certain that it will happen in the future.

“But we don’t know whether a storm of Carrington Event magnitude would be really disruptive in the modern day. The really important question is: can you say when and where and what would happen? That’s what’s really difficult to predict,” he says.

“Will there be a space weather event as severe as the Carrington Event? Yes. It is unavoidable. But will it impact us badly?”

This is what we can’t predict, he says, but can potentially control, to some degree, by being prepared.

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Where in the world is most likely to be affected?

The nearer you are to either the North or South Pole, the more frequent these events are. However, because there are a lot more people living close to the North Pole than the South, geomagnetic storms have a greater impact there – and this is also why the Northern Lights (Aurora Borealis) are more widely known than the Southern Lights (Aurora Australis).

“The Southern Lights appear over Antarctica and no one lives there,” says Dr Wicks. “Sometimes you can see them from places in southern New Zealand, Australia and South America, like Patagonia, but in the Southern Hemisphere the land is further away from the magnetic pole so it takes a larger event to be visible to people.”

The larger the geomagnetic storm, the further it will travel towards the equator – so the further south it will travel in the Northern Hemisphere, and vice versa in the Southern Hemisphere.

“The stronger the storm, the closer it gets to the equator,” says Dr Wicks. “A strong event in the North might move down to the UK, to France, say. The equivalent in the South is usually moving further up into the ocean. But there have been recorded effects in New Zealand; as far as I know they’ve never had any power disruption. And there are measurements from places like South Africa – there was an event in 2003 which damaged power systems there.”

Looking at the UK, Dr Wicks says: “In the North, for the UK to be hit in the same way that Canada was hit [in 1989], it would have to be a bigger storm, because the UK is further away from the North Pole. But it’s definitely possible.”

Coastal and more rural areas would be worst hit. As is seen in COBRA, the big cities would see power restored first, should they lose it.

“Power transformers that are most likely to be damaged are the ones at the ends of the power lines,” says Dr Wicks. “So it’s northern Scotland and the coastline of Wales and Cornwall that are really vulnerable.

“I know the National Grid has been building up its stockpile of reserve transformers. But transformers are all fairly individual. It’s not very easy to replace one transformer with a completely different one. In the north of Scotland, it could take many, many months to bring a new transformer online there if it was damaged.

“There are emergency plans in place; the idea is you use lorries to take up big diesel generators and try and run local grids off diesel power, which obviously ruins our climate change goals but it gets electricity to critical infrastructure.”

Robert Carlyle and Victoria Hamilton star in COBRA. Pic: Sky UK
Image: Robert Carlyle and Victoria Hamilton star in COBRA. Pic: Sky UK

What would be affected?

A lot of technology is now dependent on GPS. Banking systems and mobile phone networks could go down.

“Navigation systems would be down, even trying to get money – because everything is electronic, whether it’s the ATM or simply going to a bank – would be very difficult,” says Professor Kelman. “Obviously, credit cards, direct debit would not work. So how people would actually get food, how they would get water would be very difficult.

“It’s the same with petrol; petrol stations use a lot of electricity and intelligent systems regarding the pumping, so it would be very hard to keep vehicles powered. And similarly, electric vehicles, electric bikes may not be easy to charge because the power grid is out.”

“If you have a geomagnetic storm big enough to shut down power in the UK, you must have also had a very severe radiation event in space,” says Dr Wicks. “And so satellites would be damaged or inoperable for some time. And that would mean things like satellite communication, GPS, weather forecasting, all these things would be at risk.

“The blue light services and the military are very reliant on satellite services now. That’s another thing to consider.

“Autopilots on planes rely on GPS satellites and radar, both of which potentially could be affected. And we’ve seen, for example, fairly recently how little delays at the big airports like Heathrow and Gatwick can quickly spiral into quite big problems.

“If you have a couple of days where flights are blocked off as they were in 2010 when the [Icelandic] volcano erupted, then you have this kind of cascading problem; the pilots and air crews and aircraft are not in the right place, and the passengers are in the wrong place and there’s not enough hotels.”

Situations like this can continue to cause chaos for a long time even after the initial problem has been resolved.

“Not because the storm is lasting that long, but because it just takes that long to sort out the mess afterwards,” says Dr Wicks.

However, he reassures, National Grid “would say that their power grid is very stable. And it’s highly, highly unlikely to have such a severe failure as that.”

How much damage could a big solar storm cause?

“There’s a lot of uncertainty and that’s why a lot of this research is ongoing,” says Dr Beggan. “We can’t really say for sure how much damage would be caused by a big storm like that because we haven’t experienced one [in modern times].

“There’s a lot of factors: how the electricity grid is connected, how the transformers themselves behave during these big storms. But [what happened in Quebec] serves as an idea of what could happen in the UK.

“We work with the National Grid and they’re pretty confident that even in an extreme event what would probably happen is that some areas of the country, like the most northerly or most remote regions, would be affected and there might be some transformers damaged. But it is very unlikely that there would be a general UK-wide blackout.

“Having said that, there are scientists who work with the Cabinet Office to look at these risks. About eight years ago, just prior to the Olympics, we had a lot of meetings about what would happen if a big geomagnetic storm was to occur. So the Cabinet Office do have contingency plans for this kind of situation.

“It’s a very esoteric risk – it’s a bit like the volcanic risk, or earthquakes or tsunamis. These are very rare events; they don’t happen very often in the UK, obviously, and for most people, they won’t ever experience any of them in their lives.

“But there is a risk register for the UK Cabinet Office and it has all these risks; the likelihood, for example, of volcanic risk like the Icelandic volcano 10 years ago. That was a ‘might never happen’ kind of risk. Though when it does, of course, it causes major economic problems.”

Aurora Borealis (Northern Lights) viewed from space. Aurorae are caused by the interaction of the particles in the solar wind with the Earth's magnetic field. The phenomenon is most visible in polar regions but in times of intense solar activity can be seen at lower latitudes as well
Image: Aurorae are caused by the interaction of the particles in the solar wind with the Earth’s magnetic field

And what are the possible implications?

Professor Kelman says if a major geomagnetic storm of Carrington Event magnitude actually hit Earth, it could potentially cause trillions of pounds of damage.

“We are definitely looking at these issues of what’s called space weather, solar flares and the geomagnetic storms, and the possible implications in terms of knocking out power grids, knocking out information technology and what the response would be,” he says.

“The immediate knock-out of these systems globally, we’re looking at immediate damage of trillions of pounds. And then it could actually be several years until all our information and communication systems were entirely fully operational and everything back online again.

“The implications are very serious and we are looking at the severity of trillions of pounds immediately and months, if not years until our electronic systems are back up.”

New Sky One drama COBRA. Pic: Sky UK
Image: The geomagnetic storm causes a plane crash in the opening episode of COBRA. Pic: Sky UK

Should we as individuals be prepared?

We can experience a power outage at any time, Professor Kelman points out, and it won’t usually be caused by space weather.

In Canada in 1998, an ice storm wiped out power to millions of people, some of whom did not get it back for six weeks. In the same year, parts of Auckland in New Zealand lost power for up to five weeks when buried cables failed due to overheating during a heat wave.

Closer to home, tens of thousands of people in London and Kent experienced an outage during a major black-out in 2003.

So people should always be aware of what to do should power go down, he says.

“At the individual level, we know that there can be a power outage at any time. As individuals, we need to be ready to have power knocked out and our ICT (information and communications technology) knocked out at any point, and a geomagnetic storm is no different.

“We should have two weeks of food and water available right now in all our houses. We should have that no matter what and be ready to deal with it. I have two weeks of bottled water, non-perishable food, a tin opener for tins, first aid kit, torch and I have a wind-up radio. So, I hope – I mean, we never know until it happens – but I hope that I am ready and prepared to sit in my flat for two weeks without leaving and without external support.

“At the more collective level with space weather, there is shielding which can be done. So a lot of satellites have shielding so that the satellite can be orientated in such a way that it doesn’t take on, or it takes on a lesser load of particles of a solar storm.

“And if we chose, we could do the same with our hospitals, our prisons, our generators. But obviously, there is a cost involved. And so we have to make the decision about the likelihood of losing power to geomagnetic storm, compared to losing power for other reasons.”

Richard Dormer in Sky One's COBRA. Pic: Sky UK
Image: Richard Dormer plays Fraser Walker, head of the Civil Contingencies Secretariat, in Sky One’s COBRA. Pic: Sky UK

Is the UK prepared?

“It’s a balance,” Professor Kelman says. “I’m actually not privy to what’s going on in COBRA or the government body, which is called the Civil Contingency Secretariat, particularly on this issue. My perspective, I tend to be quite disappointed at when things happen, how unfortunate the response typically is.”

He cites “continuing floods” in the UK, from the Somerset floods in 2013-2014 to those which hit Yorkshire and the Midlands last year.

“Often when there’s intense rain, we get localised flooding in London and it seems like people have not really realised this has happened before. The same with one centimetre, two centimetres of snow in London, a good proportion of transportation shuts down. People don’t necessarily seem to know how to deal with it.

“From my perspective, there seems to be an overall perception among the UK population that the UK is not highly vulnerable to natural hazards, so it important that scientists and government ensure that we do know what the hazards are and how to deal with them.

“A lot of the preparation for small things like a small amount of snow and a small amount of water is not there. Now, conversely, when we’ve seen terrorism and when we’ve seen transportation crashes, the response has been some of the best in the world I’ve been aware of.

“I was quite shocked at how badly prepared the UK was for the volcanic ash and the shutdown of airspace.

“There were many historical precedents. So, for example, for the UK particularly, in 1783 to 1784, the volcano Laki erupted in Iceland. There was a huge blanket of ash across the UK and across Europe, which actually led to substantive crop failure and tens of thousands of people dying.

“Even more recently, there were incidences in the ’80s of commercial aircraft flying into volcanic ash clouds in places like Indonesia and Alaska and losing engine power. So this was a known threat, it was on the international radar.

“[But] volcanic ash before 2010 was not on the UK’s national risk register, which is where my surprise comes from; of course, after 2010, it is on the national risk register.”

The Aurora Australis, or
Image: The Aurora Australis, or Southern Lights, can sometimes be seen from Australia and New Zealand

Should people be worried?

“Is it a risk?” says Dr Beggan. “I think it’s definitely a risk. But how big the impact would be is really hard to say because we haven’t seen it in the modern age so we don’t know what technologies are vulnerable.”

But it shouldn’t keep you awake at night, he says.

“Probably not, no. These are high-impact, low-probability events… and the research we do informs engineers how to mitigate the risk.”

“Well, it’s certainly possible,” says Dr Wicks. “It doesn’t necessarily mean the doomsday scenario would happen, but all of the elements are there. Whether they all happen at once is another matter.

“There’s certainly things we should worry about first: bad weather, rising sea levels, influenza and illness and things like that are all more important things to think about.

“On the other hand, as [COBRA] I’m sure shows, we rely extremely heavily on electricity. And it is a risk to our electrical supply that can be quite severe. So, I think it’s something for the electricity companies and the National Grid and the government to worry about, not necessarily individual people in the UK.”

Doing his job “definitely increases your paranoia level” admits Dr Wicks. “Hopefully not too much though. You have to be realistic about it and say, these are worst-case scenarios.

“The UK is one of the world leaders in research in this field. And I think as a nation we’ve put as much, if not more thought into this kind of emergency than most other places. So the UK is actually very well prepared – compared to other nations.

“I wouldn’t say that we’re ready, but government at least knows that it is a problem. And for the relevant infrastructure, like satellites and power, at least there are plans in place.

“So it could be worse.”

All episodes of Sky original COBRA are now available to watch on Sky One and NOW TV

Source : Sky News