A story in the UK Telegraph caught my attention the other day: Nasa warns solar flares from 'huge space storm' will cause devastation. So maybe the old Mayans were not too far off in their calculations of the date the world ends - and 21.12.2012 or thereabouts is maybe not so hoax after all? Perhaps the world will end in 2013 instead? For sure, 2013 is destined to a year that is likely to test business continuity plans worldwide, if NASA is to be believed.
We could face widespread power blackouts and be left without critical communication signals for long periods of time, after the earth is hit by a once-in-a-generation “space storm”, Nasa has warned. Scientists believe it could damage everything from emergency services’ systems, hospital equipment, banking systems and air traffic control devices, It will disrupt communication devices such as satellites and car navigations, air travel, the banking system, our computers, everything that is electronic. It will cause major problems for the world.
If this is true, the paralyzing effect on supply chains by the volcanic ash cloud this Spring will be like a mild Summer breeze in comparison. Perhaps, as DK Matai notes in his reflections, we will be going back to 5000 BC?
Solar flares can damage satellites and x-rays can disturb radio and other wireless communications. Although there have been big sun storms before in history, we have never been this dependent on the technology they can disrupt. Small microprocessors and chips that power our vehicles; the Global Positioning System (GPS) that helps us navigate; Internet, satellite and mobile phones can all be affected. Immediate cash sources such as Automated Teller Machines (ATMs) and credit card transactions may also malfunction. In the event of an EMP nothing using electrical or electronic systems may function correctly.
This means no power for:
i. Pumping fuel into vehicles;
ii. Recharging batteries for flashlights, radios, pocket computers or communication devices;
iii. Withdrawing cash or using credit cards to pay for food, fuel and services; and
iv. Transportation of food, essential goods and professionals for emergency and healthcare services.
Semi-Permanent Damage If a truly massive Coronal Mass Ejection (CME) hits earth, it could practically take out the world's electricity distribution on a semi-permanent basis. It would take many years, if not decades, to repair the world's electrical system, even if replacement parts were immediately available.
Extreme weather events are a natural ingredient in any Business Continuity Plan. Including extreme space weather is perhaps not the first thing that comes to mind that you must prepare for. That said, the electric power system can go down for many reasons, solar flare or no solar flare, and being prepared for a long-lasting electric outage is probably a good investment in any case.