Yeterday I stumbled across a somewhat disturbing article about the significant impacts that solar flares on our infrastructure. In the recent and not so recent past our fragile magnetosphere has been hammered by dozens of powerful solar flares. In 1989 a solar flare knocked out power to 6 million people in Canada for 9 hours. In 1859 an event set numerous telegraph stations on fire. It is the 1859 event that is of most concern as it was the most powerful solar flare in recorded history. Had that solar flare occured today, it is estimated that it would cause $1 to $2 trillion dollars in damage and possibly plunge metropolitan areas into darkness for years!

Here's the part of the article that interested me most. Apparently, given enough warning, utilities should be able to shutdown, disconnect and isolate enough of the infrastructure to withstand such an event, even if it meant doing so for a few hours. The satellite damage would be significant but we could make do with a fleet of ready-to-launch reserve satellites. Here's where I am concerned. Is it a reality to expect a utility to voluntarily disconnect hundreds of millions of people's power on the basis of a warning from some space agency about an impending solar flare? Not going to happen. Does the public and government accept that it is an insurance policy against a major catastrophe? I highly doubt it. Do we spend several billion dollars to keep a fleet of reserve satellites around just in case this "once-in-500-year" event occurs tomorrow? Of course not. But solar flares happen, and they happen dozens of times a year, especially when the 11-year solar cycle peaks (though, the 1859 megablast occured during a relative quiet period of solar activity).

The odds are that the 1859 event won't repeat in our lifetime, or even in 5 generations from now, but solar flares on the scale of 1989 will most likely occur, and our fragile infrastructure seems to be just as vulnerable now as it was then.