Toops Scoops: Solar Flares: Dark Side of the Sun

Between Pat Robertson saying he supports the legalization of marijuana and Snooki's confirmed pregnancy, the tinfoil hat crowd may be right: maybe the world will end in 2012.

Latest case in point: solar flare. This was the week that a solar storm struck Earth, an event that some predicted would crash power grids, airplane routes and space-based satellite navigation systems. So far, nothing much has happened -- but that doesn't mean it won't.

Scientists at NOAA are saying that the storm is the strongest event in nearly 6 years, although it just felt like Thursday from where I'm sitting.

Still, risk management experts are taking this one seriously.

Although instances of solar flare affecting technology date back to at least the 19th century--an 1847 solar flare interrupted telegraph services in Great Britain--probably the best modern indicator of what could happen is a solar storm that struck on Mar. 13, 1989, taking out the electric grid in Quebec for 9 hours, affecting more than 5 million people and costing more than $2 billion, according to a white paper produced by Zurich risk engineers.

Why wasn't the damage more prevalent? "The impact depends on many risk factors, such as the length and orientation power lines and also the type, design, windings, grounding and age of transformers," said A.V. "Rish" Riswadkar, liability line of business director of Zurich Services Corporation, coauthor of the white paper. "Several transformers on the Hydro-Quebec electric grid were affected by the 1989 solar storm, resulting in a cascading domino shutting down the entire electric grid system. Since the event did not occur during the peak load demand hours, the power failure did not cascade beyond Quebec into the United States."

That event was bad enough, but 1989 didn't have all the tech bells and whistles we enjoy today. Aren't we even more vulnerable today? "Absolutely," Rish said. "With our total dependence on electricity and telecommunication in all aspects of our modern lives, we are more vulnerable than ever. If a solar storm event of the magnitude of the so-called 'Carrington event' in 1859 were to occur today, it would totally paralyze the life as we know." (Carrington was the Sept. 1, 1859 solar flare believed to be the strongest in history.)

"If key transformer assets and the electric power grid are damaged by the solar storm, it would be a great challenge to restore power," Rish said. "With no power and no ability to communicate, the cascading effects will adversely impact all sectors of our interconnected global economy."

And unlike earthbound cats, solar weather is hard to predict and not fully understood by science, even though specialized satellites (SOHO, SDO, STEREO) allow experts real-time observation and monitoring of solar surface activity. The satellites provide the tools for some forecasting and advance warning to take some mitigation measures, such as when airlines re-route flights away from the polar routes during solar storms to avoid exposure.

However, even these sophisticated tools can't forecast the specific trajectory of impact on the Earth -- specifically, where and how severe the impact will be and which technical systems it will strike.

This lack of predictability currently makes ensuring solar flares pretty tough. Because there currently are no specific stand-alone solar storm insurance coverages, insurance depends on specific policy terms in the insurance policies for different lines of business, Rish said.

So is a solar flare as inevitable as Armageddon? It's hard to tell, even for the experts. "For this rare but mega-risk with a potential for a global footprint, the costs and the potential impact can be so large and unpredictable that the insurance and risk transfer is not the most practical answer," Rish said. "Emphasis should be on raising the awareness of this cascading high severity-low frequency risk and on developing prevention and mitigation measures collectively."

In other words: Wear sunscreen.



About the Author
Laura Mazzuca Toops,

Laura Mazzuca Toops,

Laura Mazzuca Toops, National Underwriter Property & Casualty executive managing editor, is responsible for the Agent & Broker channel for Her more than 20 years of property & casualty insurance experience includes associate editor at Business Insurance, Midwest managing editor with Insurance Journal, and freelance work for insurers, brokers and trade associations. She holds a bachelor’s degree in journalism from Columbia College Chicago. She may be reached at


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