By DAN REYNOLDS, senior editor of Risk & Insurance®
If it's any consolation to those who fear the impacts of solar storms, the sun is calming down some, according to a member of Swiss Re's risk management team that studies emerging risks. The next peak of solar weather activity is scheduled to occur sometime in the middle of 2013, according to Martin Weymann, a Zurich-based vice president with Swiss Re.
"That doesn't mean that there might not be a solar storm at any moment," Weymann said. In fact, a solar weather event powerful enough to impact some telecommunications in China occurred in February of this year, according to Weymann.
Based on studies of sunspots, which are indicators of solar activity, this solar weather peak is not expected to be as severe as some have been and is expected to more closely resemble a cycle that peaked in 1823.
But to give you an indication of how much more active a peak cycle is than a down cycle, Weymann puts forth the following numbers.
During the peak of a solar storm cycle, coronal mass ejections--which are disturbances of the sun's surface that send helium, iron, protons and electrons hurtling toward earth--cause geomagnetic storms that strike our orbit about every five days.
During the low point of the 11-year solar storm cycle, material from solar coronal mass ejections might strike earth's orbit once every 45 days.
"It's still part of current research, but there are some hints that, as the cycle is down turning, that the activity may be a bit higher on that side," Weymann said.
There isn't much of a record for insurance losses related to geomagnetic storms. The insurance industry has to rely on scenarios outlining what types of losses might occur if an event like the Carrington Event, which occurred in 1859 might happen again.
Here are some events in Earth's history that have been linked to the phenomenon of solar storms, according to Weymann:
In 1921, a large geomagnetic storm disturbed railways and telegraphs. There was another large ejection in 1938 which disrupted all transatlantic communication channels. In 1958, a solar storm caused a radio blackout that cut North America off from the rest of the world. A March 9, 1989, geomagnetic storm, the result of a large coronal mass ejection, caused the collapse of the Hydro-Quebec power grid in a matter of seconds. Six million people were without power for nine hours. The total economic loss in that event is estimated to be $6 billion.
May 1, 2011
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