Tuesday, February 7, 2017

Coronal Mass Ejections (again)

Back in 2014 I blogged about one of digital preservation's less well-known risks, coronal mass ejections (CME).  Additional information accumulated in the comments. Last October:
"President Barack Obama .. issued an Executive Order that defines what the nation’s response should be to a catastrophic space weather event that takes out large portions of the electrical power grid, resulting in cascading failures that would affect key services such as water supply, healthcare, and transportation.
Two recent studies bought the risk back into focus and convinced me that my 2014 post was too optimistic. Below the fold, more gloom and doom.

Mark Gilbert's How Space Could Trigger a Future Economic Crisis reports on a new paper in Space Weather:
In four scenarios envisaging the economic impact of a solar storm, the mildest triggers a daily loss to the U.S. economy of $6.2 billion, or 15 percent of daily output; the worst case sees a cost of $41.5 billion, wiping out every dollar the world’s largest economy generates each day.
A study published last month by the Cambridge Centre for Risk Studies estimates that a solar storm would have the potential to wipe between $140 billion to $613 billion off the global economy in a five-year time span, depending on the severity of the impact.
According to a NASA blog post, the probability is 12% per decade:
In February 2014, physicist Pete Riley of Predictive Science Inc. published a paper in Space Weather entitled "On the probability of occurrence of extreme space weather events." In it, he analyzed records of solar storms going back 50+ years. By extrapolating the frequency of ordinary storms to the extreme, he calculated the odds that a Carrington-class storm would hit Earth in the next ten years.

The answer: 12%.
Macroeconomic impact
So there is about an 1-in-8 chance that in the next decade we will face one of the Cambridge scenarios. They divide the economic impact of the severe scenario's CME impacting the US into four areas:
  • Direct Impacts. It takes 5 months to restore power to 95% of the US population.
  • Indirect Supply Chain Impacts. The impact of power outages on international supply chains is bigger than their direct impact.
  • Macroeconomic Impacts. There is a large initial hit to US domestic product, but a fairly rapid recovery as government spends on recovery.
  • Insurance Impacts. For various reasons, insurance companies bear only about 14% of the economic loss, but this still amounts to about 4 time the total catastrophe losses they bear in a normal year.
I've always said that the chief threat to digital preservation is economic; digital information being very vulnerable to interruptions in the money supply. In the context of economic losses of the magnitude envisaged by the Cambridge report, digital preservation systems would be very low on the priority list for recovery funds.

The risk of CME's is one reason Facebook has advanced for their investment in optical storage for cold data. A CME could destroy the electronics in the racks, but it would not destroy the data on the DVDs. Actually, a CME is equally unlikely to destroy the data on hard disk platters, but destroying the drive electronics makes that data very expensive to recover.

1 comment:

David. said...

Annalee Newitz at Ars Technica reports that analysis of ceramic jar handles from the kingdom of Judah reveals large, rapid variations in the Earth's magnetic field:

"Sometime late in the 8th century BCE, there was a rapid fluctuation in the field's intensity over a period of about 30 years—first the intensity increased to over 20 percent of baseline, then plunged to 27 percent under baseline. ... A fluctuation of such intensity could leave the planet far less protected from solar storms that overload electrical grids, destroying transformers and causing widespread blackouts."