From The Guardian:
The threat of solar storms that could wreak havoc on the world’s electronic systems must be taken more seriously, the UK government’s chief scientist has warned. A severe solar storm could damage satellites and power grids around the world, he said, leading to a “global Katrina” costing the world’s economies as much as $2tn (£1.2tn).
“This issue of space weather has got to be taken seriously,” said John Beddington, the UK government’s chief scientific adviser, speaking at the annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) in Washington DC. “We’ve had a relatively quiet [period] in space weather and we can expect that quiet period to end. Over the same time, over that period, the potential vulnerability of our systems has increased dramatically. Whether it’s the smart grid in our electricity systems or the ubiquitous use of GPS in just about everything these days.”
Our electrical grid is completely vulnerable. None of the major transformers are contained in Faraday cages ready to be sealed off in the case of a coronal mass ejection. If these transformers short out, we are screwed. It could take years to replace them all, and by that time half the population could be dead of starvation, conflict, and disease. Without electricity, how can you pump the gas to get the trucks and mechanics to replace the transformers?
Security is the foundation of everything else. No electrical grid means no water or gas, no water or gas means no food, no food means people need to find food however they can, which means no security. No security means that repairing any given piece of machinery automatically becomes 10-100X harder. A limited security infrastructure could be bootstrapped from the military, but it’s more likely that soldiers will defect and join their families, which will need to be protected on the local level.
On Valentine’s Day there was a class-X solar flare, the most powerful in four years. The sun is ramping up to its next solar maximum, due to hit in 2013.
During the Carrington event in 1856, the solar storm was so powerful that intense auroras lit up in the night sky in the Rocky Mountains and gold miners awoke prematurely because they thought it was morning.