I devoted the first three posts in this series to describing geomagnetic storms and assessing the odds that a Big One is coming. I concluded that the iconic Carrington superstorm of 1859 was neither as intense nor as overdue for an encore as some prominent analysts have suggested. (I suppose that’s unsurprising: those who say more-alarming things get more attention.) But my analysis is not certain. To paraphrase Churchill, the sun is a riddle, wrapped in a mystery, inside a corona. And great harm would flow from what I cannot rule out: a blackout spanning states and lasting months.
I shift in this post from whether the Big One is coming to what will happen if it does. And here, unfortunately, my facility with statistics does less good, for the top questions are now about power engineering: how grids and high-voltage transformers respond to planetary magnetic concussions.
One reason for my incomplete understanding of power engineering is that the stuff is complicated. Another is the upshot of this post: I dug far enough to conclude that more research is needed. That phrase is a deadened cliche, but I mean it. We need to learn more! Considering the potential stakes, the effects of magnetic storms on grids are too poorly studied. Seven-figure expenditures on research might stave off 12-figure damages (as in trillions). For an employee of a philanthropy, that’s a bottom line. And the practical conclusion being reached, and my time being tight, it seemed efficient to stop there.
I’ll explain that conclusion just below. But first I stress that my view on the potential value of funding in this area is attributable only to me. The Open Philanthropy Project will weigh this cause against other possible focus areas.
I’ll touch on four lines of evidence:
- Case studies of failed transformers
- Statistical correlations between storm activity and transformer failures
- Field tests
- Mathematical modeling