by François Settembrino

The sun has now been sleeping for nearly two years, but it is about to wake and it will not be good tempered. Solar activity usually follows an 11 year cycle, rising to a peak, dropping down and then building up to its maximum. The last period of such activity was recorded in 2001and the next is expected in 2013.

François Settembrino

Why should risk management concern itself with a phenomenon that takes place so far away? It so happens that solar storms send particles through space that reach us two days later. The earth’s magnetic field deflects these particles in the upper atmosphere where they create the beautiful aurora borealis or Northern Lights. If, however, the sun becomes angry, then the famous particles arrive in serried ranks with the effect of disturbing our electricity and electronics.

History records the effects of this solar rage in the summer of 1859. In addition to astonishing visual effects, electric currents surged through telegraph equipment, shocking operators and setting fire to the paper. More recently in 1989, a geomagnetic storm tripped circuit breakers on a Quebec power grid and plunged millions of Canadians into profound darkness. Another storm the same year halted trading on the Toronto stock exchange.

Surrounded as we are today by electrical and electronic appliances, individuals and businesses could find themselves faced with serious problems. If they were no worse than power stoppages, then in time the equipment could be restarted. If, however, solar storms destroy just one part of a component of any electronic machinery, the consequences would be frightening. Electronics are everywhere and so, too, would be the bad effects.

What then can risk management do? We can start by making managers more conscious of the risks, a little as we did with the Year 2K computer program issue. There is but a single strategy to follow next: ask the experts what measures we need to protect the equipment, depending on its function.

Some risk managers intend to continue monitoring the news from the observatories so they know when solar storms are taking place and their direction and intensity. If the events are powerful, then they could switch off all equipment, since the particles will only reach us after a long journey.

Others believe this approach could be ineffective, because the particles can damage components even when the machines have been disconnected. We, therefore, have an interest in getting as much information on the subject as possible from the scientific community. Without their knowledge, we can do little more than tinker. The European Space Agency intends to launch a satellite to study solar phenomena in 2017, but that is far away from 2013.

In the meantime, we could also cross our arms, do nothing and wait to see if the sky falls on our heads.