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Space-casting: could America's first trillion-dollar disaster come from outer space?

Hurricanes, tornadoes, floods and blizzards. They happen all the time and have the potential to cause significant amounts of damage where they strike. They are all weather-based natural disasters. But there's a type of weather out there that you may not know of, and it has the potential to wreak havoc here on Earth. 

"When there's a flare on the sun...we sometimes see minor things like aurora, but you can also lose communications and you can actually have electronics affected as well." That's what Notre Dame Physics Professor Peter Garnavich had to say when asked about solar flares and space weather.

Knowing when those flares are most likely to impact the planet is key. And, while day-to-day predictions are difficult, the sun does go through cycles that help scientists better forecast flares.

"Every 11 years, we go through a solar maximum...so five years ago or so we were in a solar maximum. A rather weak solar maximum," Garnavich says. That means Earth is in its "solar minimum" stage currently. Garnavich predicts that by 2023 the Earth will have a much higher chance to experience more effects of solar flares. But what is the chance that that flare could actually generate a moderate to possibly significant solar storm in the United States?

Bill Murtagh, the Program Coordinator for the NOAA Space Weather Prediction Center, says there's a slight chance: maybe five to ten percent. If it happened, the impact could be big.

"...Especially concerning if the potential consequences of a storm of that magnitude on today's technology that we rely on for so many day-to-day activities," Murtagh says of a possible significant solar storm.

That's why NOAA's recent report titled the "Social and Economic Impacts of Space Weather in the United States" is essential. It was commissioned in response to the 2015 National Space Weather Action Plan, calling for the Department of Commerce to support research into the social and economic impacts of space weather.

The reports dives into the "what if" scenarios for both a moderate and significant solar storm. What would happen to power grids, satellite communications, the airline industry, and rail, maritime and road transportation? And, there's the big question of how much an event like this would cost the areas in which in strikes.

"We absolutely know it happens. We've seen it in other parts of the world. And we do recognize we have vulnerability in the United States." That was Murtagh's response to whether or not we need to be worried about a significant solar storm striking Earth. According to the report, a moderate solar storm would cause a power outage for six hours. That kind of power outage would cost commercial, industrial and residential users just in the states of Michigan, Indiana, Ohio, Illinois, and Wisconsin well over $10 billion! 

The report defines a major solar storm as one that would put parts of the country in the dark for NINE hours. A solar storm of that magnitude would measure up as one of the costliest natural disasters in U.S. history. It would likely cost the areas it affects more than $100 billion! That's why Murtagh said, "...we are taking a lot of action right now to protect our critical power grid infrastructure from the effects of geomagnetic storms." 

Numbers are and will continue to be crunched. Research will continue to be done. Then, all of the findings from space weather forecasters and scientists will be presented to both public and private sectors when necessary to keep the U.S. as aware and prepared as possible for a major solar storm.

So, after crunching the numbers, the report finds that a major space weather storm wouldn't reach the trillion-dollar mark. However, it would have the potential to measure up as the second-costliest natural disaster in United States history. The one disaster it wouldn't surpass? That would be the infamous and massive Hurricane Katrina. 

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