Let’s Talk About Solar Flares & the Destruction of Wall Street

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Anthony Malakian, US Editor, WatersTechnology

Have you heard that a solar storm next year might just wipe out all communications systems and hobble Wall Street? But, hey, no need to panic or anything.

My dad retired a couple of years ago and moved down to the sunny shores of North Carolina. Sometimes I wonder if all that sun is baking his brain.

Aside from pestering my mom all day, he also has a tendency to say crazy things. For example, he insists that the New York Yankees' championships aren't tainted even though they out-spend their closest rival by tens-of-millions, or that the New York Knicks are building a contender by signing 39-year-old Jason Kidd and 38-year-old Marcus Camby.

But every now and again he says something smart. At times I forget that he spent the better part of four decades building data centers and doing disaster recovery (DR) for some massive, global companies. So the other day when he started rambling on about the damage wreaked by solar flares, I didn't know if he was being crazy-old-coot dad or expert-in-the-field-of-DR dad. Being that I'm a journalist and it's my job to research things, I looked into it ─ turns out the old coot may be on to something.

On July 6 there was a sun storm that was listed as a Class X1.1 solar flare ─ the strongest solar flare we'd seen all summer. Yesterday it topped when an X1.4 flare led to NASA and the Space Weather Prediction Center warning about a wide-area blackout amongst US communications systems starting tomorrow.

While a nuisance, these flares tend to lead only to dropped calls and your Facebook page taking forever to load, with trading firms being unaffected. (And on the bright side, they create beautiful auroras.) But it may not always be so.

Earlier this year, Gizmodo quoted physicist Pete Riley, senior scientist at research institute Predictive Science in San Diego, as saying there's about a 12 percent chance of a catastrophic solar super-storm occurring by 2020. This storm would rival the Carrington Event of 1859 ─ the largest solar super-storm on record ─ that caused telegraph machines to spark and catch on fire.

From the Gizmodo article: "The potential collateral damage in the US of a Carrington-type solar storm might be between $1 trillion and $2 trillion in the first year alone, with full recovery taking an estimated four to 10 years, according to a 2008 report from the National Research Council."

Solar flares erupt in cycles and there are predictions that this current cycle will hit its zenith in 2013. That's next year, if you're not keeping track. It led me to wonder if capital markets firms are having conversations around disaster recovery and business-continuity planning (BCP) to prep for the coming Age of Darkness.

Among the responses I've gotten to my apocalyptic inquiries, most have said it's like preparing for a Mayan "end of days" event. But I'd be interested to know if the topic of "solar storm doom" is being kicked around amongst any technologists on Wall Street or in the City of London.

Or is this like when one White House staffer on "The West Wing" started freaking out upon learning that a Chinese satellite was plummeting toward Earth and no one knew where it was going to land ─ but what she didn't realize was that this was a near-daily occurrence.

Got some thoughts? Shoot me an email to [email protected] or give me a call at 646-490-3973.

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