Zaps and Taps: Solar Storms, Electricity and Water Supply Disasters, and Governance

  • Robert James Wasson


Large geomagnetic storms originate in the sun and have disrupted satellite operations and shut down electricity grids with impacts on communications, transportation, financial services, navigation, emergency services, hospitals, and water supply. So far these impacts have been localized and did not last for more than a few days. However, when the 1859 Carrington storm (or a larger storm) is repeated the impacts could be global and last for many months to years. Failure of electricity grids will impact water supply and quality leading to impacts on households, agriculture and industry. Cross-border issues will arise where power lines move electricity between countries, such as in mainland SE Asia and China, and increasingly in S Asia. A major storm could lead to social disruption and migration across borders as food and water supplies dwindle, and also nuclear reactor meltdowns with widespread fallout. The calculated return period of a Carrington-scale event is 150 years and for smaller storms 35–70 years. An existing global monitoring system can provide some hours of warning that will allow vital facilities to be protected, but the monitoring system needs to be improved. Transformers will be destroyed without “hardening” by installing line series capacitors on transmission lines connecting at least critical facilities; but this will be financially challenging in less developed nations. Vulnerability assessments are lacking, as are operational management strategies. Less national and international interconnectedness of grids may also be required. These and other governance challenges will be emphasized.


Geomagnetic storms Electricity distribution Cross-border disaster governance Global monitoring systems Vulnerability assessments 



I thank my wife Merrilyn for inadvertently alerting me to the threat of solar storms, Michael Douglass and Michelle Miller for the invitation to write this chapter and their patience with my slowness, Karl Kim for encouraging my approach, and Sarah Starkweather for excellent editing. David Nott is thanked for advice on probability calculations. The project benefited from the financial support of a Singapore Ministry of Education Academic Research Fund Tier 2 grant entitled ‘Governing Compound Disasters in Urbanising Asia’ (MOE2014-T2–1-017).


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Copyright information

© Springer Nature Singapore Pte Ltd. 2018

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Institute of Water Policy, Lee Kuan Yew School of Public PolicyNational University of SingaporeSingaporeSingapore

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