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Black Swans

The Darkness of the Sun

A fast-moving geomagnetic storm blasts the North American power grid, leaving a large swath of the Northeastern U.S. temporarily uninhabitable.
By: | August 3, 2015 • 10 min read

“Daddy, wake up! Come see the rainbows!” 6-year-old Amanda LeBlanc insisted as she shook her father out of his slumber. Joel LeBlanc stirred slowly, feeling like he hadn’t slept at all.

“What? Go back to bed,” he grumbled, rolling over.

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“No, Daddy you have to look,” insisted Amanda, throwing the bedroom curtains wide open. Joel squinted at the light, confused. It was way too early for sunrise, wasn’t it?

Joel hoisted himself out of bed and joined his daughter at the window, catching his breath at the sight. “Huh. You know what that is, honey? It’s called an aurora. Don’t see that every day — not in Florida anyway.”

“I’m going outside to take a picture,” Amanda declared, cantering off.

Northward, there was less wonderment and more worry. Scientists had warned that week of a large coronal mass ejection (CME) that the sun had hurled toward Earth. Only three days later, it was followed by a pair of still-larger CMEs. The latter two bursts combined during their brief journey from the sun, pushing billions of tons of highly charged particles toward Earth at unprecedented speed, thanks to the path cleared by the earlier blast.

Scientists’ predictions on the size and speed of the event fell short of the mark. But even if they’d been right about everything else, they couldn’t have gauged that the CME’s magnetic field was aligned in a way that left Earth at its most vulnerable, allowing the maximum infusion of charged plasma into the Earth’s magnetosphere. It was a recipe for a perfect solar superstorm.

Video: This 1:31 minute time lapse video by Brendan Hall shows an aurora borealis in Kalispell, Mont., that occurred over 1.5 hours in June 2015.

By the time the NOAA Space Weather Prediction Center issued an urgent warning, there were only minutes left to act. Power generation companies kicked into emergency mode, working to mitigate the impact by taking transformers offline.

But even large generators couldn’t act fast enough. Geomagnetically induced currents flowed into the power grid in a matter of minutes, overheating extra-high-voltage (EHV) transformers and frying coils, destroying or damaging hundreds.

The North Atlantic corridor was hardest hit, thanks to higher ground conductivity along the coastline. In short order, upwards of 35 million people from New York City to Washington, D.C. were suddenly without power. There was an eerie stillness that morning as schools and many businesses were forced to remain shuttered.

Backup-generator owners went in search of fuel, but most gas pumps had stopped functioning immediately or soon afterward.

ATMs were all down. Within hours, land and cell phones would fail, and water could no longer pump. Worse, wastewater treatment plants shut down, causing sewage to overflow into drinking water.

Beyond the area affected by the power outage, disruptions to global positioning systems and satellite communications wreaked havoc with cellular networks, financial transaction processing and logistics operations.

The hardy Northeasterners made the best of it at first, boiling water on camp stoves, firing up barbecues and grilling the thawing food from their freezers. But before the week was out, nerves had frayed. Residents and businesses demanded answers from utilities and government officials.

The news was bad — very bad. It’s not as if hundreds of EHV transformers were warehoused waiting to be called into service. Replacements had to be ordered. and replacement for any given transformer would be at least five months and possibly up to a year or even longer, given the high level of need and the short list of manufacturers.

Units coming from foreign manufacturers would take even longer, involving arduous and complex transportation arrangements.

Residents and business owners were stunned. Public officials explained that with no power or fuel, no water pumps or waste treatment facilities, no readily accessible food supply and badly strained emergency services, there was no option other than to evacuate the affected regions.

The impact to the economy was staggering. National companies struggled to maintain communications with evacuating employees, while putting plans in place to shift operations to other locations. But an overwhelming number of small and mid-sized local businesses without the means to relocate simply folded.

Companies with business interruption or contingent business interruption policies presumably triggered by the mandatory evacuation breathed a sigh of relief, not yet aware of the lengthy battles they’d face later on about whether or not fried transformers, or the incapacity of the power grid itself, constituted a property damage trigger under policy terms.

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Supply chains nationally and globally faced upheaval as companies raced to secure secondary suppliers. Those select few companies that had chosen to take up supply chain coverage quietly congratulated themselves and used the opportunity to its fullest advantage while their competitors faltered.

Once the dust had settled, much of the North-Atlantic corridor was a patchwork of ghost towns. Members of the Army and National Guard were stationed in the region to curtail damage from looters and gangs who evaded evacution, sometimes squatting in unoccupied buildings and setting fires at night for light and warmth. Many buildings that hosted squatters would eventually need to be condemned.

Two years later, a handful of transformers still awaited replacement. Only a fraction of the evacuated population had returned, and local governments struggled to rebuild long-vacant communities. Estimates calculated the total economic cost at upwards of $2 trillion.R8-15p30-32_03Carrington.indd

The Inevitable Storm

The largest solar storm in recorded history occurred in 1859. It was dubbed the Carrington Event, after British astronomer Richard Carrington, who witnessed the megaflare. He was the first to realize the link between activity on the sun and geomagnetic disturbances on Earth.

During the event, Northern Lights were reported as far south as Cuba and Honolulu. The flares were so powerful that people in the Northeastern United States could read their newspapers just from the light of the aurora. U.S. telegraph operators reported sparks leaping from their equipment — in many cases setting fire to nearby materials.

Now, take a storm of that magnitude and let it play out in the modern world. Far smaller events have occurred many times. One such storm struck in 1989, taking out Quebec’s power grid in less than two minutes, causing $6 billion in damages and leaving millions of people without power for nine hours.

For the sake of comparison, scientists measure these storms using an index based on nano-Teslas (nT). The lower the number, the harder the Earth’s magnetic field shakes when a storm hits. The Quebec storm in 1989 measured at -589 nT. The far more powerful Carrington Event is estimated at around -850 nT.

And then there was a near miss in July 2012. Had that solar blast occurred only one week sooner, the Earth would have been directly in its path, and scientists calculated the storm would have clocked in at up to -1,200 nT. The fabric of society would have been profoundly altered, and we would still be picking up the pieces today.

“The concern becomes, now that we know, do we make the choice to act?” — Kyle Beatty, president, Verisk Climate

There is more or less universal agreement among experts and scientists that another Carrington-level event or stronger is an inevitability — the only uncertainty is when. Some experts even opine that this kind of event shouldn’t even be called a Black Swan, because the probability is higher than most might realize.

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In an article published in the journal “Space Weather” in 2012, solar scientist Pete Riley of Predictive Science Inc. calculated that the probability of a solar storm at the power of the Carrington Event or stronger in the next 10 years is around 12 percent.

The potential impact of such an event to our hyper-connected, electricity- and satellite-dependent society is a sobering prospect, and one that is netting an increasing amount of interest.

In 2013, Lloyd’s published the report that our scenario is partially based on, “Solar Storm Risk to the North American Power Grid,” in partnership with Atmospheric and Environmental Research Inc. (AER), a division of Verisk Climate.

Kyle Beatty, president, Verisk Climate

Kyle Beatty, president, Verisk Climate

“This is a topic that is drawing strong interest in the government levels at a national and international scale, because the impacts could be so large and because this is one of the only natural perils that could create simultaneous impact across continents,” said Kyle Beatty, Verisk Climate president, who worked on the study. “… When we get into an event of this size, it would impact Europe as well — it’s a global phenomenon.”

“We understood that the engineering and science communities were talking about space weather as a potentially high impact phenomenon,” added Nick Beecroft, emerging risks and research manager at Lloyd’s of London.

“But we felt that the understanding of the phenomenon and the potential impact on the insurance industry was very limited.”

Doomsday Assumptions

Experts stress that while it’s popular to paint this level of solar superstorm as a virtual “doomsday” event, that outcome need not be the case. The key is to commit to doing something about it now.

Nick Beecroft, emerging risks and research manager, Lloyd’s of London

Nick Beecroft, emerging risks and research manager, Lloyd’s of London

Since the 1989 Quebec storm, the Canadian government has invested $1.2 billion into protecting the Hydro-Quebec grid infrastructure. But you have to wonder how many billions could have been saved if that investment had come sooner.

“If we were to experience a major solar storm event — and I really should say it’s a question of when, not if — there could be extreme ramifications for power grids and for all those technologies that rely on satellite navigation systems,” said Beecroft.

It would require worldwide cooperation and investment to build in resilience to key systems, he said, as well as enhanced satellite systems and technology to improve monitoring and early warning systems for space weather events. In addition, it’s likely there would be “much greater demand for specific insurance products that would be able to respond to an event like this.”

At the risk manager level, Beecroft said, organizations around the world should be thinking “about how they can diversify their reliance on power systems and on key technologies.”

But Beecroft and other experts drive home that there is simply no reason for all of these things to happen after the fact.

“The concern becomes, now that we know, do we make the choice to act?” Beatty asked.

Something else that needs to happen sooner rather than later is the development of strong plans and procedures, especially on the part of power generation companies, said Lou Gritzo, vice president of research at FM Global.

Lou Gritzo, vice president of research, FM Global

Lou Gritzo, vice president of research, FM Global

Gritzo said the nonprofit North American Electric Reliability Corp. (NERC) has already developed recommendations to help power generators respond in such an event.

“The big wildcard is, when push comes to shove and power generators have to make those difficult decisions about what they’re going to do, do they do the right things? And how many of them do the right things?” he said.

The ideal scenario, said Gritzo, is that when the storm hits, the power generators most likely to be affected by the storm disconnect their power supply from the grid and adequate power can be temporarily supplied to the grid by other generators in areas where the storm is not going to be as intense.

The ability to make that happen quickly, said Gritzo, could go a long way toward shifting from a doomsday scenario to one of minimal consequences.

He also said risk managers should be asking power suppliers some hard questions to help them assess the need for additional investments, such as a backup power system.

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Not taking any action would be a mistake. “If there’s one number in this whole report that’s significant,” said Beatty, “it’s the estimate that the return period of a Carrington-like event is estimated at around 150 years,” a figure that can be backed up with evidence tracing back to 17 B.C.

Bottom line, he said, is that “the likelihood is high enough that we actually have a responsibility to act.”

BlackBar

Additional 2015 Black Swan coverage:

TURNERWelcome to the ARkStorm

A 45-day superstorm floods California and dishes out economic catastrophe.

R8-15p26-28_02Bomb.inddTo Clean Up a Dirty Fight

A dirty bomb detonated in Manhattan could make a ghost town of the most populous city in the U.S.

Michelle Kerr is associate editor of Risk & Insurance. She can be reached at [email protected]

More from Risk & Insurance

More from Risk & Insurance

Risk Management

The Profession

The risk manager for Boyd Gaming Corp. says curiosity keeps him engaged, and continual education will be the key to managing emerging risks.
By: | May 1, 2018 • 4 min read

R&I: What was your first job?

I was trained as an accountant, worked in public accounting and became a CPA. Being comfortable with numbers is helpful in my current role, and obviously, the language of business is financial statements, so it helps.

R&I: How did you come to work in risk management?

Working in finance in the corporate environment included the review of budgets and the analysis of business expenses. I quickly found the area of benefits and insurance — and how “accepting risk” impacted those expenses — to be fascinating. I asked a lot of questions. Be careful what you ask for — I soon found myself responsible for those insurance areas and haven’t looked back!

R&I: What is the risk management community doing right?

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I have found the risk management community to be a close-knit group, whether that’s industry professionals, risk managers with other companies or support organizations like RIMS and other regional groups. The expertise of the carriers and specialty vendors to develop new products and programs, along with the appropriate education, will continue to be of key importance to companies going forward.

R&I: What’s been the biggest change in the risk management and insurance industry since you’ve been in it?

As I’m sure many in the insurance field would agree, Hurricanes Katrina and Rita in 2005 changed our world and our industry. It was a particularly intense time and certainly a baptism by fire for people like me who were relatively new to the industry. This event clearly accelerated the switch to the acceptance of more risk, which impacted mitigation strategies and programs.

Bob Berglund, vice president, benefits and insurance, Boyd Gaming Corp.

R&I: What emerging commercial risk most concerns you?

The fast-paced threat that cyber security represents today. Our company, like so many companies, is reliant upon computers, software and IT expertise in our everyday existence. This new risk has forged an even stronger relationship between risk management and our IT department as we work together to address this growing threat.

Additionally, the shooting event in Las Vegas in 2017 will have an enduring impact on firms that host large gatherings and arena-style events all over the world, and our company is no exception.

R&I: What insurance carrier do you have the highest opinion of?

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With the various types of insurance programs we employ, I have been fortunate to work with most of the large national and international carriers — all of whom employ talented people with a vast array of resources.

R&I:  How much business do you do direct versus going through a broker?

We use brokers for many of our professional coverages, such as property, casualty, D&O and cyber. We are self-insured under our health plans, with close to 25,000 members. We tend to manage those programs internally and utilize direct relationships with carriers and specialty vendors to tailor a plan that works best for team members.

R&I: Who is your mentor and why?

I have been fortunate to have worked alongside some smart and insightful people during my career. A key piece of advice, said in many different ways, has served me well. Simply stated: “Seek to understand before being understood.”

What this has meant to me is try everything you can to learn about something, new or old. After you have gained this knowledge, you can begin to access and maybe suggest changes or adjustments. Being curious has always been a personal enjoyment for me in business, and I have found people are more than willing to lend a hand, offer information and advice — you just need to ask. Building those alliances and foundations of knowledge on a subject matter makes tackling the future more exciting and fruitful.

R&I: What have you accomplished that you are proudest of?

Our benefit health plan is much more than handing out an insurance card at the beginning of the year. We encourage our team members and their families to learn about their personal health, get engaged in a variety of health and wellness programs and try to live life in the healthiest possible way. The result of that is literally hundreds of testimonials from our members every year on how they have lost weight, changed their lifestyle and gotten off medications. It is extremely rewarding and is a testament to [our] close-knit corporate culture.

R&I: What’s the best restaurant you’ve ever eaten at?

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Some will remember the volcano eruption in Iceland in spring of 2010. I was just finishing a week of meetings in London with Lloyd’s syndicates related to our property insurance placement when the airspace in England and most of northern Europe was shut down — no airplanes in or out! Flights were ultimately canceled for the following five days. Therefore, with a few other stranded visitors like myself, we experimented and tried out new restaurants every day until we could leave. It was a very interesting time!

R&I: What is the riskiest activity you ever engaged in?

I am originally from Canada, and I played ice hockey from the time I was four years old up until quite recently. Too many surgeries sadly forced my recent retirement.

R&I: What do your friends and family think you do?

That’s a funny one … I am a CPA working in the casino industry, doing insurance and risk management, so neighbors and acquaintances think I either do tax returns or they think I’m a blackjack dealer at the casino!




Katie Dwyer is an associate editor at Risk & Insurance®. She can be reached at [email protected]