The largest solar storm in recent history struck in 1859 and the auroras could be seen across the globe. But a solar storm of that magnitude today would cause devastating blackouts in major cities on the East Coast of the United States.
An upcoming report from the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) warns that a region of the Eastern Seaboard will be particularly vulnerable to devastating blackouts in the event of a solar storm thanks to the rocks beneath the surface. It’s widely believed that the type of geomagnetic storm capable of wiping out the grid happens once every century, but a worst-case scenario might result in widespread blackouts that could last for months, the Space Weather Prediction Center told Bloomberg.
According to Bloomberg, the soon-to-be-released report found a 300-million-year-old rock beneath the surface of the Eastern Seaboard could amplify the next big solar storm from Washington D.C. all the way to Maine. The makeup of this rock wouldn’t allow the solar energy to go through it and would instead ricochet it back up to the surface, doubling the impacts in this region, the report also said.
But that isn’t the only problem facing those who live on the East Coast. According to USGS research geophysicist and study lead author Jeffrey Love, the Eastern Seaboard is at risk for blackouts not only due to its abundance of insulating rocks but also due to the region’s proximity to the North Pole, where intense solar activity is most likely to strike.
“It’s an active problem that a lot of people are trying to solve and understand,” Space Weather Prediction Center scientist Christopher Balch told Bloomberg, according to The Weather Channel.
Love told Bloomberg that the new report is particularly important because the mid-Atlantic and Northeast hadn’t been previously studied in-depth with regards to how its geology would impact solar storms. Only the central U.S. was studied in this way, he added. Prior to this more recent study, the central United States was the main focus of solar storm risk assessments, and the threat to the Eastern Seaboard was not yet known.
A study in 2016 reported that the upper Midwest is the region that faces the highest threat from a geomagnetic storm. The researchers found that surges could be up to 100 times more powerful in northern Minnesota and Wisconsin compared to other areas of the United States, reported Earth.com.
The research from the USGS will be used to develop tests to measure how resilient the nation’s power grids are to solar storms, which is required by the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission.
The best way to prepare for a blackout is to have some extra water and food stored just in case. You could also consider some heavy blankets in case the grid goes down in winter and keeping lanterns or candles on hand.