Supply Chain Risk Management Blog

Could the Impending ‘Solar Max’ be the Next Disaster to Hit Global Supply Chains?

Compared to sudden economic downturns, terrorist attacks, floods, earthquakes, tsunamis and the like, the next potential disaster to hit global supply chains could be pretty left-field. It’s all to do with the cyclic behaviour of the sun…

The sun’s magnetic field experiences cyclic changes that peak every 11 years (known as the ‘Solar Maximum’ or ‘Solar Max’). This is when the sun is at its most active and when severe space weather events can occur. The next Solar Max peak periods are due in 2011/12 and are predicted to be the most intense for 50 years.

The strongest solar activity was recorded in1957-8, when the world was on the verge of a technical revolution, having just catapulted Sputnik into space. Back then the US experienced a radio blackout that cut it off from the rest of the world, and voltages in electrical telegraph circuits exceeded 320 volts in Newfoundland. On that basis, the impact of the stronger activity that is predicted for 2012 is almost incomprehensible.

During a Solar Max, violent solar flares (atomic explosions) blast out from the sun at high velocity. Emissions from the flares (charged particles that form an ash cloud) produce intense bursts of radio noise that can disrupt GPS satellite navigation. Aircraft navigation systems can be particularly affected. And with the impending Solar Max having the potential to completely drown out GPS signals, the commercial aviation industry is understandably worried.

GPS is also used for emergency rescues and to synchronise power grids and mobile phone networks. Electrical disturbance and damage to power grids (caused by solar activity) can also result in closures of businesses, schools, hospitals, government buildings, etc. as well as disrupting countless domestic homes.

Returning to commercial aviation, although planes can fly without GPS, power outages can force air traffic controllers to increase the distance between aircraft, and to slow take-offs and landings, causing (massively expensive) flight delays.

Who would have thought that an ash cloud could create so much havoc!

The good news is that the potential threat of a Solar Max can be effectively risk managed. For any Risk Management/DR Specialist worth their salt, a Solar Max represents the ultimate challenge, in fact. A risk management expert will thrive on advising and guiding business infrastructure managers on the best ‘solar flare-proof’ steps to take, such as the implementation of:

  • A back-up generator supply – to ensure critical systems can be powered
  • Financial exposure/loss minimisation strategies – data system and software back-up plans to maintain uninterrupted customer-related operations (customer-facing operations, customer-service provision, etc.) 
  • Uninterrupted communication systems – for communication between management and staff, staff and customers…

These (and other safeguards) could mean the difference between a company continuing to trade as normally as possible during a Solar Max, or even going out of business altogether.

For any company, having a tailored contingent business-interruption plan in place well before the Solar Max is prudent. But understanding how resilient your global supply chains are to potentially catastrophic scenarios is paramount. With the next Solar Max drawing closer by the day, it’s essential for infrastructure managers to ACT NOW

Sources:
http://www.universetoday.com/14645/2012-no-killer-solar-flare/
http://www.newscientist.com/article/dn10189-solar-flares-will-disrupt-gps-in-2011.html
http://www.mekabay.com/infosecmgmt/solarmax.pdf
http://www.solarstorms.org/SRefStorms.html

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