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:

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


Severe Weather Tests Supply Chain Contingency Planning

There certainly is a spectrum of views on the UK’s ability to plan for and react to extreme weather events. These range from the average man on the street complaining that the UK will always grind to a halt after only 1 cm of snow, to the opinion that we are learning from previous cold weather experience and beginning to become more resilient as a nation.

The recent performance of BAA and Northern Ireland Water suggest that the contingency plans of some infrastructure organisations have not accounted for extreme disruption scenarios. However, there may be some small glimmer of light at the end of the tunnel in the form of a review of the local authorities’ response to this year’s cold snap. This complementary report indicates that the local authorities have learnt lessons from the previous two winters.

Can any differences in performance between local authorities and infrastructure organisations be attributed to the difference in mandatory contingency planning requirements for first responders (governmental bodies, the NHS) and second responders (utility companies)?

Or is it more to do with the level of scrutiny following the disruption during the previous two winters (reported to cost the UK economy £1bn), which resulted in the Winter Resilience Review (final findings published Oct 2010)?

Either way, UK Plc appears to have applied some sound supply chain risk management principles in order to improve their local response efforts to the December snowfalls, namely:

-          Alternative sourcing options. By exercising ‘contingency’ contracts, farmers and their tractors were quickly mobilised with their snow ploughs to clear the highways.

-          Increased buffer stock. Following the well-publicised shortage of gritting salt last year, the government has taken decisive action to increase the national salt stock pile and then make local authorities pay through the nose if their own stocks are inadequate and they need more in a hurry.

As with most supply chain contingency planning, it’s all about justifying the investment in the solution by quantifying the potential impact of the threat.