As far as disaster management goes, earthquakes, floods, political instability, hurricanes and tornadoes are the usual suspects which need to be prepared against. No doubt you have taken steps to ensure that your cloud-based file sharing services are never threatened by them. But are there other, more exotic threats that are just as, or even more deadly, and which you might have failed to take into account?

In this article, we are going to talk about the dark horse of disasters – solar flares.

What is a solar flare?

Solar flares occur when the sun ejects a cloud of plasma and electromagnetic radiation due to a sudden release of built up magnetic forces within it. Also known as Coronal Mass Ejection (CMEs), they occur all the time, and often the sun manages to shoot one straight at us. Thankfully, the Earth’s magnetosphere forms a protective bubble all around the Earth, deflecting them away much like a force field in Star Trek.

However, CMEs can mess with our satellites, navigation and communication equipment due to the extremely powerful electromagnetic pulse (EMP) they carry, which can induce currents in conducting material such as wires and electronic circuits.

The true power of solar flares

While smaller solar flares are a concern, a powerful solar flare can do much worse. The biggest solar eruption in recorded history occurred way back in 1839. Called the Carrington Event after its observer, Richard E Carrington, the flare led to Arora Borealis being observed all the way in Hawaii and Australia which were said to be so bright that people could read during the night.

The EMP from the flare was equally impressive, setting many telegraph lines and even offices ablaze. As the industrial revolution was in its infancy, the real power of the flare was never known.

An EMP from a CME of that magnitude can destroy power transformers, cables, and telephone lines. Research conducted by Lloyd’s of London and Atmospheric and Environmental Research (AER) found that a similar event today could cost the US around 0.6 to 2.6 trillion dollars! In fact, a flare of similar intensity almost hit the Earth in 2012.

How can solar flares affect data centers?

Fortunately, solar flares usually do not project an EMP which can instantly fry electronics, although this is open to debate. An EMP from a sudden event like a nuclear blast is different from that of a solar flare, which is a long duration, low intensity event. Solar flares can only affect large scale electrical and communication infrastructure.  Therefore, not only can you expect to be without power for weeks or months if such an event occurs, but equipment which is left exposed to the grid can get destroyed due to severe voltage fluctuations.

Eric Gallant from Schneider Electric suggests that Transient Voltage Surge Suppression (TVSS) implemented at multiple levels can protect sensitive electronic equipment against power surges.

You should also consider investing in proper backup power supply. Uninterrupted Power Supply (UPS) and backup power generators can be used to ensure that your equipment does not shut down suddenly and can be turned off properly in the event of a prolonged outage.

Beyond these, basic disaster preparedness strategies which you have formulated for other natural occurrences should suffice.

Although massive solar flares hitting the Earth are rare events, the fact that they do occur frequently and have caused damage before is grounds enough to take them seriously. There is some concern in scientific circles as the sun is going through a phase of increased activity and this is expected to continue. It will therefore be in your best interest if you took the dangers posed by solar flares into account in your disaster strategy.