“So much of our lives and almost everything we do is now dependent on energy, and particularly on our electricity supplies,” says Juliet Mian, technical director of the Resilience Shift, an organisation that is working to help organisations and individuals prepare for failures in critical infrastructure. “We used to use the phrase ‘when the lights go out’, but the lights not working are the least of our worries now.”
She is right. While the term “black sky” events illustrates perhaps the most visible impact of widespread power failures, it fails to convey the scale of the impact these can have. In our modern world, almost everything, from our financial systems to our communication networks, are utterly reliant upon electricity. Other critical infrastructure like water supplies and our sewer systems rely upon electric powered pumps to keep them running. With no power, fuel pumps at petrol stations stop working, road signs, traffic lights and train systems go dead. Transport networks grind to a halt.
Our complex food supply chains quickly fall apart without computers to coordinate where produce needs to be, or the fuel to transport it or refrigeration to preserve it. Air conditioning, gas boilers and heating systems also rely upon electricity to work.
A little over 100 years ago, our cities ran on human and animal muscle to ferry goods and waste around. Modern infrastructure is now utterly reliant upon electricity.
“In today’s world, our systems are highly interdependent and it is very hard to find many systems that are not fundamentally reliant upon power,” says Mian. “A black sky scenario will affect everyone.”
The causes of a black sky event are many. They vary from natural disasters like hurricanes or earthquakes to geomagnetic storms triggered by enormous flares from the Sun, or coronal mass ejections, that send a barrage of electrically charged particles racing across the Solar System and can overload electrical grids. One intense geomagnetic disturbance caused a nine-hour outage across large areas of Canada in 1989.
The Electric Infrastructure Security Council, an international body that reviews threats to power grids, also lists a number of human threats that can trigger a mass black out. These include cyberterrorism attacks or coordinated physical assaults on energy infrastructure such as power stations, and electromagnetic pulses that can disable electricity grids.