In the modern world, we use electricity for so many things. We require electrical power to pump water into people's houses and to pump the sewage away. [You can imagine] what could happen if the sewage systems aren't pumping stuff away.
If you don't have power, you can't pump fuel into vehicles. If you don't have any fuel, traffic could come to a standstill.
Could the economy function?
Most of the time you're using credit cards, debit cards or you'll be getting money out of an ATM. If you've lost the power, the computers in the bank that keep track of our money will have back-up power, but not the ATMs or the machines in the shops. So if you had a big power outage, it wouldn't be long before we'd be trying to find cash.
What are the chances that something like this will happen soon?
A recent paper [published in February in the journal Space Weather] tried to estimate the chance of having a repeat of 1859 and came up with a value of a 12% chance of it happening in the next 10 years. That's quite a high risk.
What can be done?
The biggest step is to make more and more people aware of the issue, so they're thinking about it in the way they design things. That's the most critical part.
I think it's also getting a better picture of these very violent past events. We'd like to find out more about the scope of those events. We have a lot of old data from past events that's on paper — in newspapers and so on — and we're busy trying to find ways to turn it into digital.
We had a recent flare-up of publicity in March thanks to a solar storm that didn't really amount to much. Is this sort of coverage a good thing or a bad thing?
It makes such a good scare story, and it's entertaining. It was a mildly interesting event, certainly, but not at all big-league stuff. It makes people think, "Oh it's nothing really," so experts like myself are in danger of being in the crying-wolf situation. That's something that is a concern to me, personally.
This interview was edited for space and clarity.