The Sun’s Coronal Mass Ejection Could Knock Out the Power Grid and Internet

City power outage

On September 1 and 2, 1859, telegraph systems around the world failed catastrophically. Telegraph operators reported receiving electric shocks, with telegraph paper catching fire and being able to operate equipment with disconnected batteries. During the evenings, the Northern Lights, more commonly known as the Aurora Borealis, could be seen as far south as Colombia. Typically, these lights are only visible at higher latitudes, in northern Canada, Scandinavia, and Siberia.

What the world experienced on that day, now known as the Carrington Event, was a massive geomagnetic storm. These thunderstorms occur when a large bubble of superheated gas called[{” attribute=””>plasma is ejected from the surface of the sun and hits the Earth. This bubble is known as a coronal mass ejection.

The plasma of a coronal mass ejection consists of a cloud of protons and electrons, which are electrically charged particles. When these particles reach the Earth, they interact with the magnetic field that surrounds the planet. This interaction causes the magnetic field to distort and weaken, which in turn leads to the strange behavior of the aurora borealis and other natural phenomena. As an electrical engineer who specializes in the power grid, I study how geomagnetic storms also threaten to cause power and internet outages and how to protect against that.

Geomagnetic storms

The Carrington Event of 1859 is the largest recorded account of a geomagnetic storm, but it is not an isolated event.

Geomagnetic storms have been recorded since the early 19th century, and scientific data from Antarctic ice core samples has shown evidence of an even more massive geomagnetic storm that occurred around A.D. 774, now known as the Miyake Event. That solar flare produced the largest and fastest rise in carbon-14 ever recorded. Geomagnetic storms trigger high amounts of cosmic rays in Earth’s upper atmosphere, which in turn produce carbon-14, a radioactive isotope of carbon.

A geomagnetic storm 60% smaller than the Miyake Event occurred around A.D. 993. Ice core samples have shown evidence that large-scale geomagnetic storms with similar intensities as the Miyake and Carrington events occur at an average rate of once every 500 years.

Northern Lights Aurora Borealis Norway

Typical amounts of solar particles hitting the earth’s magnetosphere can be beautiful, but too much could be catastrophic. Credit: Svein-Magne Tunli –, CC BY-NC-SA

Nowadays the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration uses the Geomagnetic Storms scale to measure the strength of these solar eruptions. The “G scale” has a rating from 1 to 5 with G1 being minor and G5 being extreme. The Carrington Event would have been rated G5.

It gets even scarier when you compare the Carrington Event with the Miyake Event. Scientist were able to estimate the strength of the Carrington Event based on the fluctuations of Earth’s magnetic field as recorded by observatories at the time. There was no way to measure the magnetic fluctuation of the Miyake event. Instead, scientists measured the increase in carbon-14 in tree rings from that time period. The Miyake Event produced a 12% increase in carbon-14. By comparison, the Carrington Event produced less than 1% increase in Carbon-14, so the Miyake Event likely dwarfed the G5 Carrington Event.

Knocking out power

Today, a geomagnetic storm of the same intensity as the Carrington Event would affect far more than telegraph wires and could be catastrophic. With the ever-growing dependency on electricity and emerging technology, any disruption could lead to trillions of dollars of monetary loss and risk to life dependent on the systems. The storm would affect a majority of the electrical systems that people use every day.

The National Weather Service operates the Space Weather Prediction Center, which monitors solar flares that can cause geomagnetic storms.

Geomagnetic storms generate induced currents that flow through the power grid. Induced geomagnetic currents, which can exceed 100 amps, flow through electrical components connected to the network, such as transformers, relays and sensors. One hundred amps equals the electrical service provided to many homes. Currents of this size can cause internal damage to components, resulting in large-scale power outages.

A geomagnetic storm three times smaller than the Carrington event occurred in Quebec, Canada, in March 1989. The storm caused the collapse of the Hydro-Quebec electrical grid. During the storm, magnetically induced high currents damaged a transformer in New Jersey and tripped grid circuit breakers. In this case, the outage led to five million people without power for nine hours.

Break connections

In addition to power outages, communications would be disrupted globally. Internet service providers could fail, which would prevent the different systems from communicating with each other. High frequency communication systems such as ground-to-air, shortwave, and ship-to-shore radios would be disrupted. Satellites orbiting Earth could be damaged by induced currents from the geomagnetic storm burning their circuit boards. This would lead to disruption of telephone, internet, radio and satellite TV.

Additionally, when geomagnetic storms hit Earth, increased solar activity causes the atmosphere to expand outward. This expansion changes the density of the atmosphere where the satellites are in orbit. A higher density atmosphere creates drag on a satellite, slowing it down. And if it’s not maneuvered into a higher orbit, it may fall back to Earth.

Another area of ​​disruption that can affect everyday life is that of navigation systems. Virtually all modes of transportation, from cars to airplanes, use GPS for navigation and tracking. Even portable devices such as cell phones, smart watches, and tracking beacons depend on GPS signals sent from satellites. Military systems rely heavily on GPS for coordination. Other military detection systems such as over-the-horizon radars and submarine detection systems could be disrupted, hampering national defense.

In Internet terms, a geomagnetic storm on the scale of the Carrington event could produce geomagnetically induced currents in the undersea and terrestrial cables that form the backbone of the Internet as well as in the data centers that store and process everything from emails to text messages. scientific datasets and artificial intelligence tools. This would potentially disrupt the entire network and prevent servers from connecting to each other.

It’s a question of time

It’s only a matter of time before Earth is hit by another geomagnetic storm. A storm the size of a Carrington event would be extremely damaging to power and communications systems worldwide, with outages lasting for weeks. If the storm is the size of the Miyake event, the results would be catastrophic for the world with potential outages lasting months or even longer. Even with space weather warnings from NOAA’s Space Weather Prediction Center, the world would only have minutes to hours notice.

I think it is essential to continue to research ways to protect electrical systems from the effects of geomagnetic storms, for example by installing devices that can protect vulnerable equipment such as transformers and by developing strategies to adjust the loads of the grid when solar storms are about to hit. In short, it is important to work now to minimize disruption from the upcoming Carrington event.

Written by David Wallace, Assistant Clinical Professor of Electrical Engineering, Mississippi State University.

This article first appeared in The Conversation.The conversation


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