This mounth is the anniversary of the Quebec Blackout. On March 13, 1989, a geomagnetic storm brought down Hydro-Québec’s power grid and blacked out the entire province. Brownouts and other power irregularities were experienced across much of North America.
Today’s “smart power grids” are even more vulnerable because they are interconnected by high voltage lines spanning thousands of miles. In good times, this arrangement allows ultilities to guide power wherever it might be needed. During geomagnetic storms, however, it spreads the danger of a blackout far and wide.
Imagine you without electricity for weeks or mounths, without cell phones and GPS or other things we have for granted.
X-FLARE: March 9th ended with a powerful solar flare. Earth-orbiting satellites detected an X1.5-class explosion from behemoth sunspot 1166 around 2323 UT. A movie from NASA’s Solar Dynamics Observatory shows a bright flash of UV radiation plus some material being hurled away from the blast site:
Movie formats: 4 MB gif, 1.2 MB iPad, 0.3 MB iPhone
NASA reports that extreme solar eruptions can have “severe consequences for communications, power grids and other technology on Earth.” While these effects have been known for decades, especially in very long power lines, NASA is now looking for ways to mitigate their effects.
Richard Fisher, director of the Heliophysics division at NASA, said, “To mitigate possible public safety issues, it is vital that we better understand extreme space weather events caused by the sun’s activity.”
Solar flares not only emit a continuous stream of plasma, called a “solar wind,” but also release literally billions of tons of mass. This “coronal mass ejection” results in immense clouds of material which, if directed toward the Earth’s location, cause large magnetic storms in the magnetosphere and upper atmosphere. These events can affect both space-borne and ground-based technologies.
Some effects of this space weather are currents induced in wires and energetic particles which temporarily displace Earth’s radiation belt. Currents can disrupt power lines and have been known to even create wide-spread blackouts in power grids and communication errors on high speed pathways across the Internet. The effects of solar flares have even been observed as far back as the 19th century, following the invention of the telegraph.
NASA’s concerns are over a similar catastrophic failure occurring in the government’s infrastructure in space or on the ground. They are focusing on preventative measures.
Daniel Baker, professor and director of the Laboratory for Atmospheric and Space Physics at the University of Colorado in Boulder, who also chaired the panel that prepared the report, said, “Whether it is terrestrial catastrophes or extreme space weather incidents, the results can be devastating to modern societies that depend in a myriad of ways on advanced technological systems.”
The sun’s solar cycle is known to be an 11-year cycle. Right now, the sun is near it’s minimum amount of solar activity. NASA expects solar storms will increase in frequency and intensity between now and 2012, when it will again reach its “solar maximum.”