A huge solar storm could disrupt the power grid and the Internet: an electrical engineer explains how

On September 1 and 2, 1859, telegraph systems around the world catastrophically failed. Telegraph operators reported receiving electric shocks, catching fire on telegraph paper, and being able to operate equipment with batteries disconnected. During the nights, the northern lights, better known as the northern lights, could be seen as far south as Colombia. These lights are usually only visible at higher latitudes, in northern Canada, Scandinavia, and Siberia.

What the world experienced on that day, now known as the Carrington Eventit was a massive geomagnetic storm. These storms occur when a large bubble of superheated gas called plasma is ejected from the sun’s surface and hits 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 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 Northern Lights and other natural phenomena. as a electrical engineer specializing in the electrical 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 have shown evidence of an even more massive geomagnetic storm than occurred around 774 AD, now known as the Miyake Event. That solar flare produced the largest and fastest rise in carbon-14 ever recorded. Geomagnetic storms trigger large amounts of cosmic rays in the Earth’s upper atmosphere, which in turn produce Carbon-14a radioactive isotope of carbon.

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

Currently, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration uses the Geomagnetic storm scale to measure the strength of these solar flares. The “G scale” is rated from 1 to 5, with G1 being minor and G5 being extreme. The Carrington Event would have been classified as G5.

It gets even scarier when you compare the Carrington Event to the Miyake Event. Scientists were able to estimate the strength of the Carrington event based on fluctuations in the 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, the 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 a 1% increase in Carbon-14, so the Miyake Event probably dwarfed the G5 Carrington Event.

knocking out the power

Today, a geomagnetic storm of the same intensity as the Carrington Event would affect far more than telegraph cables and could be catastrophic. With the ever-increasing reliance on electricity and emerging technology, any outage could result in trillions of dollars in monetary loss and risk to life dependent on systems. The storm would affect most electrical systems that people use every day.

The National Weather Service operates the Space Weather Prediction Center, which watches for solar flares that could trigger geomagnetic storms.

Geomagnetic storms generate induced currents, which flow through the electrical grid. geomagnetically induced currents, which can exceed 100 amps, flow to 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 component damage, leading to 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 power grid. During the storm, high magnetically induced currents damaged a transformer in New Jersey and tripped circuit breakers on the grid. In this case, the blackout caused five million people without electricity for nine hours.

breaking connections

In addition to electrical failures, communications would be disrupted on a global scale. Internet service providers could go out of business, which in turn would eliminate the ability of different systems to communicate with each other. High-frequency communication systems, such as ground-to-air, shortwave, and ship-to-shore radio, would be disrupted. Satellites in orbit around Earth could be damaged by geomagnetic storm-induced currents burning out their circuit boards. This would lead to interruptions in satellite telephony, internet, radio and television.

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Also, 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 orbit. Higher density atmosphere creates drag on a satellite, which slows it down. And if it’s not maneuvered to a higher orbit, it can fall back to Earth.

Another area of ​​disruption that could affect everyday life is navigation systems. Virtually all modes of transportation, from cars to planes, use GPS for navigation and tracking. Even wearable devices like mobile phones, smart watches, and tracking tags rely on GPS signals sent from satellites. Military systems rely heavily on GPS for coordination. Other military detection systems, such as over-the-horizon radar and submarine detection systems, could be affected, making national defense more difficult.

A team works on a machine with a giant reel that places a cable in the water.

The global Internet is held together by a network of cables that span the world’s oceans.
Jens Köhler/ullstein bild via Getty Images

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

It’s just a matter 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 harmful to electrical and communication systems around the world with outages lasting weeks. If the storm is the size of the Miyake event, the results would be catastrophic for the world with potential outages lasting for months, if not longer. even with space weather warnings from NOAA’s Space Weather Prediction Center, the world would have only a few minutes to a few hours’ notice.

I believe that it is essential to continue investigating ways to protect electrical systems against the effects of geomagnetic storms, for example, by install devices that can protect vulnerable computers such as transformers and developing strategies to adjust grid loads when solar storms are about to hit. In short, it’s important to work now to minimize disruption to the upcoming Carrington Event.

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