A major solar storm could take out the power grid and the internet – an electrical engineer explains how

By | December 23, 2023

On September 1 and 2, 1859, telegraph systems around the world failed catastrophically. The operators of the telegraphs reported receiving electric shocks, having telegraph paper catch fire, and being able to operate equipment with the batteries disconnected. In the evening the northern lights, better known as the Northern Lights, could be seen as far south as Colombia. Normally these lights are only visible at higher latitudes, in northern Canada, Scandinavia and Siberia.

What the world experienced that day, now known as the Carrington Event, was a massive geomagnetic storm. These storms form 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 an electrical engineer specialized in the electricity grid, I investigate how geomagnetic storms also threaten to cause power and internet disruptions and how you can protect yourself against them.

Geomagnetic storms

The Carrington event of 1859 is the largest recorded record 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 ice core samples in Antarctica have provided evidence of an even larger geomagnetic storm that occurred around 774 AD, now known as the Miyake event. That solar flare caused the largest and fastest increase in carbon-14 ever recorded. Geomagnetic storms release large amounts of cosmic rays into the 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 the year 993. Ice core samples have provided evidence that large-scale geomagnetic storms of similar intensity to the Miyake and Carrington events occur on average once every 500 years.

Today, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration uses the Geomagnetic Storms scale to measure the strength of these solar eruptions. The “G scale” is rated 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 to the Miyake event. Scientists were able to estimate the strength of the Carrington event based on the fluctuations of 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, scientists measured the increase in carbon-14 in tree rings from that period. The Miyake event caused a 12% increase in carbon-14. By comparison, the Carrington event produced less than a 1% increase in Carbon-14, so the Miyake event likely dwarfed the G5 Carrington event.

Turning off the power

Today, a geomagnetic storm of the same intensity as the Carrington Event would have far more consequences than telegraph wires and could be catastrophic. With the ever-growing dependence on electricity and emerging technology, any disruption could result in trillions of dollars in monetary loss and risk to lives that depend on the systems. The storm would affect many of the electrical systems that people use every day.

Geomagnetic storms generate induced currents that flow through the electrical grid. The geomagnetically induced currents, which can exceed 100 amperes, flow to the electrical components connected to the electricity grid, such as transformers, relays and sensors. One hundred amps is equivalent to the electricity supplied to many households. Currents of this magnitude can cause internal damage in the components, which can lead to widespread power outages.

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

Cutting connections

In addition to electrical disruptions, communications would be disrupted on a global scale. Internet providers can fail, meaning that the different systems can no longer communicate with each other. High-frequency communications systems such as surface-to-air, shortwave and ship-to-shore radio would be disrupted. Satellites in orbit around Earth can be damaged by induced currents from the geomagnetic storm that burns out their circuit boards. This would lead to disruptions to satellite telephony, internet, radio and television.

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And when geomagnetic storms hit Earth, the increase in solar activity causes the atmosphere to expand outward. This expansion changes the density of the atmosphere where satellites orbit. A higher density atmosphere causes drag on a satellite, causing it to slow down. And if it isn’t maneuvered into a higher orbit, it could fall back to Earth.

Another area of ​​disruption that could potentially impact daily life is navigation systems. Virtually every mode of transportation, from cars to airplanes, uses GPS for navigation and tracking. Even wearable devices such as cell phones, smartwatches and tracking tags rely on GPS signals sent by 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 disrupted, hampering national defense.

Het mondiale internet wordt bij elkaar gehouden door een netwerk van kabels die de oceanen van de wereld doorkruisen.  <a href=Jens Köhler/ullstein image via Getty Images” data-src=”https://s.yimg.com/ny/api/res/1.2/yyUDvjzVa.mssZBXET1wIg–/YXBwaWQ9aGlnaGxhbmRlcjt3PTk2MDtoPTU5MQ–/https://media.zenfs.com/en/the_conversation_us_articles_815/dfe88a080dce fb6d14ebc340a1d57178″ />

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

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 damaging to electrical and communications systems worldwide, with disruptions that could last for weeks. If the storm is as large as the Miyake event, the consequences would be catastrophic for the world, with potential disruptions lasting months, if not longer. Even with space weather warnings from NOAA’s Space Weather Prediction Center, the world would only know a few minutes to a few hours in advance.

I believe it is crucial to continue exploring 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 for adapting the grid load when solar storms are approaching. In short, it is important to work now to minimize disruptions to the next Carrington event.

This article is republished from The Conversation, an independent nonprofit organization providing facts and trusted analysis to help you understand our complex world. Do you like this article? Subscribe to our weekly newsletter.

It was written by: David Wallace, Mississippi State University.

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David Wallace does not work for, consult with, own shares in, or receive funding from any company or organization that would benefit from this article, and has disclosed no relevant affiliations beyond his academic appointment.

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