A Large Solar Storm Could Knock Out The Power Grid And The Internet. An Electrical Engineer Explains How

On September 1 and 2, 1859, telegraph systems around the world failed catastrophically. Telegraph operators reported receiving electric shocks, telegraph paper catching fire, and being able to operate equipment with disconnected batteries. During the evenings, the aurora borealis, better known as the northern lights, could be seen as far away as Colombia. Typically, 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 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 coronal mass ejection.

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

Typical amounts of solar particles hitting Earth’s magnetosphere can be beautiful, but too many can be catastrophic. Photo: Svein-Magne Tunli/Wikipedia Commons

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 that occurred around AD 774, now known as the Miyake Event. That solar flare produced the largest and fastest increase in carbon-14 ever recorded. Geomagnetic storms cause large amounts of cosmic rays in the Earth’s upper atmosphere, which in turn produce carbon-14, a radioactive isotope of carbon.

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

Nowadays, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration uses the Geomagnetic Storm Scale to measure the strength of these solar flares. “G Scale” has a rating of 1 to 5 with G1 being minor and G5 being extreme. The Carrington event would have been rated G5.

It becomes even scarier when you compare the Carrington Event with 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 likely dwarfed the G5 Carrington Event.

Knocked out of 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 ever-increasing dependence on electricity and evolving technology, any outage can lead to trillions of dollars in monetary losses and risk to lives depending on the systems. The storm would affect most electrical systems that people use every day.

Geomagnetic storms generate induced currents, which flow through the electrical grid. Induced geomagnetic currents, which can be more than 100 amperes, flow into electrical components connected to the grid, such as transformers, relays and sensors. One hundred amperes is equal to the electric service provided to many households. Currents of this magnitude can cause internal damage to components, leading to large-scale power outages.

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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, high induced magnetic currents damaged a transformer in New Jersey and tripped circuit breakers. In this case, the outage left five million people without power for nine hours.

Breaking ties

In addition to electrical failures, communications would be disrupted worldwide. Internet service providers can go down, which in turn will take away 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 will be disrupted. Satellites in orbit around the Earth can be damaged by currents induced by geomagnetic storms by burning out their circuit boards. This would lead to interruptions in telephone, internet, radio and satellite-based television.

Also, as geomagnetic storms hit Earth, increased solar activity causes the atmosphere to expand outward. This expansion changes the density of the atmosphere in which the satellites orbit. The denser atmosphere creates drag on a satellite, which slows it down. And if it is not maneuvered into a higher orbit, it may fall back to Earth.

Another area of ​​disruption that can affect daily life is navigation systems. Almost every mode of transportation, from cars to airplanes, uses GPS for navigation and tracking. Even handheld devices like cell phones, smart watches, 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 radars and submarine detection systems could be disrupted, which would hamper national defense.

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In terms of the Internet, a geomagnetic storm on the scale of a Carrington event can produce induced geomagnetic currents in the submarine and land cables that form the backbone of the Internet, as well as the data centers that store and process everything from email and text messages. text. for scientific datasets and artificial intelligence tools. This would potentially bring down the entire network and prevent servers from connecting to each other.

Only a matter of time

It’s only a matter of time before Earth is hit by another geomagnetic storm. A storm the size of the Carrington Event would be extremely damaging to electrical and communications systems around the world with outages lasting for weeks. If the storm is the size of the Miyake event, the results would be catastrophic for the world with possible outages lasting months, if not longer. Even with space weather warnings from NOAA’s Space Weather Prediction Center, the world would only have a few minutes to a few hours’ notice.

I believe it is essential to continue looking for ways to protect electrical systems against the effects of geomagnetic storms, for example by installing devices that can protect vulnerable equipment such as transformers and developing strategies to regulate grid loads when solar storms are imminent. hit you. In short, it is important to work now to minimize disruption from the next Carrington Event.Conversation

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.


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