A major solar storm can knock out the power grid and the internet, explains an electrical engineer

On September 1 and 2, 1859, telegraph systems around the world went down catastrophically. Telegraph operators reported being electrocuted, telegraph paper catching fire, and being able to operate equipment with batteries removed. In the evenings, the aurora borealis, better known as the northern lights, could be seen as far south as Colombia. Typically, these lights are only visible at high latitudes, in northern Canada, Scandinavia, and Siberia.

What the world experienced that day was a massive geomagnetic storm, now known as the Carrington Event. These storms occur when a large bubble of heated gas called plasma is ejected from the surface of the sun and hits the Earth. This bubble is known as coronal mass ejection.

The plasma of a coronal mass ejection consists of a cloud of electrically charged particles, protons and electrons. 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 in turn causes the strange behavior of the polar pole and other natural phenomena. As an electrical engineer specializing in the power grid, I study how geomagnetic storms threaten power and internet outages and how to protect against them.

Geomagnetic storms

The 1859 Carrington event is the largest recorded report 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 larger geomagnetic storm that occurred around 774 AD, now known as the Miyake event. This solar flare caused the largest and fastest increase in carbon-14 ever recorded. Geomagnetic storms trigger high levels 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 in 993 BC. Ice core samples have shown that large-scale geomagnetic storms of similar intensity to the Miyake and Carrington events occur on average once every 500 years.

Currently, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration uses the Geomagnetic Storms scale to measure the strength of these solar flares. The “G scale” has a value of 1 to 5, with G1 being minor and G5 being extreme. The Carrington Incident would be rated G5.

When you compare the Carrington Incident to the Miyake Incident, it becomes even more frightening. The scientist was able to estimate the strength of the Carrington event based on the fluctuations of the Earth’s magnetic field recorded by the observatories of the time. There was no way to measure the magnetic fluctuation of the Miyake event. Instead, scientists measured increases in carbon-14 in tree rings from that time. The Miyake Event produced a 12% increase in carbon-14. In comparison, the Carrington Event produced less than a 1% increase in Carbon-14, so the Miyake Event probably dwarfed the G5 Carrington Event.

Power off

Today, a geomagnetic storm of the same intensity as the Carrington event would affect more than telegraph wires and could be catastrophic. With the ever-increasing dependence on electricity and evolving technology, any disruption can cost trillions of dollars in lost money and risk lives depending on the systems. The storm will affect most 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 trigger geomagnetic storms.

Geomagnetic storms create induced currents that flow through the electrical grid. Geomagnetically induced currents, which can exceed 100 amperes, flow through electrical components connected to the grid, such as transformers, relays, and sensors. One hundred amperes is equivalent to the electric service provided to many households. Currents of this magnitude can cause internal damage to components, leading to massive power outages.

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

Disruption of connections

Along with power outages, worldwide communications will be disrupted. ISPs can go down, which in turn causes various systems to lose their ability 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 created by a geomagnetic storm that burn out their circuit boards. This will cause disruptions to satellite-based telephone, internet, radio and television.

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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 the satellite, which slows it down. And if not maneuvered into a higher orbit, it could fall back to Earth.

Another area of ​​disruption that could potentially affect everyday life is navigation systems. Almost every form 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 from satellites. Military systems rely heavily on GPS for coordination. Other military detection systems, such as over-the-horizon radar and underwater detection systems, can be compromised, hampering national defense.

The global internet is held together by a network of cables that criss-cross the world’s oceans.
Reported by Jens Köhler/ullstein via Getty Images

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

Just a matter of time

It is only a matter of time before the Earth faces the next geomagnetic storm. A storm the size of the Carrington Event could cause severe damage to power and communications systems around the world with outages lasting for weeks. If the storm is the size of the Miyake Event, the consequences will be catastrophic for the world, with potential outages lasting months, if not longer. Even with a space weather warning from NOAA’s Space Weather Prediction Center, the world will only have a few minutes to a few hours of warning.

I think it’s important to continue researching ways to protect electrical systems from the effects of geomagnetic storms, such as by installing devices that can protect sensitive equipment like transformers and developing strategies to regulate grid loads when solar storms are about to hit. In short, it’s important to act now to minimize disruption from the next Carrington Event.

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