On September 1 and 2, 1859, telegraph systems around the world failed catastrophically. The operators of the telegraphs reported being electrocuted, telegraph paper catching fire, and being able to operate equipment with disconnected batteries. In the evening, northern lights, more commonly known as the northern lights, could be seen as far south 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 Carrington Eventwas 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 from 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 aurora borealis and other natural phenomena. Like a electrical engineer who specializes in the power grid, I study how geomagnetic storms also threaten to cause power and internet outages and how to protect against it.
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 signs of an even more massive geomagnetic storm, which took place around the year 774, now known as the Miyake event. This solar flare produced 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-14a radioactive isotope of carbon.
A geomagnetic storm 60% smaller than the Miyake event took place around the year 993. Ice core samples have shown evidence that large geomagnetic storms of similar intensities to the Miyake and Carrington events occur at an average rate of once every 500 years.
Today, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration uses Geomagnetic storms scale to measure the strength of these solar flares. The “G Scale” has a rating from 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 to the Miyake Event. Scientists were able to estimate the strength of the Carrington event based on the 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, researchers measured the increase in carbon-14 in tree rings from that time period. 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 exceeded the G5 Carrington event.
Turn off the power
Today, a geomagnetic storm of the same intensity as the Carrington event would affect far more than telegraph lines and could be catastrophic. With the ever-growing dependence on electricity and new technology, any disruption could lead to trillions of dollars in financial loss and risk to lives dependent on the systems. The storm would affect the majority of the electrical systems that people use every day.
Geomagnetic storms generate induced currents that flow through the electrical grid. The geomagnetic induced currents, which can be over 100 amperes, flows into the electrical components connected to the grid, such as transformers, relays and sensors. One hundred amperes is equivalent to the electrical service provided to many households. Currents of this magnitude can cause internal damage to components, leading to large-scale blackouts.
A geomagnetic storm three times smaller than the Carrington event occurred in Quebec, Canada, in March 1989. The storm caused Hydro-Quebec’s electrical grid to collapse. During the storm, the high magnetically induced currents damaged a transformer in New Jersey and tripped the grid’s circuit breakers. In this case, the outcome led to five million people without power for nine hours.
In addition to electrical failures, communications will be disrupted worldwide. ISPs could go down, which in turn would eliminate the ability for 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. Earth-orbiting satellites can be damaged by induced currents from the geomagnetic storm that burn out their circuit boards. This would lead to disturbances in satellite telephone, internet, radio and television.
When geomagnetic storms hit Earth, the increase in solar activity also causes the atmosphere to expand outward. This expansion changes the density of the atmosphere in which satellites orbit. Higher density atmosphere creates drag on a satellite, which slows it down. And if it is not maneuvered to a higher orbit, it may fall back to Earth.
Another area of interference that can potentially affect everyday life is navigation systems. Virtually all modes of transportation, from cars to airplanes, use GPS for navigation and tracking. Even hand-held devices such as mobile phones, smartwatches 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-horizon radar and submarine detection systems could be disrupted, which would hamper national defense.
In terms of the Internet, a geomagnetic storm the size 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 e-mail and 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 is only a matter of time before Earth is hit by another geomagnetic storm. A storm the size of the Carrington Event would be extremely harmful to power and communication systems worldwide with outages lasting for weeks. If the storm is the size of the Miyake event, the results would be catastrophic for the world, with potential fallout lasting 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 it is critical to continue researching ways to protect electrical systems from the effects of geomagnetic storms, e.g. installation of devices that can shield vulnerable equipment such as transformers and by developing strategies for adjusting grid loads when solar storms are about to hit. In short, it is important to work now to minimize the disruption from the next Carrington Event.