On September 1 and 2, 1859, telegraph systems around the world failed catastrophically. The telegraph operators reported receiving electric shocks, catching fire on telegraph paper and being able to operate equipment with disconnected batteries† In the evenings, the aurora borealis, better known as the Northern Lights, could be seen as far south as Colombia. Usually, 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 eventwas a huge one 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 aurora borealis and other natural phenomena. like 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 themselves against them.
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 1800s, and scientific data from Antarctic ice core samples has shown evidence of an even more severe geomagnetic storm took place around 774 AD, now known as the Miyake event. That flare caused the largest and fastest rise in carbon-14 ever recorded. Geomagnetic storms cause 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 took place around 993 AD† Ice core samples have shown evidence that large-scale 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 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 given a G5 rating.
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 produced a 12% increase in carbon-14† In comparison, the Carrington event produced less than 1% more carbon-14, so the Miyake event probably eclipsed the G5 Carrington event.
Today, a geomagnetic storm of the same intensity as the Carrington event would hit far more than telegraph wires and be catastrophic. With the ever-increasing reliance on electricity and emerging technology, any disruption could result in trillions of dollars in money loss and life risks depending on the systems. The storm would affect a majority of electrical systems that people use every day.
Geomagnetic storms generate induced currents, which flow through the power grid. the geomagnetic induced currents, which can exceed 100 amps, flow to the electrical components connected to the grid, such as transformers, relays and sensors. One hundred amps equals the electricity supply for many households. Currents of this magnitude can cause internal damage in the components, which can lead 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 Hydro-Quebec’s Power Grid 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 failure resulted in: five million people are without power for nine hours†
In addition to electrical failures, communications would be disrupted on a global scale. Internet service providers could go down, which in turn would disable the ability of different systems to communicate with each other. High-frequency communication systems such as ground-to-air, shortwave and ship-to-coast radio would be disrupted. Satellites in orbit can be damaged by induced currents from the geomagnetic storm that burns their circuit boards. This would lead to disturbances in satellite-based telephone, internet, radio and television.
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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 around which satellites orbit. Higher Density Atmosphere creates drag on a satellite, which slows it down. And if it’s not 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, 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 radar and submarine detection systems could be disrupted, hampering national defenses.
In terms of the Internet, a geomagnetic storm on the scale of the Carrington event could: produce geomagnetically induced currents in the submarine and terrestrial cables; that form the backbone of the Internet, as well as the data centers that store and process everything from email and text messages to scientific data sets 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 Carrington Event sized storm would be: extremely harmful to the electrical and communication systems worldwide with outages lasting for weeks. If the storm is as large as the Miyake event, the results would be catastrophic for the world with possible outages of months if not longer. Even with space weather alerts from NOAA’s Space Weather Prediction Center, the world would know just a few minutes to a few hours in advance.
I think it is critical to continue exploring ways to protect electrical systems from the effects of geomagnetic storms, for example by install devices that can shield vulnerable equipment such as transformers and by developing strategies for adapting grid loads when solar storms are about to strike. In short, it’s important to act now to minimize disruptions from the next Carrington Event.