On September 1 and 2, 1859, telegraph systems around the world catastrophically failed. Telegraph operators reported receiving electric shocks, telegraph paper catching fire, and being able to operate equipment with the batteries disconnected. During the evening, the northern lights, more commonly known as the Northern Lights, could be seen as far as Colombia. Typically, these lights are only visible in higher latitudes, in northern Canada, Scandinavia and Siberia.
What the world experienced on that day, now known as the Carrington eventit was a huge geomagnetic storm. These storms occur when a large bubble of superheated gas called a plasma is ejected from the sun’s surface and strikes the 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. As a electrical engineer who specializes in the power grid, studies how geomagnetic storms also threaten to cause power and internet outages, and how to protect yourself 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 showed evidence of an even more massive geomagnetic storm that it occurred around 774 AD, now known as the Miyake Event. That solar flare produced the largest and fastest rise in carbon-14 on record. Geomagnetic storms trigger large amounts of cosmic rays in the Earth’s upper atmosphere, which they in turn produce carbon-14a radioactive isotope of carbon.
A geomagnetic storm 60% smaller than the Miyake event it occurred around 993 AD. Ice core samples have shown that large-scale geomagnetic storms with similar intensities 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. The “G scale” has a rating from 1 to 5 where G1 is minor and G5 is extreme. The Carrington event would be 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 observers 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 since that time period. The Miyake event produced a 12% increase in carbon-14. By comparison, the Carrington event produced less than 1% increase in carbon-14, so the Miyake event probably dwarfed the G5 Carrington event.
Break down the 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 the growing reliance on electricity and emerging technology, any outage could lead to trillions of dollars in monetary losses and risk to systems-dependent life. The storm would have affected most electrical systems that people use every day.
Geomagnetic storms generate induced currents, which flow through the electricity grid. The geomagnetically induced currents, which can exceed 100 amperes, flow into electrical components connected to the network, such as transformers, relays and sensors. One hundred amperes equals the electrical service provided to many households. Currents of this size can cause internal damage to components, leading 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 the collapse of Hydro-Quebec’s power grid. During the storm, high magnetically induced currents damaged a transformer in New Jersey and tripped utility breakers. In this case, the outage has led to five million people without electricity for nine hours.
Break the connections
In addition to electrical failures, communications would be disrupted on a worldwide scale. Internet service providers could go down, which in turn would eliminate the ability of different systems to communicate with each other. High-frequency communication systems such as land-to-air, shortwave and ship-to-shore radio would be disrupted. Satellites orbiting the Earth could be damaged by geomagnetic storm-induced currents that burn their circuit boards. This would lead to interruptions in satellite telephone, internet, radio and television.
Also, when geomagnetic storms hit the Earth, increased solar activity causes the atmosphere to expand outward. This expansion changes the density of the atmosphere in which the satellites orbit. High density atmosphere create drag on a satellite, which slows it down. And if it’s not maneuvered into a higher orbit, it can fall back to Earth.
Another area of disruption that could potentially affect everyday life is navigation systems. Virtually every form of transportation, from cars to airplanes, uses GPS for navigation and tracking. Portable devices such as cell phones, smart watches, and tracking tags also rely on GPS signals sent from satellites. Military systems heavily depend on GPS for coordination. Other military detection systems such as over-the-horizon radar and submarine detection systems could be disrupted, which would hamper national defense.
In Internet terms, a geomagnetic storm the size of the Carrington event could produce geomagnetically induced currents in 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 to scientific data sets and artificial intelligence tools. This could potentially disrupt your entire network and prevent 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. That would be a storm the size of a Carrington event extremely harmful to electrical and communication systems around the world with outages lasting weeks. If the storm is the size of the Miyake event, the results would be catastrophic for the world with potential disruptions lasting months if not more. Also with space weather alerts from NOAA’s Space Weather Prediction Center, the world would only have minutes to hours’ notice.
I think it is vital that we continue to look for ways to protect electrical systems from the effects of geomagnetic storms, for example through install devices that can protect vulnerable equipment such as transformers and developing strategies to regulate grid loads when solar storms are about to hit. In short, it’s important to work now to minimize disruption from the upcoming Carrington Event.