How solar storms could leave us in the dark

Watch the video above: NASA discusses the close-call Earth had with an intense solar flare in 2012.

TORONTO – Imagine waking up one day to no electricity, no cell phone, no GPS, no television. This could be a reality.

Think it’s not possible? Guess again.

The culprit wouldn’t be an act of terrorism, but rather, the sun.

Our star is a bubbling, charged ball of gas. It is anything but quiet. Sometimes solar flares are created when magnetic energy is released from the solar atmosphere. When this happens the energized particles race toward Earth, arriving in minutes.

READ MORE: Is solar ‘lull’ affecting global temperatures?

Coronal mass ejections are similar to solar flares, but they eject plasma into space and can take hours or days to reach Earth.

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NASA’s Solar Dynamics Observer captured this image of an X3.3-class solar flare that peaked at 5:12 p.m. EST on Nov. 5, 2013. NASA/SDO

When these charged particles reach Earth, they can create a geomagnetic storm as they are trapped at our magnetic poles.

The most danger comes from a culmination of these two events. They can cause long-lasting radiation storms and trigger radio blackouts. They are also dangerous to astronauts and any satellites we have in orbit.The current that travels below ground can cause pipelines to corrode.

“There have been a few worst-case scenarios that say it will send us back to the stone-age,” William Dean Pesnell, a project scientist for NASA’s Solar Dynamics Observatory told Global News.

The particles from an X1 solar flare strikes satellite.
The particles from an X1 solar flare strikes satellite. SOHO

But Pesnell believes that it would have to take a particular set of circumstances. For one, it would take a massive flare and coronal mass ejection slamming into Earth during a peak time of electricity use, say the middle of the summer, and when Earth’s magnetic tilt (it constantly fluctuates) is facing south.

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READ MORE: Radiation from speedy solar flare Sunday night already bombarding Earth; strongest since 2005

The sun goes through an 11-year cycle, with a maximum and a minimum peak to its activity, including the amount of sunspots which are associated with solar flares. But that doesn’t mean that during a minimum — or even a quiet maximum, as this cycle has been — that we are any less vulnerable to these flares.

On April 24, a solar flare erupted and gave Earth a glancing blow. That powerful X-class solar flare that just brushed us managed to knock out radio signals.

For an illustration of just how vulnerable we can be to the sun, we just need to take a look at the Carrington Event. Named after Richard Carrington, an amateur astronomer in England who witnessed the flare in 1859, this event — a major solar flare that ice core samples tell scientists was the strongest in 500 years — wrecked havoc in some parts of the world.

What’s rare in this instance was that Carrington, an amateur astronomer, actually witnessed the event while he was sketching sunspots (he was projecting the sun’s image onto a screen).

Less than 12 hours later, dazzling auroras — the northern lights — stretched across the sky. Pretty, yes, but also confusing.

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Reports are that the sky was so bright that birds began chirping. Telegraphs failed, some catching fire.

Fast-forward to 1989. On March 13 that year, the lights went out all across Quebec. A major explosion erupted on the sun. It was as though thousands of nuclear bombs went off at once.

Again, the sky produced a beautiful display of auroras that could be seen as far south as Cuba. It was also creating powerful electrical currents in the ground.

Those currents finally found weakness in Quebec, resulting in the failure of the power grids. The lights went out across the province around 2:45 a.m., leaving thousands in the dark and cold.

Why was Quebec so at risk?

First, a lot of its lines lie very far north, closer to the magnetic north pole, the source of the funnelling of charged particles. The lines lie on the Canadian Shield, which doesn’t conduct electricity well.

The voltage on the lines is also higher than most powerlines, at 730 kilovolts, and travels from north to south, as in toward the poles. There are long stretches between substations. All these things made the system highly vulnerable to the storm.

A look at Hydro Quebec’s power grid. Courtesy Hydro Quebec

But since then, Hydro Quebec has invested $1.2 billion in protecting its system.

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“Since [then], our system hasn’t tripped at all during a solar storm,” Gary Sutherland, a spokesperson for Hydro Quebec told Global News.
Due to the vulnerability of power systems around the world a 2013 report from Lloyd’s estimated that “the total economic loss for [a Carrington-like event] is estimated at $0.6-2.6 trillion USD.”

NASA’s Pesnell said that even in the United States, power companies are beginning to be proactive, safeguarding their systems as well as storing needed supplies that were never stored before, such as transformers. The 1989 Quebec blackout put power companies on high alert.

2012: A near-miss

A research paper published in the scientific journal Nature in March found that in July 2012, Earth missed an event that would have been far stronger than the Carrington Event. The reason was again a culmination of factors that created a perfect storm.

WATCH: Solar flares
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To put it in perspective, the Carrington Event held a measurement of -850 nanoteslas (nT), a measurement of magnetic field strength. The more negative the number, the more intense the storm is. The 1989 storm was -548nT.

The one in 2012 measured between -1,150 to -650 nT.

The most telling conclusion from that paper was, “Also note that the 23 July 2012 superstorm occurred in a historically weak solar cycle. Observations of such a solar superstorm during a very weak solar cycle indicate that extreme events are not as infrequent as we imagine.”

Paul Mortfield of the Royal Astronomical Society of Canada, Toronto Centre, told Global News: “Normally when CMEs go off like this and you have a trail of charged particles flying towards Earth, usually they’re travelling in a way that takes them usually anywhere between two to four days to reach us. This particular event in 2012 probably got here in 12 hours or less. Basically, you had a lot less lead time.”

If a major solar storm were to hit Earth, we would be vulnerable. There is nothing protecting our satellites. There is limited protection on the space station. Though power grids are taking precautions, there’s no guarantee that those will work.

Though Hydro Quebec’s Sutherland said that they have no plans to completely shut down the power, if a massive event stronger than the Carrington Event were to occur, would they consider it? Sutherland couldn’t say.

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“I would say days to weeks,” said Pesnell. “Look at what happened with Katrina…they lost the power and couldn’t get it back and the big question becomes, where does that assistance come from?”

“The cascade is the issue. If they can’t contain the failure quickly, the whole system drops off,” said Pesnell, recalling the 2003 power outage that affected eastern Canada and the U.S.

“I say that the northern part of the United States, Canada, would be where we see the severe damage,” said Pesnell.

As our technological dependence increases, we become more vulnerable, said Mortfield.

“In the old days of clubs and sticks, it didn’t make a difference.”

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