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Here Comes the Sun: How a massive solar storm could put Canada at risk

How a solar storm could leave us disconnected – Oct 30, 2021

Get ready. An epic solar storm may be heading our way, one so big it could knock out power grids, damage satellites, cause internet blackouts, and essentially take down our modern life as we know it. It’s known as a 1-in-100 years solar storm.

Solar storms are an explosion of energized particles hurled from the Sun known as flares or coronal mass ejections (CME). Small scale storms occur regularly but every century or so there is an extreme eruption.

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On Earth, we are about to enter a busy season for solar activity.

According to research scientist Robyn Fiori, high solar activity occurs on an 11-year cycle, and we just got out of a low period.

“We’re ramping up from a period of very low activity where we didn’t see a lot of flares or coronal mass ejections to a point where we’re starting to see more and more activity, and we’re starting to expect the potential for more impacts,” Fiori said.

Fiori and her colleagues at the Canadian Hazards Information Service monitor the sun’s activity using both satellites located near and above the Earth, and ground-based instruments.

Robyn Fiori studies the sun’s behaviour and provides a warning for when major solar activity takes place. David de la Harpe/Global News

“These help us to look at the impacts of the solar activity on our magnetic field and also on the upper atmosphere and ionosphere so that we can look at potential impacts to the systems on and near the Earth,” Fiori told Global’s current affairs program, The New Reality.

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The electrical power grid is one of those systems. With over four million customers, Hydro Quebec is acutely aware of the risks.

Louis Gibson, an engineer for Hydro Quebec, says the utility was hit by a big storm in March 1989 that caused a nine-hour blackout.

“To this day, this is the biggest impact a solar storm (has) had on any electrical utility. So this, for us, was a wake-up call, and we had to take this matter very, very seriously,” Gibson said.

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That power failure forced the public utility to install safety equipment to protect the system from sudden electrical surges caused by solar storms. It now regularly runs simulation scenarios to test everything.

“So there is a standard in place now in North America, where the electrical utilities have to make sure you have to plan and prepare, and it works so they can withstand a one-in-100 year strong event,” Gibson said.

“So just for this, we get help from various space weather experts.”

That once-in-100-years storm is what everyone worries about. The world witnessed one in 1859. It is known as the Carrington event, named after the amateur astronomer, Richard Carrington, who spotted the activity on the Sun.

The storm was so big that it literally set telegraph wires on fire.

It is likely to happen again, but this time it will impact a lot more than just our power grids.

Louis Gibson an engineer from Hydro Quebec working to ensure safety protocols are in place in case of a massive solar storm. Max Machado/Global News

“Energetic particles coming from the Sun can directly impact satellites, causing disruptions to their operation, even causing the satellites to become disabled or reducing the lifespan of the satellites,” Fiori told Global News.

Recently, there’s been talk of how critical cables running under the sea might also be at risk.

“These cables are the things that you use when you’re doing a Zoom call, when you’re surfing on the internet and you’re trying to get content from one country to another,” said Tony Frisch, who is the chief technical officer for Xtera, a provider of international subsea fibre optic systems.

“There’s probably enough cable in the seas to go around the world about 30 to 50 times,” he added.

Tony Frisch is the chief technical officer for Xtera, a provider of international subsea fibre optic systems. Braden Latam/Global News

A component of these cables, known as a repeater, is particularly sensitive to solar activity. It helps power all the electronics but if left unprotected from a storm, it could cause surges in the system and the cables could get fried.

“If you had a really big storm event, that could induce quite a large current to go through the cable,” said Frisch, who is based north of London in the United Kingdom.

But Frisch believes there is a solution. “If you knew that there was an event coming, you would in fact turn the cable system down and disconnect it until you were sure that that event was finished. Because the good thing about these really extreme events is that you get some warning for them.”

Fiori said by monitoring solar activity, they should be able to provide utilities and companies with a one-to-three day warning depending on the size of the storm.

“That’s the role of the Canadian Hazards Information Service, because space weather is a hazard. It’s a hazard of the technological age.”

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