This is how a strong enough solar storm can completely change the world

(ORDO NEWS) — On September 1 and 2, 1859, telegraph systems around the world suffered a catastrophic failure. Telegraph operators reported receiving electrical discharges, telegraph paper catching fire, and equipment being able to operate with batteries disconnected.

In the evenings, the aurora borealis, better known as the northern lights, could be seen as far south as Colombia. Usually this aurora can only be seen at higher latitudes, in northern Canada, Scandinavia and Siberia.

What the world experienced that day, now known as the Carrington event, was a massive geomagnetic storm. Such storms occur when a large bubble of superheated gas, called plasma, is ejected from the surface of the Sun and hits 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 – electrically charged particles. When these particles reach the Earth, they interact with the magnetic field surrounding the planet.

This interaction leads to a distortion and weakening of the magnetic field, which in turn leads to the strange behavior of the aurora borealis and other natural phenomena. As an electrical engineer specializing in power grids, I study how geomagnetic storms also threaten to cause power and internet outages and how to protect against them.

Geomagnetic Storms

The Carrington event of 1859 is the largest recorded occurrence of a geomagnetic storm, but it is not an isolated occurrence.

Geomagnetic storms have been recorded since the early 19th century, and scientific evidence from Antarctic ice core samples suggests an even larger geomagnetic storm occurred around 774 AD. and is known as the Miyake event.

This solar flare caused the largest and fastest rise in carbon-14 on record. Geomagnetic storms produce large amounts of cosmic rays in the Earth’s upper atmosphere, which in turn produce carbon-14, a radioactive isotope of carbon.

A geomagnetic storm 60% smaller than the Miyake event occurred around 993 AD. Ice core samples have shown that large-scale geomagnetic storms of the same intensity as the Miyake and Carrington events occur on average once every 500 years.

Currently, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration uses the Geomagnetic Storm 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 rated G5.

It gets even scarier if you compare the Carrington event with the Miyake event. Scientists were able to estimate the strength of the Carrington event based on fluctuations in the Earth’s magnetic field recorded by observatories of the time.

It was not possible to measure the magnetic fluctuations of the Miyake event. Instead, the scientists measured the increase in carbon-14 in tree rings from that period.

The Miyake event resulted in a 12 percent increase in carbon-14. By comparison, the Carrington event resulted in less than 1 percent increase in carbon-14, so the Miyake event likely eclipsed the G5 Carrington event.

Power outage

Today, a geomagnetic storm of the same intensity as the Carrington event would affect more than telegraph wires and could be catastrophic.

Given the ever-increasing reliance on electricity and evolving technology, any failure could result in trillions of dollars in monetary losses and risk to the lives of people who depend on these systems. The storm will affect most of the electrical systems that people use every day.

Geomagnetic storms generate induced currents that run through the electrical grid. Geomagnetically induced currents, which can be in excess of 100 amps, flow into electrical components connected to the grid such as transformers, relays and sensors.

One hundred amps is equivalent to the electrical service provided to many households. Currents of this magnitude can cause internal damage to components, resulting in massive power outages.

A geomagnetic storm three times smaller than the Carrington event occurred in Quebec, Canada in March 1989. This storm resulted in the destruction of Hydro-Quebec’s electrical grid.

During a storm, high magnetically induced currents damaged a transformer in New Jersey and shut down circuit breakers. In this case, the outage left five million people without electricity for nine hours.


In addition to power outages, communications can be disrupted on a global scale. ISPs can go down, which in turn makes it impossible for different systems to communicate with each other. High-frequency communication systems such as ground-to-air, shortwave, and ship-to-shore radio communications may be disrupted.

Satellites in orbit around the Earth can be damaged by the induced currents of a geomagnetic storm, causing their printed circuit boards to burn out. This will lead to disruptions in the operation of 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 at the locations of the orbits of the satellites. The higher density of the atmosphere creates drag on the satellite, which slows it down. And if it is not transferred to a higher orbit, it may fall back to Earth.

Another area that has the potential to affect daily life is navigation systems. Almost all forms of transportation, from cars to planes, use GPS for navigation and tracking. Even portable devices such as cell 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-the-horizon radars and submarine detection systems could be disabled, interfering with national defense.

On the Internet, a Carrington-scale geomagnetic storm could trigger geomagnetic currents in the submarine and terrestrial cables that form the backbone of the Internet, as well as in data centers where everything from email and text messages to scientific data and artificial intelligence tools are stored and processed. intellect. This could potentially disrupt the entire network and make it impossible for servers to connect to each other.

It’s a question of time

Another geomagnetic storm on Earth is only a matter of time. A storm the size of the Carrington event will wreak havoc on electrical and communications systems around the world, with outages lasting for weeks.

If the storm were the size of the Miyake Event, the results would be catastrophic for the entire world, with potential outages lasting months, if not longer. Even with space weather warnings from NOAA’s Space Weather Prediction Center, the world would be alerted in just a few minutes to a few hours.

I believe it is critical to continue research into ways to protect electrical systems from the effects of geomagnetic storms, for example by installing devices to protect vulnerable equipment such as transformers and developing strategies to manage the load on the grid when solar storms approach. In short, it is important to work now to minimize disruption from the next Carrington event. Conversation


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