What the world experienced that day, now known as the Carrington Eventit was a huge geomagnetic storm. These storms occur when a large bubble of superheated gas called plasma is ejected from the sun’s surface and collides with 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 surrounding the planet. This interaction causes the magnetic field to distort and weaken, which in turn leads to the strange behavior of the northern lights and other natural phenomena. as one electrical engineer who specializes in the power grid, I study how geomagnetic storms also threaten to cause power and internet outages and how to protect myself 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 have shown evidence of an even more massive geomagnetic storm than it happened around AD 774, now known as the Miyake Event. That solar flare produced the largest and fastest increase in carbon-14 ever recorded. Geomagnetic storms unleash large amounts of cosmic rays in the Earth’s upper atmosphere, which in turn produce carbon-14radioactive isotope of carbon.
A geomagnetic storm 60% smaller than the Miyake event it happened around AD 993. Ice core samples have shown that large-scale geomagnetic storms with intensities similar to those of the Miyake and Carrington events occur at an average rate of once every 500 years.
Today the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration uses the Scale of geomagnetic storms to measure the strength of these solar flares. 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’s even scarier when you compare Carrington’s event to Miyake’s 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 the observatories of 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 from that time period. The Miyake event produced a 12% increase in carbon-14. In comparison, the Carrington Event produced less than a 1% increase in Carbon-14, so the Miyake Event likely dwarfed the G5 Carrington Event.
Today, a geomagnetic storm of the same intensity as the Carrington Event would affect much more than telegraph wires and could be catastrophic. With ever-increasing reliance on electricity and emerging technology, any disruption can lead to trillions of dollars in monetary losses and risks to systems-dependent lives. The storm would affect most electrical systems that people use every day.
Geomagnetic storms generate induced currents, which run through the power grid. The geomagnetic induced currents, which can be greater than 100 amps, flow to electrical components connected to the grid, such as transformers, relays, and sensors. One hundred amps is equivalent to the electrical service provided to many homes. Currents of this size can cause internal damage to components, resulting in 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 to collapse. During the storm, high magnetically induced currents damaged a transformer in New Jersey and tripped grid breakers. In this case, the interruption caused five million people without electricity 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 eliminate the ability of different systems to communicate with each other. High frequency communication systems such as ground-to-air, shortwave and ship-to-shore radio would be disrupted. Satellites in orbit around Earth could be damaged by currents induced by the geomagnetic storm that burn out their circuit boards. This would lead to interruptions on telephone, internet, radio and satellite television.
Also, as geomagnetic storms hit Earth, increased solar activity causes the atmosphere to expand outward. This expansion changes the density of the atmosphere where the satellites orbit. Higher density atmosphere it creates drag on a satellite, which slows it down. And if it is not maneuvered to a higher orbit, it may fall back to Earth.
Another area of disruption that can affect everyday life is navigation systems. Practically all means of transport, from cars to airplanes, use GPS for navigation and tracking. Even wearable devices like cell phones, smart watches, 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 radar and submarine detection systems, could be disrupted, hampering national defense.
In internet terms, a geomagnetic storm on the scale of the Carrington Event could they 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 emails and text messages to scientific datasets and artificial intelligence tools. This can disrupt the entire network and prevent servers from connecting to each other.
Only a matter of time
It is only a matter of time before the Earth is hit by another geomagnetic storm. It would be a storm the size of the Carrington event extremely harmful to power and communication systems around the world with outages lasting several 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 longer. Even with space weather warnings from NOAA’s Space Weather Prediction Center, the world would have only a few minutes to a few hours of warning.
I think it is critical to continue researching ways to protect electrical systems against the effects of geomagnetic storms, for example installing devices that can protect vulnerable equipment such as transformers and developing strategies to adjust grid loads when solar storms are about to hit. In short, it is important to work now to minimize disruption to the upcoming Carrington event.