In the early hours of March 13, 1989, the public utility Hydro-Québec went out of service. The entire province of Quebec was without power for nine hours, disrupting many aspects of public life for the whole day.
space weather — the conditions in space nearby Earthwho are strongly influenced by the Sun – was quickly identified as the cause of the power outage.
“The original story was, ‘Okay, there was a lot of activity on the Sun and then a big magnetic storm, and a bunch of power systems had problems,’ but there wasn’t a lot of detail,” said David Boteler, a scientist at Canadian Hazards Information Serviced by the Government’s National Resources Canada. “In attempting to conduct an ex post investigation, we are very aware of this lack of data and some work has been done to fill in the gaps.”
Boteler spoke about the 1989 blackout during a June 8 panel presentation at a joint meeting of two groups within the National Academies of Science, Technology and Medicine: the Aeronautics and Space Engineering Board and the Space Studies Board.
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When Boteler and his colleagues looked at solar data collected around the world in the week before the blackout, they found that there had been not one, but two big ones coronal mass ejections (CMEs), clouds of electrically charged particles released from the Sun’s outer atmosphere.
“It’s not just any magnetic storm,” Boteler said. “We believe it was indeed the shock of this second CME arrival that caused the Hydro-Québec blackout.”
Hydro-Québec’s power outage is now a good example how solar activity can disrupt life on Earth, and a cautionary tale that we may still not know enough about space weather to predict, forestall, or at least recover quickly from a similar geomagnetic storm.
And with increased solar activity as the sun enters solar cycle 25 Seriously, Hydro-Québec’s history is particularly impressive.
During the virtual meeting on June 8, experts provided the overall picture of a specialized community – which includes government research institutes, government agencies and industry – deeply concerned about the potential impact of space weather on the power grid. And while awareness of the problem is growing, they said there is a need to better understand it.
Experts are in the process of designing and deploying tools to better assess the threat, and they are still directing the collaborations between research institutions, government agencies, and private industry that will likely be required to address an issue of highly technical scientific, technical, and practical and social barriers.
Since the 1989 blackout, “the community has learned a lot; there is still a lot to do,” said Bill Radasky, president and chief engineer of Metatech, an electromagnetics engineering consultancy.
Space weather monitoring and detection
Space weather is heavily influenced by the sun. It includes the interaction of solar radiation and solar wind With earth atmosphere and magnetosphere, including the high-speed charged particles that are generated polar lights.
Extreme Space weather can turn off satellitesdisrupt communication or severely damage electrical networks and other critical infrastructure. In the worst-case scenario for power grids, the exact extent of damage and the consequences are very difficult to estimate, experts said. Monitoring and understanding solar activity itself presents a challenge, while site-specific factors such as local geology and grid configuration affect the short- and long-term costs of power outages and infrastructure damage.
“In the UK at least, space weather investment is heavily driven by understanding the socio-economic impacts,” said Jonathan Eastwood, a researcher at Imperial College London. “There are many questions about what it is reasonable to invest in defending against space weather, based on the likely impact.” That is, before governments, utilities and other stakeholders take expensive options, such as B. retrofitting entire power grids, much remains to be studied about space weather.
Eastwood was part of a UK program called SWIMMR involved in developing sensitive, robust instruments; performing forecast models; and finally the risk assessment.
The European Space Agency has its own solar data collection initiatives. For example, the planned Vigil mission will send a suite of instruments into stable orbit at Lagrange point 5, and closer to Earth, a fleet of specialized satellites could make up the Distributed Space Weather Sensor System (D3S), Eastwood said.
An advanced warning system could allow power grid operators to minimize the impact of a storm and prepare to restore service as soon as possible, panel members said. Such technology would require improved data collection, which is already underway, along with models that predict the possibility of a full or partial grid failure, and some validation that these models and responses work.
A question of politics
There have been improvements in solar data collection since the 1989 blackout, and many are underway or have recently begun. However, experts still describe challenges in funding data collection and promoting data sharing, as well as general barriers to collaboration.
“It’s a bit like a Tower of Babel situation,” Anna Kelbert, a research geophysicist with the US Geological Survey’s geomagnetism program. “The problem is so complex and spans so many disciplines.”
Kelbert wants data from power grids to be shared in real time so researchers can compare changes in the grid to their predictive models based on improved solar and geological data. “However, there is very little incentive for the power grid industry to share power grid configurations,” she said.
Although space weather researchers would like to see more changes in U.S. policy, over the past decade the federal government has acknowledged the threat of extreme space weather and the need to understand it much better. In particular, the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission issued 779 order in 2013, which instructed North American Electric Reliability Corp., a nonprofit broker that issues standards for energy companies, to develop plans to mitigate the impact of a “geomagnetic disturbance” and create benchmarks to describe the severity of such an event .
That move was a “game changer,” said Bill Murtagh, director of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s Space Weather Prediction Center. This is the first federal regulation to recognize the potential impact of space weather on the power grid, Murtagh said.
Also a 2019 FEMA Document identified the most worrying potential natural disasters, and space weather made the list.
Whether the increased attention is enough to prevent a worst-case scenario in the event of a major solar storm in the coming years remains to be seen.
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