1 : A Conflagration of Storms
those motorists sitting at traffic lights cursing, should realize that
is not Hydro-Quebec's fault"
March 9, 1989 astronomers at the Kitt Peak Solar Observatory spotted
a major solar flare in progress. Eight minutes later, the Earth's outer
atmosphere was struck by a wave of powerful ultraviolet and X-ray radiation.
Then the next day, an even more powerful eruption launched a cloud of
gas 36 times the size of the from Active Region 5395 nearly dead center
on the Sun. The storm cloud rushed out from the Sun at a million miles
an hour, and on the evening of Monday, March 13 it struck the Earth.
Alaskan and Scandinavian observers were treated to a spectacular auroral
display that night. Intense colors from the rare Great Aurora painted
the skies around the world in vivid shapes that moved like legendary
dragons. Ghostly celestial armies battled from sunset to midnight. Newspapers
that reported this event considered the aurora, itself, to be the most
newsworthy aspect of the storm. Seen as far south as Florida and Cuba,
the vast majority of people in the Northern Hemisphere had never seen
such a spectacle. Some even worried that a nuclear first-strike might
be in progress.
a charter boat operator in the Florida Keys, described the colors in
reddish hues as they reflected from the warm Caribbean waters. In Salt
Lake City, Raymond Niesporek nearly lost his fish while starring transfixed
at the northern display. He had no idea what it was until he returned
home and heard about the rare aurora over Utah from the evening news.
Although most of the Midwest was clouded over, in Austin Texas, Meteorologist
Rich Knight at KXAN had to deal with hundreds of callers asking about
what they were seeing. The first thing on many people's mind was the
Space Shuttle Discovery (STS-29) which had been launched on March 13
at 9:57:00 AM. Had it exploded? Was it coming apart and raining down
over the Earth? Millions marveled at the beautiful celestial spectacle,
and solar physicists delighted in the new data it brought to them, but
many more were not so happy about it.
the storm had impacted the magnetic field of the Earth and caused a
powerful jet stream of current to flow 1000 miles above the ground.
Like a drunken serpent, its coils gyrated and swooped downwards in latitude,
deep into North America. As midnight came and went, invisible electromagnetic
forces were staging their own pitched battle in a vast arena bounded
by the sky above and the rocky subterranean reaches of the Earth. A
river of charged particles and electrons in the ionosphere flowed from
west to east, inducing powerful electrical currents in the ground that
surged into many natural nooks and crannies. There, beneath the surface,
natural rock resistance murdered them quietly in the night. Nature has
its own effective defenses for these currents, but human technology
was not so fortunate on this particular night. The currents eventually
found harbor in the electrical systems of Great Britain, the United
States and Canada.
AM on March 13, all was well and power engineers at Hydro-Quebec resigned
themselves to yet another night of watching loads come and go during
the off-peak hours. The rest of the world had finished enjoying
the dance of the aurora borealis, and were slumbering peacefully, preparing
for another day's work the next day. The engineers didn't know, however,
that for the last half-hour, their entire system had been under attack
by powerful Earth currents. One second later, at 2:44:17 AM, these currents
found a weak spot in the power grid of the Hydro-Quebec Power Authority.
A 100-ton, static VAR capacitor Number 12 at the Chibougamau sub-station
tripped and went off-line as harmonic currents induced by the electrojet
flowing overhead, caused protective relays to sense overload conditions.
The loss of voltage regulation at Chibougamau caused power swings and
a reduction of power generation in the 735,000-volt La Grande transmission
network. At 2:44:19 AM, a second capacitor followed suit at the same
station. 150 kilometers away at the Albanel and Nemiskau stations, four
more capacitors went off-line at 2:44:46. The last to fall at 2:45:16
AM was a static VAR capacitor at the Laverendrye complex to the south
of Chibougamau. The fate of the network had been sealed in barely 59
seconds as the entire 9,460-megawatt output from Hydro-Quebec's La Grande
Hydroelectric Complex found itself without proper regulation.
than a minute, Quebec lost half of its electrical power generation.
Automatic load-reduction systems tried to restore a balance between
the loads connected to the power grid, and the massive loss of capacity
now available. One by one, the load-reduction systems disconnected towns
and regions across Quebec, but to no avail. Domestic heating and lighting
systems began to flicker and go out. Eight seconds later at 2:45:24
AM, power swings tripped the supply lines from the 2,200 megawatt Churchill
Falls generation complex. By 2:45:32 AM, the entire Quebec power grid
collapsed, and most of the province found itself without power. The
cascading of events was much too fast for human operators to react,
but it was more than enough time for 21,500 megawatts of badly needed
electrical power to suddenly disappear from service.
temperature in Toronto was 19 degrees F (-6.8 C) with a high temperature
that day of only 34 F (1.6 C) so the loss of electrical power was felt
very dramatically as most people woke up to cold homes for breakfast.
Over 3 million people live near Montreal, the second largest metropolitan
area in Canada, where nearly half of the population of Quebec resides.
It is famous for its 30 kilometers of underground walkways linking 60
buildings, two universities and thousands of shops and businesses. Over
500,000 people use this system each day to avoid the bracing cold winter
air. Pedestrians using this electrically-lit system suddenly found themselves
plunged into complete darkness, with only the feeble battery-powered
safety lights to guide them to the surface.
at the Montreal Gazette had been rolling at break-neck speed
that night to print the Monday newspaper for its 195,000 subscribers,
but the power failure shut the production down for a day. Huge rolls
of paper weighing several tons each, came to a sudden halt, shredding
paper in a storm of debris, and jamming the presses. The Montreal
Gazette apologized to its customers in a news release on March
12, blaming what they had assumed was a local power failure in Montreal.
Their sister newspaper, La Presse, seemed unaffected by the outage
and helped The Gazette press their papers. The only casualty
was the color, comics section which came out a day later. Dealing with
their own emergency, they had little time to investigate just what had
happened. A cursory call to Hydro-Quebec identified the cause of the
outage as a defective 12,000-volt cable that provided The Gazette
with power. There was no mention of any aurora sighted in Montreal,
perhaps because of cloudy conditions and, of course, other more urgent
matters. The 5000 subscribers who called the newspaper that day preferred
to talk to the Customer Service operator complaining about not getting
their morning newspaper. The tone of the reportage changed rather abruptly
on March 14 when the details of the blackout had finally all emerged.
closed schools and businesses, kept the Montreal Metro shut down during
the morning rush hour, and paralyzed Dorval Airport, delaying flights.
Without their navigation radar online, no flight could land or takeoff
until power had been restored. People ate their cold breakfasts in the
dark and left for work. They soon found themselves stuck in congested
traffic, which tried to navigate darkened intersections without any
streetlights or traffic control systems operating. Like most modern
cities, people work round the clock, and in the early morning hours
of March 13, the Swing Shift staffed many office buildings in the caverns
of Downtown Montreal. All these buildings were now pitch dark, stranding
workers in dark offices, stairwells and elevators. It cost businesses
tens of millions of dollars as it stalled production, idled workers
and spoiled products.
officials said that the vast power system was innocent. The fault, they
said, was in the geography of Quebec, which had power lines extending
much farther north than for other electrical systems. Many people soon
pointed out that this was the second major blackout in less than a year,
and that Hydro-Quebec's outages totaled about nine hours per year, compared
to neighboring Manitoba Power and Electric's two hours per year average.
Hydro-Quebec promised to invest another $2 billion to cut in half the
number of yearly blackouts, but this didn't derail the investigations
that were called for by the government to see if Hydro-Quebec had been
negligent. Energy Minister John Ciaccia echoed the sentiments of many
people as they sat in snarled traffic facing blackened signals,
because despite all our efforts to upgrade the system, we still wake
up at 5 AM with a total blackout."
AM, power had been restored to most of the customers in Quebec, and
by 11:00 AM all but 3,500 of the 842,000 customers were back in business.
It would, however, be a complicated process to pick up the pieces. Isolated
power failures were promised over the next 24 hours as Hydro-Quebec
wrestled with re-starting their vast interconnection of power lines
and transformers. Residential customers, they announced, would be at
the bottom of the priority list for being re-connected. New York Power
authorities lost 150 megawatts the moment Hydro-Quebec went down, and
the New England Power Pool lost 1,410 megawatts at about the same time.
Service to 96 utilities in six New England states was interrupted while
other reserves of electrical power were bought and brought online. In
a show of solidarity with their sister utility in the North, by 9:00
AM, New York Power and NEPool were sending over 1,100 megawatts of power
up to Quebec to tide them over while the system was being brought back
up again. Luckily, these states had the power to spare at the time.
But just barely. Some of them had their own cliff hanger problems to
deal with. Electrical power pools serving the Northeast United States
had come very close to going down as well.
currents, now flowing in the upper atmosphere, spread their impact far
and wide, causing electrical disturbances throughout North America and
Great Britain. A thousand miles away from Hydro-Quebec, Alleghney Power,
which connected Maryland, Virginia, and Pennsylvania lost 10 of its
24 VAR capacitors as they were automatically taken off-line to avoid
damage. A $12 million, 22,000-volt generator step-up transformer owned
by the Public Service Electric and Gas Company of New Jersey experienced
overheating and permanent insulation damage. This transformer was the
linchpin in converting electricity from the Salem Nuclear Plant, and
boosting it to 500,000 volts for transmission. Replacement power had
to be bought for $400,000 to keep East Coast residents from sharing
the same fate as their neighbors in Quebec. Luckily, the owners had
a spare replacement transformer available, but it still took six months
to install. Without the replacement, it would have taken a year to order
a new one. Across the United States from coast to coast, over 200 transformer
and relay problems erupted within minutes of the start of the March
13 storm. 50 million people in the United States went about their business,
or slept, never suspecting that their electrical systems had been driven
to the edge of disaster. Not since the Great Blackout of 1965 had U.S.
citizens been involved in a similar outage. There would have been no
place they could drive to in an hour to escape.
flare and accompanying storm conditions did much more than cause a blackout
and upset communications systems. Automatic garage doors in California
suburbs began to open and close without apparent reason. Microchip production
in the northeastern United States came to a halt several times because
of the ionosphere's magnetic activity. In space, geostationary communications
satellites that sensed the Earth's magnetic field in order to point
themselves had to be manually repointed from the ground as the local
field polarity reversed direction, nearly causing the satellite to flip
upside down. Some satellites in polar orbits actually tumbled out of
control for several hours. GOES weather satellite communications were
interrupted causing weather images to be lost. NASA's TDRS-1 communication
satellite recorded over 250 anomalies caused by the increased particles
flows into its sensitive electronics.
Tribune and the Washington Post said nothing about the storm,
or the blackout. Only a brief mention was made about it in European
papers such as the London Times, and then only to comment on
the spectacular aurora. The Fairbanks Daily News and the Anchorage
Daily News ran several articles describing the auroral display,
but also failed to mention the power outage, even though Quebec City
and Montreal were blacked-out by the event. The Toronto Star
in Quebec, at least on Page 3, considered the blackout in its own province
to be a significant news event, and on March 13, 1989 announced, "Huge
Storms on Sun linked to blackout that crippled Quebec"
on the Sun may have caused yesterday's huge power blackout that left
almost 6 million people without heat or electricity for almost 9 hours...Premier
Robert Bourassa did not believe the blackout will dissuade U.S. utilities
from signing lucrative contracts to buy Quebec electricity, the cornerstone
of the premier's economic policies...An official from the New York Power
Authority from which Hydro-Quebec bought 700 megawatts, said in an interview
he would prefer that Quebec didn't have so many power blackouts. "
the Space Shuttle Discovery was having its own mysterious problems.
A sensor on one of the tanks supplying hydrogen to a fuel cell was showing
unusually high pressure readings on March 13 "The hydrogen is exhibiting
a pressure signature that we haven't ever seen before" said the
Flight Director Granville Pennington at the Johnson Space Center. Engineers
tried, apparently unsuccessfully, to understand the odd readings in
order to advise whether to end the flight a day early on Friday. No
public connection was ever made between this instrument reading 'glitch'
and the solar storm that crippled Quebec, but it is fair to say that
the conjunction of these two events was not completely by chance.
ways, the Quebec blackout was a sanitized calamity. It was wrapped in
a diversion of beautiful colors, and affected a distant population mostly
while they slept. There were no houses torn asunder, or streets flooded
in the manner of a hurricane or tornado. There was no dramatic footage
of waves crashing against the beach. There were no cyclonic whirlwinds
cutting a swath of destruction through Kansas trailer parks. The calamity
passed without mention in the major metropolitan newspapers, yet six
million people were affected as they woke to find no electricity to
see them through a cold Quebec wintry night. Engineers from the major
North American power companies were not so blasé about what some
would later conclude, could easily have escalated into a $6 billion
catastrophe affecting most U.S. East Coast cities. All that prevented
50 million more people in the U.S. from joining their Canadian friends
in the dark were a dozen or so heroic capacitors on the Allegheny Power
seemed to have missed one of the most human impacts of the beautiful
aurora they so meticulously described in article after article. Today
the March 1989 'Quebec Blackout' has reached legendary stature, at least
among electrical engineers and space scientists, as an example of how
solar storms can adversely affect us. It has even begun to appear in
science textbooks. Fortunately, storms as powerful as this really are
rather rare. It takes quite a solar wallop to cause anything like the
conditions leading up to a Quebec-style blackout. When might we expect
the next one to happen? About once every ten years or so, but the exact
time is largely a game of chance.
we care that we are now once again living under 'sunspot maximum' conditions?
After all, we have already weathered at least five of these solar activity
cycles since the end of World War II. What is different about the world
today is that we are substantially more reliant upon computers and telecommunications
to run our commerce, and even our forms of entertainment and recreation.
In 1981, at the peak of solar cycle 21, there were 15 communication
satellites in orbit. Cellular phones were rare and there were 800,000
PCs sold in the U.S. with 300 hosts on the Internet. By the time the
peak of solar cycle 22 came around in 1989, there were 102 communication
satellites, and 3 million cellular phone users in the United States.
With the new Intel 80486-based PCs, you could send e-mail to your choice
of 300,000 host machines on the Internet.
As we arrive
at the peak of the 23rd sunspot cycle in 2000-2001, however, we enter
a very different world far more reliant on what used to be the luxuries
of the Space Age. By 2000, 349 communication satellites orbit the Earth
supporting over $60 billion of commerce. Over 100 million people have
cellular phones, and Global Positioning System handsets are a commonplace
for people working, or camping, 'off road'. By 2003, 400 million people
will routinely use wireless data transmission via satellite channels.
There will be over 10 million Internet hosts with 38% of US households
Internet-connected. To support all of this, not only will we need more
satellites, but we will need more electricity flowing in our power grid
which will have to work under loads unheard of in the past. As voters
continue to elect not to build more power plants, blackouts and brownouts
will become more common as power companies run out of temporary sources
of power to buy during peak-load conditions during the summer and winter.
As if to
emphasize today's exuberance and expectations, 'Individual Investor'
magazine announced on its cover 'The Sky's the Limit: In the 21st
century satellites will connect the globe'. The International telecommunications
Union in Geneva has predicted that by 2005, the demand for voice and
data transmission services will increase to $1.2 trillion. The fraction
carried by satellite services will reach a staggering $80 billion.
this demand, many commercial companies are launching; not just individual
satellites, but entire networks of them with names like 'Iridium', 'Teledesic',
'Skybridge' and 'SpaceWay'. The total cost of these systems alone represents
a hardware investment of $35 billion between 1998 and 2004. The actual
degree of vulnerability of these systems to solar storms is unknown,
and will probably vary in a complex way depending on the kind of technology
they use, and their deployment in space. They do, however, share some
disturbing characteristics: They are all light-weight, sophisticated,
built at the lowest cost, and following only a handful of design types
replicated dozens and even hundreds of times, often with off-the-shelf
It is common
to base future expectations on recent past experiences: "Past is prologue"
some say. Increasingly, these past experiences with, for example, commercial
space technology, do not extend back much beyond the last solar maximum
in 1989-1990. So, when we wonder why infrequent events such as solar
storms aren't more noticeable, we have to remind ourselves that most
of our experience comes from times when the Sun was simply not very
active, and when we were a lot less technologically vulnerable.
than ever, we depend on uninterrupted sources of power. Blackouts are
amusing for about the first 60 seconds, then become intolerable. Along
with our expensive personal computers, we routinely purchase 'surge
protectors' to handle the many intermittent rises and falls of an increasingly
complex power delivery system. No surge protectors can save us from
Quebec-style blackouts. We have become dependent on our cell phones
and pagers in a way that will tie critical moments in our private lives
to the shotgun physics of satellite and power grid survival during invisible
solar storms. When a single failed satellite like the Galaxy IV in May
1998 can catch 45 million pagers off guard, do we find ourselves more
secure? Sometimes it can be dangerous and costly to gamble, although
most of the time we seem to get by with hardly realizing that a calamity
has passed over us. We actually seem to enjoy living on the technological
'edge'. But when a corroded natural gas pipeline in the Urals sprung
a leak and detonated in June 1989, 500 people died. Pipelines corrode,
and solar storms hasten this process, with tragic consequences.
also a disturbing tendency of denial. In both the electrical power industry
and in the satellite business, there seems to be a tendency not to recognize
that certain ventures are inherently risky and intrinsically susceptible
to solar and geophysical influences. At the same time that the emplacement
of vital communications systems, and human activities in space, have
escalated, our scientific understanding of how the Sun affects us has
not kept up due to cutbacks in research funding.
no one can say for sure how current trends in thinking are going to
play themselves out in the next 5-10 years, the evidence for how we
have already been affected in the past is well documented. It all comes
down to the simple fact that the Sun is not the most polite and well-behaved
neighbor we would like to imagine it to be. Not only do we find ourselves
between a rock and a hard place, but also we can not even tell when
the next blow is likely to fall. There is no great mystery about what
is going on. We have had a long history, spanning a century, of calamities
spawned by solar disturbances.
In the chapters
to follow, we are going to see why most experts feel we will be at greater
risk for trouble during this, the 23rd Solar Cycle, than in many previous
ones. What has changed during the last ten years is the level of our
reliance upon sophisticated technology, and its widespread infiltration
into every niche of modern society.