In the early hours of March 13, 1989, the Hydro-Québec public service was shut down. The entire province of Quebec lost power for nine hours, disrupting many aspects of public life throughout the day.
Space weather — conditions in outer space near Earthwhich are strongly influenced by Sun — was quickly identified as the cause of the power outage.
“The initial story was, ‘OK, there had been a lot of activity on the sun, then a big magnetic storm, and a number of electrical systems were having trouble’, but there weren’t many details. “David said. Boteler, a scientist with National Resources Canada’s Canadian Hazards Information Service. “In trying to do a retrospective survey, we are very aware of this lack of data, and there has been quite a bit of work to try to fill in the gaps.”
Boteler spoke about the 1989 blackout as part of a June 8 panel presentation at a joint meeting of two groups within the National Academies of Science, Engineering, and Medicine: the Council of Aeronautical and Space Engineering and the Council for Space Studies.
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Looking at solar data collected around the world in the week before the blackout, Boteler and his colleagues realized that there had been not one, but two major coronal mass ejections (CME), clouds of electrically charged particles released from the Sun’s outer atmosphere.
“This isn’t just any old magnetic storm,” Boteler said. “We believe that it was in fact the shock of this second CME arrival that caused the Hydro-Quebec blackout.”
The Hydro-Quebec power outage is now an essential example of how solar activity can disrupt life on Earth, and a cautionary tale that we may not yet know enough about space weather to predict, anticipate, or at least recover quickly from a geomagnetic storm similar.
And with solar activity intensifying as the sun enters solar cycle 25 for good, the history of Hydro-Québec is particularly strong.
During the virtual meeting on June 8, experts gave the general impression of a specialized community – spanning government research agencies, administrators and industry – very concerned about the potential impacts of space weather on the network. electric. And while awareness of the problem is growing, they said, there is a need to better understand it.
Experts are designing and deploying instruments to better assess the threat, and they’re still navigating the collaborations between research institutions, government entities, and private industry that will likely be needed to solve a problem with problems. highly technical scientific and technical, as well as practical and social obstacles.
Since the 1989 outage, “the community has learned a lot, there’s still work to be done,” said Bill Radasky, president and chief engineer of Metatech, an electromagnetic engineering consulting firm.
Space weather monitoring and detection
Space weather is strongly influenced by the sun. It encompasses the interaction of solar radiation and solar wind with earth’s atmosphere and the magnetosphere, including high-velocity charged particles that generate auroras.
Extreme space weather can knock out satellitesdisrupt communications or seriously damage electrical networks and other critical infrastructure. In the worst-case scenario for power grids, the exact extent of damage and ripple effects are very difficult to predict, experts said. Solar activity itself is a challenge to monitor and understand, while location-specific factors, such as local geology and grid configuration, affect the short-term and long-term costs of power losses and damage to infrastructure.
“At least in the UK, investment in space weather is strongly driven by understanding the socio-economic impact,” said Jonathan Eastwood, a research fellow at Imperial College London. “There are a lot of questions about what is reasonable to invest in defending against space weather based on the likely impact.” In other words, before governments, utilities and other stakeholders undertake costly options, such as upgrading entire power grids, there is still much to study about space weather.
Eastwood was part of a British program called SWIMMR, which is involved in the development of sensitive and robust instruments; perform forecast modeling; and finally risk assessment.
The European Space Agency has its own initiatives to collect solar data. For example, the planned Vigil mission will send an array of instruments into stable orbit at Lagrange Point 5, and, closer to Earth, a fleet of specialized satellites could form the Distributed Space Weather Sensor System (D3S), Eastwood said. .
An early warning system could allow power grid operators to minimize the effects of a storm and prepare to restore service as quickly as possible, panel members said. Such technology would require the kind of enhanced data collection that is already underway, as well as models that predict the possibility of full or partial network failure, and some validation of how those models and responses work.
A matter of politics
There have been improvements in solar data collection since the 1989 blackout, and many are in progress or have started recently. But experts still describe challenges to funding data collection and encouraging data sharing, as well as overall barriers to collaboration.
“It’s a bit like the Tower of Babel,” said Anna Kelbert, a geophysicist researcher with the US Geological Survey’s geomagnetism program. “The problem is so complex and spans so many disciplines.”
Kelbert would like to see power grid data shared in real time, allowing researchers to compare changes on the grid with their predictive models based on enhanced solar and geological data. However, “there is very little incentive for the power grid industry to share power grid system configurations,” she said.
Although space weather researchers want to see more changes in US policies, over the past decade the federal government has taken note of the threat of extreme space weather and the need to better understand it. In particular, the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission has published Order 779 in 2013, which ordered the North American Electric Reliability Corp., a nonprofit intermediary that issues standards for power companies, to develop plans to mitigate the effects of a “geomagnetic disturbance” and create benchmarks to describe the severity of such an event.
This step was a game-changer, said Bill Murtagh, director of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s Space Weather Prediction Center. It was the first federal regulation to recognize the potential impact of space weather on the power grid, Murtagh said.
Furthermore FEMA Document 2019 identified the most concerning possible natural disasters, and space weather was on the list.
It remains to be seen if the heightened attention is enough to prevent a worst-case scenario of a major solar storm in the next few years.
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