Six million Canadians mysteriously found themselves without power for more than nine hours on March 13, 1989. The cause? A surprise storm from outer space. That’s right; a powerful geomagnetic storm disrupted Hydro Quebec’s electric power transmission grid. Effects from the space storm even melted transformers as far south as New Jersey.
In our technology-dependent society, space weather can have a serious and direct impact on our daily lives. While power outages due to space weather are rare events, it’s possible that a widespread outage, like the 1989 Canadian outage, could easily occur again with even more serious consequences. Power and communication disruptions could cripple computer systems, telephone systems, satellite networks and GPS-dependent services. Planes couldn’t fly, phones would stop working, gas stations couldn’t pump fuel, and credit cards and debit cards would be rendered useless.
Is extreme space weather a serious threat? Mike Hapgood, a space weather scientist at the Rutherford Appleton Laboratory near Oxford,England, says yes. Hapgood says minor geomagnetic storms are a periodic – and insignificant – occurrence. Much of our planet’s electronic equipment and orbiting satellites are built to withstand these storms. But a major coronal mass ejection (a large solar flare) could cause a serious geomagnetic storm that disrupts our power grid and communication system.
There’s a 12 percent chance that a serious space weather storm could happen in the next decade. –Space Weather, online journal published by the American Geophysical Union
Depending on where you live, a hurricane, tornado or earthquake may seem far more likely to impact your daily life than a space storm. After all, a recent flare-up of solar activity in March led to lots of media coverage, but no real problems. According to Hapgood, that’s because March’s solar activity was due to solar flares, rather than a coronal mass ejection. So, what’s the difference?
Think of a large solar flare as a heavy rainstorm. Sure, there may be some flash flooding, but any real damage is minimal. A coronal mass ejection, however, is like a Category 5 hurricane bearing straight down on your house. That’s never good news!
Coronal mass ejections occur when the sun’s magnetic field disrupts the sun’s atmosphere, sending an ejection of charged particles into space. If this hurricane of particles hits Earth, it can overload the electrical grid and disrupt the Earth’s upper atmosphere.
Should you prepare for space weather? Absolutely. Effects of solar storms, including the loss of communication technology and electricity, could cripple our country for several days or even weeks until power is fully restored. Fortunately, preparing for space weather is similar to preparing for other natural disasters. FEMA recommends all families make an emergency kit and a family communications plan. Keep in mind that you may be unable to use your debit card or credit card and that fuel pumps may not work. I always keep a small stash of emergency cash on hand and at least half a tank of fuel in my car. A car phone charger or solar-powered charger can keep your phone powered until electricity is restored.