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March 12, 2014

A quarter of a century ago, the province of Quebec went dark. Its entire power grid shut down in just a minute and a half, leaving residents with cold homes and closing schools and offices. The cause? A storm in space.

Artist's concept of the interaction between the solar wind and Earth's magnetic fieldArtist's concept of the interaction between the solar wind and Earth's magnetic field [NASA]

The trouble began a few days earlier, when a giant explosion rocked the surface of the Sun. It zapped Earth with energy, interfering with a few spacecraft and jamming some radio frequencies.

The explosion also sent a billion-ton cloud of charged particles racing toward Earth. When the cloud arrived on March 13th, 1989, the planet’s magnetic field sent the particles spiraling toward the surface. They triggered brilliant displays of the northern lights that were visible as far south as Texas and Florida.

As the particles reached the surface, they created electric currents in the ground and in transmission lines. Electric utilities across much of the United States suffered minor problems, but were able to compensate without blackouts.

In Canada, though, it was a different story. Quebec received a large jolt from the storm. And the long transmission lines that stretched across Quebec provided an easy path for the charged particles. They created power surges that quickly knocked out electricity across the entire province. It took nine hours to get the grid back in service.

Since then, power companies have taken steps to help avoid similar outages in the future. Even so, big storms on the Sun could still trigger blackouts right here on Earth.


Script by Damond Benningfield, Copyright 2014

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