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Geomagnetic Storm of 1989

When seven protective relay schemes actuated in less than two minutes, all of Quebec went dark. Power was out for 12 hours.  

On Friday March 10, 1989 astronomers witnessed a powerful explosion on the sun. Two days later, on March 13, the entire province of Quebec, Canada suffered an electrical power outage caused by the geomagnetic storm. 

Within minutes of the March 10 explosion, tangled magnetic forces on the sun had released a billion-ton cloud of gas. It was like the energy of thousands of nuclear bombs exploding at the same time. The storm cloud rushed out from the sun, straight towards Earth, at a million miles an hour. 

The initial electromagnetic waves from the geomagnetic storm traveled at the speed of light. The solar flare that accompanied the outburst immediately caused short-wave radio interference, jamming radio signals from Radio Free Europe into Russia.

On the evening of Monday, March 12, the vast cloud of solar plasma struck Earth's magnetic field. The mass ejection traveled much slower than the initial electromagnetic waves. The violence of this geomagnetic storm caused spectacular northern lights that could be seen as far south as Florida and Cuba. The magnetic disturbance was incredibly intense. It created electrical currents in the ground beneath much of North America. 

Just after 2:44 a.m. on March 13, geomagnetically induced currents (GICs) caused seven protective relaying schemes to actuate. The quick voltage collapse that occurred limited transformer damage. In less than 2 minutes, the entire Quebec power grid lost power. During the 12-hour power outage that followed, millions of people found themselves in dark homes and workplaces.

The Quebec blackout was not a local event. The New York Power Pool lost 150 megawatts of generation at the moment the Quebec power grid went down. The New England Power Pool lost 1,410 megawatts of generation at about the same time. And a generator step-up transformer at Salem Nuclear Power Plant in southern New Jersey overheated and failed. Across the United States from coast to coast, over 200 power grid problems erupted within minutes of the start of the March 13 storm. Fortunately, none of these problems caused widespread power outages within the U.S.

If a geomagnetic storm of this magnitude occurred today, widespread blackouts and damage to power transformers would be expected. A geomagnetic storm in 2012 was of similar magnitude, but it passed Earth's orbit without striking the planet, missing by nine days. 

The next geomagnetic storm of this magnitude is predicted to occur in July 2025. Prescient Transmission Systems provides a Geomagnetic Storm Analysis risk assessment service, as well as a Solar Flares and Wide Area Blackouts training, to assist the electric utilities industry in preparing the grid for the next geomagnetic storm. Contact us to learn more.

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