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Space weather "storms" can cause electricity to flow in Earth's atmosphere. That can cause unusual electrical currents in the wires that carry electricity to homes. Sometimes space weather storms mess up the flow of electricity in our power system so much that they cause blackouts.
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Image courtesy John G. Kappenman, Minnesota Power, Duluth, Minnesota.

Space Weather Effects on Electrical Power Systems

Space weather "storms" can cause problems on Earth. They can even mess up our systems that make electricity and that deliver electricity to peoples' houses. Sometimes really big space weather storms can cause massive blackouts over large areas. In March of 1989 six million people in eastern Canada lost their electrical power for nine hours because of really big space weather storm.

Our electrical systems are designed to use alternating current (AC) electricity. Space weather disturbances can cause large flows of direct current (DC) electricity in power transmission wires. Electrical systems use very high voltage electricity to transmit power over long distances from power plants to peoples' homes and to businesses. However, high voltage electricity is dangerous, so the power is converted to lower voltage before it is delivered to homes and other users. Transformers are devices that convert high voltage electricity to lower voltage electricity.

Transformers work fine with AC electricity, but can be damaged or destroyed if too much DC electricity flows into them. That's what can happen during big space weather storms. If many transformers fail at once, the whole electrical system over a large area can go down. That's how space weather can cause a blackout.

Last modified January 19, 2010 by Randy Russell.

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Windows to the Universe, a project of the National Earth Science Teachers Association, is sponsored in part is sponsored in part through grants from federal agencies (NASA and NOAA), and partnerships with affiliated organizations, including the American Geophysical Union, the Howard Hughes Medical Institute, the Earth System Information Partnership, the American Meteorological Society, the National Center for Science Education, and TERC. The American Geophysical Union and the American Geosciences Institute are Windows to the Universe Founding Partners. NESTA welcomes new Institutional Affiliates in support of our ongoing programs, as well as collaborations on new projects. Contact NESTA for more information. NASA ESIP NCSE HHMI AGU AGI AMS NOAA