Shop Windows to the Universe

Become a nitrogen atom in the nitrogen cycle in our Traveling Nitrogen Classroom Activity Kit/Game. See all our games, activity kits and classroom activities.
The black region on this map shows the area that lost electrical power during the HydroQuebec blackout in 1989. The blackout was triggered by a space weather storm.
Click on image for full size
Image courtesy of M. A. Shea, Geophysics Directorate, Phillips Laboratory.

HydroQuebec Power Blackout Caused by Space Weather Storm

On March 13, 1989, at 2:44 am, a transformer failure on one of the main power transmission lines in the HydroQuebec system precipitated a catastrophic collapse of the entire power grid. The string of events that produced the collapse took only 90 seconds from start to finish. There was no time for any meaningful intervention. The transformer failure was a direct consequence of ground induced currents from a space weather disturbance high in the atmosphere. 6 million people lost electrical power for 9 or more hours.

The space weather disturbance that produced this devastation was a great magnetic storm. Great magnetic storms are awesome disturbances in the near-Earth space environment that occur relatively rarely. The frequency of large and great storms increases markedly during the maximum in the solar activity cycle. Better warning of impending space weather events would allow power companies to take steps to reduce the load on sensitive circuits, delay maintenance and equipment replacement, prevent the development of large potential drops by selectively grounding sensitive devices and inteligently deal with systems designed to automatically protect the network during the duration of the event. This is the best way to prevent costly and dangerous blackout situations triggered by space weather events.

Last modified February 17, 2009 by Randy Russell.

Shop Windows to the Universe Science Store!

Our online store includes books on science education, ranging from evolution, classroom research, and the need for science and math literacy!

Windows to the Universe Community

News

Opportunities

You might also be interested in:

Traveling Nitrogen Classroom Activity Kit

Check out our online store - minerals, fossils, books, activities, jewelry, and household items!...more

How Space Weather Can Damage Transformers

The transformer is not a power source. It functions like a lever to convert a small voltage pushing a large electric current into a large voltage pushing a small electric current or vice versa. The power...more

Space Weather Effects on Electrical Power Systems

Space weather "storms" can cause problems for the systems we use to generate and transmit electrical power here on Earth. In extreme cases, large space weather events can even cause massive blackouts over...more

Space Weather Causes Currents in Electric Power Grids

Electric currents in Earth's atmosphere can induce currents in our planet's crust and oceans. Electromagnetic induction works on a grand scale during space weather disturbances. Currents as large as a...more

Problems Restoring Electrical Power After a Blackout

Power grids were not designed to fail completely and be started-up all at once. The basic problem is that it takes energy to produce energy. Hydroelectric, steam and nuclear power plants all require energy...more

The Cost of a Blackout Caused by Space Weather

In March 1989 a space weather storm caused the failure of the entire HydroQuebec electrical power system in eastern Canada. Six million people lost electricity for nine or more hours. The blackout of the...more

Space Weather throughout the Solar System

The Sun is surrounded by a "bubble" in space called the heliosphere. In a sense, we Earthlings live within the outer atmosphere of our Sun. The solar wind fills the heliosphere with energetic...more

Space Weather at Earth and in Near-Earth Space (Geospace)

Earth's global magnetic field generates a huge cavity or bubble in space, the magnetosphere, which shields our planet from most of the solar wind. Some solar wind particles do leak in and combine with...more

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