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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.
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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.

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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