Image credit: M. A. Shea, Geophysics Directorate, Phillips Laboratory
Click on the image for a map showing equipment problems and failures during the March 1989 blackout.
The HydroQuebec Blackout of March 1989
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 last five occurred in February 1986, March 1989, March 1991, November 1991 and May 1992. The frequency of large and great storms increases markedly as we enter the maximum in the solar activity cycle. The next predicted maximum is in the year 2000 (the last solar maximum was in 1989). 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 black out situations triggered by space weather events.