Massive Geomagnetic Storm: Coronal Mass Ejection From the Sun Could Knock Out the Power Grid and Internet

City Power Outage

Telegraph networks all throughout the globe failed catastrophically on September 1 and 2, 1859. The telegraph operators reported feeling electrical shocks, telegraph paper catching fire, and being able to operate equipment without batteries. The aurora borealis, sometimes known as the northern lights, could be seen as far south as Colombia in the evenings. This phenomenon is typically only seen at higher latitudes, such as in northern Canada, Scandinavia, and Siberia.

The planet was hit by a tremendous geomagnetic storm on that day, which is now known as the Carrington Event. When a massive bubble of superheated gas called plasma is blasted from the sun’s surface and collides with the Earth, it causes these storms. This bubble is called a coronal mass ejection.

The plasma of a coronal mass ejection consists of a cloud of protons and electrons, which are electrically charged particles. When these particles reach the Earth, they interact with the magnetic field that surrounds the planet. This interaction causes the magnetic field to distort and weaken, which in turn leads to the strange behavior of the aurora borealis and other natural phenomena. As an electrical engineer who specializes in the power grid, I study how geomagnetic storms also threaten to cause power and internet outages and how to protect against that.

Geomagnetic storms

The Carrington Event of 1859 is the largest recorded account of a geomagnetic storm, but it is not an isolated event.

Geomagnetic storms have been recorded since the early 19th century, and scientific data from Antarctic ice core samples has shown evidence of an even more massive geomagnetic storm that occurred around A.D. 774, now known as the Miyake Event. That solar flare produced the largest and fastest rise in carbon-14 ever recorded. Geomagnetic storms trigger high amounts of cosmic rays in Earth’s upper atmosphere, which in turn produce carbon-14, a radioactive isotope of carbon.

A geomagnetic storm 60% smaller than the Miyake Event occurred around A.D. 993. Ice core samples have shown evidence that large-scale geomagnetic storms with similar intensities as the Miyake and Carrington events occur at an average rate of once every 500 years.

Northern Lights Aurora Borealis Norway

Typical amounts of solar particles hitting the earth’s magnetosphere can be beautiful, but too much could be catastrophic. Credit: Svein-Magne Tunli –, CC BY-NC-SA

Nowadays the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration uses the Geomagnetic Storms scale to measure the strength of these solar eruptions. The “G scale” has a rating from 1 to 5 with G1 being minor and G5 being extreme. The Carrington Event would have been rated G5.

It gets even scarier when you compare the Carrington Event with the Miyake Event. Scientist were able to estimate the strength of the Carrington Event based on the fluctuations of Earth’s magnetic field as recorded by observatories at the time. There was no way to measure the magnetic fluctuation of the Miyake event. Instead, scientists measured the increase in carbon-14 in tree rings from that time period. The Miyake Event produced a 12% increase in carbon-14. By comparison, the Carrington Event produced less than 1% increase in Carbon-14, so the Miyake Event likely dwarfed the G5 Carrington Event.

Knocking out power

Today, a geomagnetic storm of the same intensity as the Carrington Event would affect far more than telegraph wires and could be catastrophic. With the ever-growing dependency on electricity and emerging technology, any disruption could lead to trillions of dollars of monetary loss and risk to life dependent on the systems. The storm would affect a majority of the electrical systems that people use every day.

The National Weather Service operates the Space Weather Prediction Center, which watches for solar flares that could lead to geomagnetic storms.

Geomagnetic storms generate induced currents, which flow through the electrical grid. The geomagnetically induced currents, which can be in excess of 100 amperes, flow into the electrical components connected to the grid, such as transformers, relays and sensors. One hundred amperes is equivalent to the electrical service provided to many households. Currents this size can cause internal damage in the components, leading to large scale power outages.

A geomagnetic storm three times smaller than the Carrington Event occurred in Quebec, Canada, in March 1989. The storm caused the Hydro-Quebec electrical grid to collapse. During the storm, the high magnetically induced currents damaged a transformer in New Jersey and tripped the grid’s circuit breakers. In this case, the outage led to five million people being without power for nine hours.

Breaking connections

In addition to electrical failures, communications would be disrupted on a worldwide scale. Internet service providers could go down, which in turn would take out the ability of different systems to communicate with each other. High-frequency communication systems such as ground-to-air, shortwave and ship-to-shore radio would be disrupted. Satellites in orbit around the Earth could be damaged by induced currents from the geomagnetic storm burning out their circuit boards. This would lead to disruptions in satellite-based telephone, internet, radio and television.

Also, as geomagnetic storms hit the Earth, the increase in solar activity causes the atmosphere to expand outward. This expansion changes the density of the atmosphere where satellites are orbiting. Higher density atmosphere creates drag on a satellite, which slows it down. And if it isn’t maneuvered to a higher orbit, it can fall back to Earth.

One other area of disruption that would potentially affect everyday life is navigation systems. Virtually every mode of transportation, from cars to airplanes, use GPS for navigation and tracking. Even handheld devices such as cell phones, smart watches and tracking tags rely on GPS signals sent from satellites. Military systems are heavily dependent on GPS for coordination. Other military detection systems such as over-the-horizon radar and submarine detection systems could be disrupted, which would hamper national defense.

In terms of the internet, a geomagnetic storm on the scale of the Carrington Event could produce geomagnetically induced currents in the submarine and terrestrial cables that form the backbone of the internet as well as the data centers that store and process everything from email and text messages to scientific data sets and artificial intelligence tools. This would potentially disrupt the entire network and prevent the servers from connecting to each other.

Just a matter of time

It is only a matter of time before the Earth is hit by another geomagnetic storm. A Carrington Event-size storm would be extremely damaging to the electrical and communication systems worldwide with outages lasting into the weeks. If the storm is the size of the Miyake Event, the results would be catastrophic for the world with potential outages lasting months if not longer. Even with space weather warnings from NOAA’s Space Weather Prediction Center, the world would have only a few minutes to a few hours notice.

I believe it is critical to continue researching ways to protect electrical systems against the effects of geomagnetic storms, for example by installing devices that can shield vulnerable equipment like transformers and by developing strategies for adjusting grid loads when solar storms are about to hit. In short, it’s important to work now to minimize the disruptions from the next Carrington Event.

Written by David Wallace, Assistant Clinical Professor of Electrical Engineering, Mississippi State University.

This article was first published in The Conversation.The Conversation

38 Comments on "Massive Geomagnetic Storm: Coronal Mass Ejection From the Sun Could Knock Out the Power Grid and Internet"

  1. William Readling | April 12, 2022 at 9:00 am | Reply

    Geomagnetic storms(CMEs that strike the magnetosphere) can now be predicted days in advance. Homeowners can easily disconnect their homes from the grid, and utilities can easily isolate their switchyards, and in particular the large step up transformers at generating plants.

    It’s nuclear emp that is the real risk, since it can’t easily be predicted.

  2. Clyde Spencer | April 12, 2022 at 9:26 am | Reply

    “Other military detection systems such as over-the-horizon radar and submarine detection systems could be disrupted, which would hamper national defense.”

    Why would a hostile nation launch an ICBM that depended on GPS for targeting when the GPS system wasn’t functioning?

  3. This is starting to become a daily occurrence so I’m going to have to call this article fake news. Not faking the aspects that you might think but fake as in what is actually happening.

    • Ryan, the electrical engineer that wrote this obviously did not write it as “news”, he wrote it as a warning about a very real severe danger. The danger to the EHV transformers at each end of long high-tension transmission lines is very real. Miles long conductors. Extremely strong changing magnetic field of strong geomagnetic storm. Massive induced current and voltage spikes. Fried EHV transformers which weigh hundreds of tons and have 1-3 year lead times to manufacture replacements, which are not even made in the U.S. now. What if power is out at the few manufacturing plants too? 400 nuclear plants with spent fuel cooling ponds which need power to replace the water bath as it boils off. 30 days backup fuel for the generators to run the pumps if the grid’s down. Run dry? Zirconium uranium fires all over the planet. 400 Chernobyls at once. End of life as we know it on Earth.

      This can only be handled in advance by developing technology to protect the grid better from extreme geomagnetic events, whether natural or man-made (EMP).

      • “Very real severe danger”?! WTF?! This is not an event with off-the-charts strength or hazard rating. It is very much like others that pass with *no ill effect*. Give me a break.

    • Just because you see something often doesn’t necessarily mean its ” fake”.

    • I agree. This article is timed to come out with other click-bait articles about geomagnetic storms. Thus, the article and others like it are essentially inducing public thoughts to link the over-the-top reports with this article. The effect is they are one and the same. If the article would make a disclaimer that no Carrington-scale event is predicted any time soon, that would be different.

  4. This article is absolute garbage. Geomagnetic storms happen all the time and the public wouldn’t know about it except for fearmongering nonsense like this.

  5. “A storm 3 times smaller” What? That doesn’t even make sense. Perhaps you meant a third of the size?

  6. Saul, while it is true that they happen all the time, they are usually small. The Carrington Event was enormous and rare (1800s) and it followed an earlier flare that “cleared the road” so to speak. While EMP attacks are possible, they are not certain. Another Carrington Event sized (or bigger) geomagnetic storm WILL happen at some time in the future, hopefully long after I’m gone (and my kids).

    We had a near-miss in July 2012, read this entire NASA article about it:

    • Amazing how these fear mongering worthless excuses for journalists post this stuff every day any more, yet the big bad power and internet outages never do seem to come. Maybe try being more scientific and less full of crap for ad revenue?

      • People talked about a hurricanes getting worse and would produce a 100 year storm for years and everyone dismissed it until Sandy hit. People talked about how a pandemic would come along and kill millions of people and everyone dismissed it until COVID came. How much more do you need before you realize these things can happen at anytime with little warning? No one’s saying live in fear and crawl under a rock. Be prepared, have a plan B and you’ll have nothing to fear.

        • Amen! I pray that all of these scientists would also prepare for their next life in eternity! There’s only One Way into Heaven! The Bible says in John 14:5 Jesus Christ (Yeshua HaMashiach) saith unto him, I am The Way, The Life and The Truth: No man cometh unto the Father (no one gets into the absolutely Holy, Just and Righteous Creator God’s Heaven) except through Me. (Only through the Only Son of the Living God, Saviour of mankind and Messiah of Israel: Yeshua HaMashiach (Jesus Christ)!!!! Acts 4:10 Be it known unto you all, and to all the people of Israel, that by the Name of Jesus Christ of Nazareth, Whom ye crucified, Whom God raised from the dead, even by Him doth this man stand before you whole. (Healed) 11 This is the Stone which was set at nought of you builders, Which is become the Head of the corner. 12 Neither is there Salvation in any Name under heaven given among men (all of humankind), Whereby we must be Saved. John 1:1 In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. 2 The Same was in the beginning with God. 3 All things were Made (Created) by Him; and without Him was not anything made (created) that was Made (Created by the Word: Jesus Christ). 4 In Him was Life; and the Life was the Light of men. 5 And the Light shineth in the; and the darkness comprehended it not. 6 There was a man sent from God, whose name was John (the Baptist). 7 The same came for a witness, to bear witness of the Light, that all men through Him (Jesus Christ: the Light) might believe. 8 He was not that Light, but was sent to bear witness of that Light. 9 That was the True Light, which lighteth every man that cometh into the world. 10 He was in the world, and the world was Made (Created) by Him, and the world knew Him not. 11 He came unto His Own (people” Israel), and His Own received Him not. 12 But as many as received Him, to them gave He power to become the sons of God, even to them that believe (put their complete trust in and reliance upon) His Name: 13 Which were born, not of blood, nor of the will of man, but of God. 14 And the Word was made flesh, and dwelt among us, (and we beheld His glory, the glory as of the Only begotten of the Father,) full of grace and Truth. 16 And of His fulness have all we received, and grace for grace. 17 For the Law was given by Moses, but Grace and Truth came by Jesus Christ. 29 The next day John seeth Jesus coming unto him, and saith, Behold the Lamb of God, Which taketh away the sin of the world. 31 And I knew Him not: but that He should be made manifest to Israel, therefore am I come baptizing with water. 32 And John bare record, saying, I saw the Spirit (Holy Spirit) descending from heaven like a dove, and It (The Holy Spirit) abode on Him. 33 And I knew Him not: but He that sent me to baptize with water, the Same said unto me, Upon Whom thou shalt see the Spirit descending, and remaining on Him, the Same is He which baptizeth with the Holy Ghost. 34 And I saw, and bare record that This is the Son of God.

  7. thanks alot of information

  8. Would removing the batteries from one’s technology prevent it from being damaged? Also, I’ve been hearing stories just like this for about 3 weeks. It the plasma still traveling towards earth, or what? I heard we would see the northern lights very south on the 1st or 2nd of April. I’m a bit confused.

    • That solar storm has already hit. Relatively mild and nothing to worry about. The concern being discussed now is the increased activity from the sun and worry that It could put out a much stronger solar storm capable of doing actual damage. While we get hit by very small ones very frequently, they can be catastrophic at the right size.

  9. You have to be careful writing stories like these. We are entering a period of increased solar activity. You’re gonna be writing these stories every 3 days for the next 4-6 years.

    • So true. However, it is basic click-baiting and hyping. The media is still hyping eevery full moon like it is an event worth watching. WTH? The Blue Mood Moon, The Half-Baked Tart Moon, or The Sun Myung Moon (OK, I would pay to see that, but still). They are all just names that don’t matter. If I called a person in black jeans and blue sneakers a Blue-Footed Black Jean Walker, would that magically make it an interesting phenomena to behold if the person was seen on the street? No! Same with the moons. Same with these run-of-the-mill geomagnetic events.

      I suspect the editors are trying to piggy-back off of the hype by writing a “legitimate” article while knowing they are really leveraging the hype for themselves. As you say, they should be careful. Personally, I think there should be a disclaimer that NO geomagnetic storms either currently predicted or in any recent past have come close to being a Carrington event.

    • Did you read the passage in KJV BIBLE – – That the sun would be darkened — And the moon would not give her light ? Kinda goes with these times foretold… War, it’s rumors – Earthquakes/divers places (48 quakes occuring in 24 hours awhile back) Yes God does give us warnings.

  10. Why post this useless rehash? Fear mongering again?

  11. I’m a physics professor who served on a government panel on this (along with folks from the electrical grid and others). New satellites are protected. They’ll have warning to break power lines into segments to protect them (we’ll be without power for around a day). Radios will be out. Long distance pipelines will become charged (not serious). No problem. Don’t panic. An EMP blast would be both more plausible and more likely to cause a serious black sky event. Just make sure you have cash. In a disaster cash is king.

  12. I worked in the protective relay test department of a regional power company in 1954 and 1955. Everything was coils, relays, current transformers, and oil circuit breakers, all robust designs. No electronics was involved except for telemetering, with vacuum-tube power-line carrier systems.

    I suspect that such robustness is no longer the case. Now, with semiconductor-based logic, any heavy induced currents or high-strength E fields have the potential to wipe out control logic, perhaps preventing breaker opening under fault conditions, and perhaps leading to meltdown of an entire substation.

  13. Lucille Gaither | April 13, 2022 at 6:36 pm | Reply

    Thanks for the information. I’ll try to prepare as much as possible. the sun shineth in its strength…

  14. This is ridiculous, pass few months I keep reading a title that basically say, geomagnetic storm is going to end everything and the article say the opposite and everything should be fine but hey this is a new one a title that indicates the present but talk about the past.
    My advice, David if you can’t find something to write about, maybe you are in the wrong field, but I don’t blame you, I blame who hired you and who is letting you and all the morons to post to the public. And they require my email to post a comment

  15. Comments to original article show technical understanding OR poor reading/technical skills. Plan ahead, keep a strong reserve of cash.

  16. No matter what all the nay sayers have to say, if it happened years ago, it could happen again. Using information of past events only gives us a small look at what we could be in for sometime in the future. The article didn’t say it was going to happen tomorrow or next week or even in the next century, it said it “will” happen. The people need to know the past if they are going to survive the future. I agree that preparation now to secure the grids etc. is a very important move. For those of you who are saying it’s “hog wash” I only hope you survive (if it is to happen in our life time) to apologize to those that listened.

    • I fully agree with you Sondra and everyone else who is supportive of the article. It’s a shame that so many lost sheep keep their noses against the tree’s and they can’t see the forest. But that’s their problem and won’t survive what’s yet to come.

      One important point no one has brought up our weakening magnetosphere. From around the time of the Carrington event our magnetosphere has lost approximately 20% of it’s strength and continues to fall. The Earth’s Poles are also on an excursion at a fairly rapid pace. Both of these events have occurred repeatedly in cycles over the life of our planet and with each one comes an extinction event. As one of my PhD friends put it years ago, we were born with the golden ticket.

      I myself am looking forward to watching it all come together. Just remember that once it starts no one will come to help you but instead to control you. 🤔 Maybe they already have 🐑

      Be safe everyone. 🙏

  17. Good morning all!
    On 4/12/22 I was reading about the latest solar flare, a predicted G2 storm. The very next evening 4/13/22, it was about 5:30pm as I got home from work and pulled into my driveway in Clarksville In, there was an odd number of neighbors out talking to one another. I then found out that my neighborhood was without power because a transformer blew! That’s when I recalled what I read the day before about the G2 solar storm! I honestly believe it blew because of it!

  18. Larry Butler W4CSC | April 14, 2022 at 6:03 am | Reply

    Er, ah, Professor? The internet doesn’t run on unshielded, pole-mounted telegraph wires bearing weak DC pulses from batteries. It doesn’t even run on old coax cables any more, it’ s optical fiber buried underground in developed countries. Tell us the FUD of how the event is going to blast away the underground glass fibers??

  19. Science Fiction today is Science Fact tomorrow.
    One may say, it’ll never happen, but it has already. One may say, why publish this rubbish, but it’s educational and knowledge is power
    If someone wishes to live in the darkness of ignorance they very well may get the chance.
    Prepare for and not need is better than not believe and find oneself in the dark.
    I can’t say what to do to prepare for I’m not a scientist or expert, but I’ll keep an open mind, eyes, and ears in hopes I’ll not be one devastated by surprise.
    Peace to all, and I truly hope this doesn’t happen before the world is ready to face it properly.

  20. Finally, I don’t understand why people refuse to accept or even acknowledge that there are things happening that could have devastating outcomes, look what the corona scaredemic has done.
    Small businesses closed, family and friends disenfranchised because of mixed opinions of it’s impact, complete economic restructuring under way.
    Many said a New World Order will not happen, look around.
    Solar Flares are not new, the impact of them variable,some have produced outages. They WILL continue as long as there is a sun!
    So, how can anyone say, “hogwash?”

  21. As an aerospace engineer that has worked closely with solar astrophysists, I can attest that this is not garbage. A CME coming directly toward earth is unlikely and rare. But given our current reliance on electricity, this article accurately predicts how unprepared we are and how catastrophic it would be world-wide. Most of us would die.

  22. Will the flares affect my bullet’s trajectory as I’m shooting at all the zombies who will awaken from the emp?

  23. melissa moore | April 25, 2022 at 6:19 pm | Reply

    @CS… “Thus, hippocampus is 100 times smaller in volume compared to cerebral cortex.” (From a medical journal. I know this is days later, but your meanness just stuck in the craw.

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