Biggest Blackouts In History: Québec 1989 Solar Storm

Huge solar storm sends the Québec power grid offline in 90 seconds, leaving nine million residents without electricity for up to nine hours.

On 10 March 1989, a coronal mass ejection (CME) the size of more than 30 Earths erupted from the surface of the sun.

The huge cloud of gas with the energy of thousands of nuclear bombs ripped through space at nearly a million miles an hour.

Two days later, on the evening of 12 March, the CME struck Earth’s magnetic field causing a geomagnetic storm that produced spectacular multi-coloured ‘Northern Lights’ that could be seen as far south as Florida and Cuba.

A striking red glow covered the night sky across most of the world. At the time, the Cold War was in its dying stages, so there were fears that a nuclear strike was taking place, rather than a major space weather incident.

The Hydro-Québec transmission grid in Canada was already experiencing voltage fluctuations. But in the early hours of 13 March, the variations in the Earth’s magnetic field tripped circuit breakers on the grid.

Protective systems kicked into action and in less than two minutes the entire grid was offline, plunging the whole province into darkness.

Attempts To Prevent A Repeat

In the aftermath of the blackout, network operator Hydro-Québec convened a taskforce to analyse the incident.

It recommended the following corrective measures, which were all implemented shortly after:

  • Recalibrating the protection system and raising the trip level. With no serious problems despite several intense magnetic storms since 1989, this tactic appears successful.
  • Establishing a real-time alert system measuring disturbances on the grid during any magnetic storm.
  • Modifying power system operating procedures to reduce power flow on lines and DC interconnectors in the event of any major disturbance.
  • Installing series compensation on power lines to enhance grid stability.
Electricity pylons & transmission lines on Hydro-Québec transmission network in Canada with the background of an orange sky
HARD LINES: The lengthy transmission lines on the Hydro-Québec grid make it more vulnerable to power problems than more urban-based networks

Despite these changes, Québec will always remain more vulnerable than most to space weather events.

Québec sits on a large rock shield that prevents the current flowing through the earth, resulting in the electricity finding a less resistant path along the power lines.

The lengthy power transmission lines on the Hydro-Québec grid are another factor.

Impacts Further Afield

Away from Québec, the solar storm also caused minor disruption to the power grid in the United States.

There were around 200 power problems from the west coast to the east, with service disrupted to 96 utilities in New England. Luckily there was enough reserve power to bridge the gap.

While in space, many satellites were offline or out of control for several hours. NASA reported at least 250 anomalies caused by high-energy particles playing havoc with its satellites’ sensitive electronics.

It was even reported that the Discovery space shuttle was experiencing unusually high pressure readings. The issue disappeared once the solar storm subsided on 13 March.

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