Image: NASA Goddard Space Flight Center/Flickr

Canada Will Study How Solar Storms Threaten Our Energy Grid

“Our technology is getting more advanced, so we’re more susceptible to space weather.”

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Sep 6 2017, 12:00pm

Image: NASA Goddard Space Flight Center/Flickr

On March 10, 1989, there was a massive explosion on the Sun—one that delivered a wallop of electrically charged particles to Earth. This solar storm caused the electrical grid to collapse across the province of Quebec on March 13, leaving six million people without electricity for more than nine hours.

Massive eruptions on the Sun, including coronal mass ejections and solar flares, can cause all kinds of hairy space weather effects on Earth. A bad bout of space weather can throw GPS systems out of whack and spark satellite failures. In one instance, space weather was raised as a possible culprit for tampering with electronic voting machines during a Belgian election.

The Canadian Space Agency (CSA) is now preparing to launch a study of how these events can impact our infrastructure. The CSA put out a Request For Proposals to get the ball rolling on Tuesday.

"The problem isn't the Sun," Pierre Langlois, project lead of space utilization at the CSA, told me in a phone interview. "It's behaving the same way [as it always has]. Our technology is getting more advanced, so we're more susceptible to space weather."

It's true that increasing reliance on technology is making us more vulnerable. While a solar storm probably wouldn't disable your iPhone, it could impact infrastructure it relies on. Space weather has been known to knock out satellites, and even a single outage can be disastrous. Last year, just one satellite went offline because of a technical glitch, and it temporarily grounded flights in parts of Canada's North and sent banking services offline.

Read More : How Space Weather Can Influence Elections on Earth

There's a growing recognition of the need to "protect space assets, ground assets and ultimately human lives against risks originating in space," a report attached to the RFP reads. It cites the threat that space weather poses to infrastructure essential "to national security, economy and the health of Canadians including the electrical grid, the transportation networks and space systems." It isn't clear yet who will be doing the study for the CSA: Langlois told me the proposal is open to anyone who fits the criteria as it's laid out in the agency's request.

Natural Resources Canada (NRCan) currently puts out a space weather forecast that can be used by power utilities, airlines, and others who might be impacted by a nasty solar storm.

I phoned Ljubomir Nikolic, a computational physicist from the Canadian Hazards Information Service at NRCan, and space weather forecaster. He agreed that it's a good time for the CSA to be taking an inventory of the risks to infrastructure that are posed by space weather, and said that Canada is especially vulnerable because the country is so far north.

"When there are coronal mass ejections [on the Sun], these big eruptions of charged particles, they affect the Earth's magnetic field," he said. "And because we are closer to the North Magnetic Pole, those variations are stronger."

It isn't all bad, though. Geomagnetic storms cause the Northern Lights, too.

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