Intense colors from the rare Great Aurora painted the skies around the world in vivid shapes that moved like legendary dragons. Ghostly celestial armies battled from sunset to midnight. Newspapers that reported this event considered the aurora, itself, to be the most newsworthy aspect of the storm. Seen as far south as Florida and Cuba, the vast majority of people in the Northern Hemisphere had never seen such a spectacle.
~Dr. Sten Odenwald
I like to revisit this March 13, 1989 incident documented by Dr. Odenwald in A Conflagration of Storms. In addition to being an amazing display of the aurora borealis, this solar storm took down Quebec’s power network and very nearly much more:
In many ways, the Quebec blackout was a sanitized calamity. It was wrapped in a diversion of beautiful colors, and affected a distant population mostly while they slept. There were no houses torn asunder, or streets flooded in the manner of a hurricane or tornado. There was no dramatic footage of waves crashing against the beach. There were no cyclonic whirlwinds cutting a swath of destruction through Kansas trailer parks. The calamity passed without mention in the major metropolitan newspapers, yet six million people were affected as they woke to find no electricity to see them through a cold Quebec wintry night. Engineers from the major North American power companies were not so blasé about what some would later conclude, could easily have escalated into a $6 billion catastrophe affecting most U.S. East Coast cities. All that prevented 50 million more people in the U.S. from joining their Canadian friends in the dark were a dozen or so heroic capacitors on the Allegheny Power Network.
The Media seemed to have missed one of the most human impacts of the beautiful aurora they so meticulously described in article after article. Today the March 1989 ‘Quebec Blackout’ has reached legendary stature, at least among electrical engineers and space scientists, as an example of how solar storms can adversely affect us. It has even begun to appear in science textbooks. Fortunately, storms as powerful as this really are rather rare. It takes quite a solar wallop to cause anything like the conditions leading up to a Quebec-style blackout. When might we expect the next one to happen? About once every ten years or so, but the exact time is largely a game of chance.
Call it the ultimate Friday the 13th! The whole book The 23rd Cycle:Learning to live with a stormy star is available online, and you can read a lot more from Dr. Odenwald at his website, The Astronomy Cafe or at facebook.com/AstronomyCafe.
A whole lot more northern lights on Michigan in Pictures!
PS: Keep an eye on solar storminess and get heads up notifications when the northern lights might be visible at NOAA’s Space Weather Prediction Center.