Everyone has experienced a power outage at one time or another. Take the great blackout of 2003, for example. It started right here in Northeast Ohio and spread across Michigan, into Canada and all the way to New York and New Jersey.
It was a sweltering August day, with temperatures approaching 90 degrees that afternoon. An overloaded line in Parma was followed by a failure in Walton Hills, where another high-power transmission line dipped into tree branches and shut off. The inactive branch caused a cascade of further failures as other long-distance conduits of electric power were overloaded and shut off. Though millions around the Great Lakes and Northeast U.S. and Canada were affected, most had their power restored within a day.
The next blackout may not be so benign.
One of the miracles of nature occurs when a shifting magnetic field moves past a conductor, such as an electrical wire. It’s the principle behind electric generators. To create electricity, some force, such as the wind, a steam turbine is used to turn a shaft that moves magnets past wire, thus creating electric current.
Massive currents in power lines are generated on a planet-wide scale when extreme solar activity results in a phenomenon known as a "coronal mass ejection." It’s where billions of tons of plasma flare up and the mass is launched as a cloud of plasma into the outer solar system.
In 1859 a solar storm gave rise to an ejection that could have been even more catastrophic than the 2003 blackout, had it happened today.
While much of the world marveled that the Northern Lights were visible as far south as Cuba, the resulting magnetic flux caused telegraph wires to spark and even some fires to erupt, according to accounts from the time.
A 2008 National Academy of Sciences report states a similar event today could destroy more than 300 large, grid-powering transformers across the country, thus crippling the nation’s power system and affecting as many as 130 million people for months — possibly years. Just as in telegraph days, anything plugged into a wall socket could be damaged, including the computer systems used to control municipal water systems and utilities such as natural gas.
Less powerful storms have occurred many times since. On March 12, 1989, the entire province of Quebec lost power for hours after solar plasma ejected two days earlier reached Earth and found a weakness in the Canadian grid.
In 2012, a much more powerful blast passed through the Earth’s orbit — just nine days ahead of us. NASA scientists say we’re lucky it missed.
As researchers evaluated the data, one scientist in 2014 put the odds of a similar storm striking the earth in the next 10 years at 12 percent.
What if such a "coronal mass ejection" had struck just a few weeks ago, when temperatures were in the single digits?
For many years, Northfield Center Trustee Paul Buescher has been a self-described preparedness guru. His home is solar powered. He has a generator. He stocks up. And for the past 12 years he’s emailed an annual guide on home preparedness to hundreds of people on his mailing list.
He called the other day to say he’s been looking into what would happen if there was a long-term, area-wide power outage during the two weeks of Arctic weather we just went through. He said the answers he got were not good.
There is nowhere near enough shelter space to house all the thousands of people who would quickly find themselves in freezing, uninhabitable homes during a long-term loss of power.
"This is an unimaginable and nightmarish scenario but it is a very real possibility," he said, adding he’s talked to numerous other government officials regarding the issue. "What makes this even more scary is that all of the people that I spoke with on this subject had no definitive answers to my question. Their bottom line was that people have to take more responsibility for their own preparedness."
Keep in mind, it doesn’t take a solar storm to cause an emergency. An ice storm, such as the one that struck the Northeast in 2008, cut power to around 1.25 million people from Maine to Pennsylvania. Many were without power for days — some for more than a week. In 2009, nearly 1 million people from Oklahoma to West Virginia lost power following an ice storm. Again, it took utility workers days to repair all the downed wires.
As I write this, icy weather is forecast for the region on Friday night, with temperatures predicted to drop to 6 degrees by Saturday night.
Are you prepared? I’m not.
I have a propane heater on the back porch, and an old kerosene heater in the basement, but that’s it. It’s enough to keep a couple rooms warm, as long as the fuel lasts.
After this winter’s deep freeze, some more planning ahead may be something to consider.