The Unexamined Cause for Massive Blackouts: Solar Flares and Outdated Power Grids

By Katelyn Oster.

This year’s active solar storms have come and gone without much public concern. Some solar observers, however, are looking to the sky for answers to problems on our home planet.

Last week over 670 million people were without power all around India, spanning from its Northern tip to its Eastern edge. According to a New York Times article written a day after the event, this massive blackout “trapped coal miners, stranded train passengers, and caused huge traffic jams” in New Delhi. Apart from these locational inconveniences, the blackout also caused concerns over the city’s food and water supply.

The official explanation for this sudden, devastating power failure was an overconsumption of power on behalf of the country’s system. Experts consider farmers the culprit for drawing too much water to cover their fields. This explanation simply doesn’t hold up on its own with the synchronicity of solar weather events impacting Earth at the same time as the blackouts.

There is a looming possibility that the intensity of recent solar activity could have sparked the failure in addition to the fragility of the nation’s power grid.

Just a few days before the massive blackout in India, an M6- class solar flare erupted on the sun, causing a coronal mass ejection to launch towards Earth’s magnetic field. This impact, estimated to hit on July 31st, could have caused an intense geomagnetic storm capable of disrupting India’s power system and creating the blackouts on August 1st.

Pictured above is the M6-Class Solar Flare, taken by NASA’s Solar Dynamics Observatory.

The sun is in “Solar Cycle 24”, deemed by NASA’s reports a “below-average” cycle, which is estimated to birth a mere 90 sunspots before 2013. Despite its classification seeming harmless, such cycles are known to yield surprisingly severe solar weather.

If this solar event is related to the incident in India, what could that say about Earth’s future?

In a 2009 article by NASA, the panel chairman of NOAA’s Space Weather Prediction Center noted that the “Carrington Event”, a well-known geomagnetic storm in the mid 1800’s, “electrified transmission cables, set fires in telegraph offices, and produced Northern Lights so bright that people could read newspapers by their … glow.”

Above is the sketch of the “Carrington Event” sunspots by Richard Carrington on September 1st, 1859, courtesy of the Royal Astronomical Society and Richard Carrington via NASA.

The NOAA predicts a cycle in 2013 that shares a similar resemblance to the one that held the “Carrington Event”. Instead of setting fire to telegraph offices, however, the consequences in modern times could be much more daunting to face. According to an article expounding upon a 2008 report by the National Academy of Sciences, “if a storm similar to the storm of 1859 occurred today, it could cause $1 to 2 trillion in damages and require 4 to 10 years for complete recovery”.

To download and read the National Academy of Sciences report (Severe Space Weather Events–Understanding Societal and Economic Impacts), click here.

As evidenced by last week’s outages in India, many nations’ power grids are simply not capable of surviving an event of that scale. In that instance, it would be up to the people to sustain themselves and prepare for longer outages. In conjunction with the solar flares’ potential effect on power grids, last week’s events brought attention to the outdated grids that exist around the world, becoming a concern for many countries.

Even the U.S. Department of Energy admits there are “many hazards associated with operating the 20th century grid in the 21st century” and that “the grid is struggling to keep up” with consumer demand.

The combination of these faulty power grids with atypical space weather could result in a perspective-changing energetic event capable of limiting (or even crippling) national economies.

To keep an eye on the sun’s activity, visit

One Response to "The Unexamined Cause for Massive Blackouts: Solar Flares and Outdated Power Grids"

  1. Daniella says:

    A beautifully written article. The significant effects of solar activity on various earth processes is something that I have always found to be conspicuously missing from possible explanations of occurrences that seem to be likely related to such activity. Thank you for an informative and articulate read!

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