The 1989 Quebec Blackout

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CraigBaird

On March 13, 1989, Planet Earth was attacked from space. The attack would leave millions without power, costing millions in damages. While it may seem like I am talking about an alien attack that slipped under the radar, I am actually talking about something much more likely, a solar storm.

On March 10 and March 12, two massive coronal mass ejections were shot out by the sun during a very active solar cycle. The first solar flare was an X4.5, which was then followed by a massive M7.3. The first ejection hit the planet and cleared a path for the second, stronger ejection, which struck the Earth on March 13 and becoming a part of Canadian lore. The second ejection was 36 Earths in size, travelling from the sun to the Earth at 1.6 million kilometres per hour.

The solar storm would hit Quebec especially hard.

Prior to the storm hitting, Hydro-Quebec was given an alert but no precautions were taken because none were possible at the time.

The variations in the magnetic field of Earth would trip the circuit breakers on Hydro-Quebec’s power grid. Due to the fact that Quebec sits on a massive rock shield called The Canadian Shield, this prevented the current from flowing through the Earth as would be typical elsewhere. The current from the solar storm needed to go somewhere, and it found a better path through the high-voltage transmission lines of the province. It then flowed into the power lines and transformers, quickly overwhelming them, shutting down the province’s power. The imbalance in the 750-kilovolt transmission line tripped breakers 150 kilometres away. The long transmission lines in the province added another issue for when the storm hit.

At the time, Hydro-Quebec knew for two decades that its long transmission lines, north-south axis, and the Canadian Shield, made it especially susceptible to magnetic storms. The province had looked at splitting the system into two to prevent provincewide blackouts but this was abandoned.

Andre Mercier with Hydro-Quebec would state quote:

“Splitting the system in two would leave us with two very weak systems.”

The power failures would extend into the United States where over 200 grid faults occurred, but operators were able to work around the issues and avoid any major blackouts.

The James Bay network would go offline in less than 90 seconds, shutting down 21 gigawatts of supply, and sending the entire province into the dark for nine hours. An estimated six million people lost power. People woke up to cold homes, businesses and schools closed, and the Montreal Metro had to shut down despite morning rush hour, while the airport also had to close.

The blackout would cause many citizens of Quebec to levy blame to the provincial government, not realizing the enormity of the event. Most believed it was just a blackout because of an undermaintained power grid.

The blackout was the third province-wide power failure to occur in the previous 12 months. There had also been 19,000 smaller power failures throughout the province in that same amount of time. During the first 10 months of 1988, there were five times more power failures in Montreal than in Toronto.

Premier Robert Bourassa would state quote:

“The government has been worried by recent events and realizes there are serious consequences for consumers so we are taking concrete steps.”

An executive with a plastics company that lost thousands in the outage levied his anger at Hydro-Quebec, stating quote:

“If a private company gave service as bad as that of Hydro-Quebec, it would have to close its doors.”

Some would state that a royal commission needed to be commissioned to determine why the province lost power. Premier Bourassa would state quote:

“Until we know the cause of the blackout, the request for a royal commission is premature.”

Norm Cohen, a solar forecaster would say quote:

“We know there’s definitely adverse effects on power grids and transmission systems due to magnetic field activity.”

Hydro-Quebec would play down the role of a magnetic storm, stating in a release quote:

“No direct link has been established.”

Even columnists, such as Don MacPherson, would lambast the theory stating quote:

“Really, Hydro-Quebec. An explosion on the sun? What’ll the excuse be the next time we have a major blackout, which judging by Hydro’s recent track record, could be any time? The family dog ate all the electricity? Some big kids stole it? Extraterrestrials using a Hydro transmission line to boost a frozen battery on their UFO? Who does Hydro have thinking up its excuses? A committee of imaginative eight-year-olds whose previous experience was explaining to their teachers why they didn’t have their homework done?”

To counter the outage, the New York Power Authority would provide 700 megawatts of power to the province, while selling another 300 megawatts more if needed.

Outside of Quebec, the aurora could be seen as far south as Texas and Florida, leading some people to worry that a nuclear first strike had occurred. There was shortwave radio interference, and several satellites in polar orbits lost control for hours. NASA’s TDRS-1 communication satellite recorded 250 anomalies because of increased particles impacting its electronics. The Space Shuttle Discovery was also in orbit and suffered a sensor malfunction.

By March 15, the news was reporting that the cause of the blackout was a solar flare and its interaction with the unique Canadian Shield geography of Quebec.

The power failure cost the province tens of millions of dollars in lost revenue. At the General Motors plant in Montreal, the power outage resulted in a loss of $6.6 million. One official would state quote:

“We lost eight hours of production at 44.5 cars per hour. That is 356 cars at about $18,000 each. That doesn’t include the salaries of the people we sent home.”

A steel company in the province lost about $1.5 million, with an official saying quote:

“All the steel that was already on the line in the hot rolling mills is now scrap.”

Everything from greenhouses to aluminum plants reported losses from the day.

One Quebec resident, who lost four tropical fish due to power outages, stated quote:

“I hate Hydro Quebec. If someone from Hydro were to knock on my door right now, I’d punch him in the face.”

Louise Champagne, president of the Union of Professional Engineers, would state quote:

“Magnetic storms aren’t something new, so why couldn’t we handle this one. There’s always an excuse. If its not a magnetic storm, then its salt or ice. If we lived in a tropical climate, I could understand but ice storms aren’t exactly unheard of in Quebec.”

Throughout Quebec, despite the solar storm being the cause, Hydro Quebec was the target of jokes and abuse from radio hosts, citizens, cartoonists and one television show that made fun of the utility company for an entire hour.

Some would defend Hydro-Quebec. Ken Tapping of the National Research Council, would state quote:

“All those motorists sitting at traffic lights and cursing should realize it’s not Hydro’s fault. Hydro-Quebec is innocent. I don’t think an engineer could predict something like this and it’s not something that can be solved by throwing in more money.”

Others would have theories that involved space, but not the sun. Christine Gombas would write quote:

“It was like something used the power from our power station. I’m not a crazy person but I think maybe it was spaceships.”

Jean Claude Roy, vice president of Hydro Quebec, would state quote:

“There was no malfunction of equipment. No human error. We were advised of the impending storm and we took the necessary precautions but there was no way for us to predict just how intense this storm would be. Even a brand new system would not have been able to withstand this kind of storm.”

Rather than let such an event happen again, Quebec decided to learn from the incident. Louis Gibson, an engineer for Hydro Quebec, would say quote:

“To this day, this is the biggest impact a solar storm has had on an electrical utility. So this, for us, was a wakeup call and we had to take this matter very, very seriously.”

The province would spend $2 billion over the course of the next six years to reduce blackouts and prevent such an event from happening again.

After the outage, the company implemented mitigation strategies such as raising the trip level, putting in series compensation on the lines and upgrading monitoring procedures.

Due to the upgrades to the system, it is believed that if such a storm happened today, Quebec would not lose power. The modern grid can handle a one-in-100 year geomagnetic event, and the March 1989 event was a one-in-50 year event.

The storm is considered to be the biggest geomagnetic storm of the space age, the worst such storm since 1930, and the biggest outage ever caused by a geomagnetic storm.

Dr. Victor Gaizauskas would say of the event, and be quite right, stating quote:

“This was an historic event. We’re going to be talking about this for many years to come.”

Information from Space Weather Archive, Scientific America, NASA, Wikipedia, Solarstorms.org, Hackaday, Global News, A 21st Century View of the March 1989 Magnetic Storm, Ottawa Citizen, Montreal Gazette, Windsor Star, North Bay Nugget, Vancouver Sun,

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