Skip to main content

Michael Byers holds the Canada Research Chair in Global Politics and International Law at the University of British Columbia, and is co-director of the Outer Space Institute.

The Rogers outage was a reminder that the failure of some technologies can make an entire society vulnerable. But we need to remember that software glitches are not the only threat.

At some point – perhaps next year, perhaps decades from now – the entire sky will turn red as a deluge of high-energy particles from the sun strikes Earth’s magnetic field and atmosphere. As a result, power grids, telephones and the Internet could be inoperable for months – perhaps even years.

These “coronal mass ejections” are composed of electrons, protons and other particles. They are unpredictable in severity, timing, speed and direction, but when their path coincides with Earth’s orbital position, dramatic things can happen. The effect of all those particles produces strong auroras; in 1859, in what was called the Carrington Event, people in Hawaii could see the Northern Lights. At the same time, powerful currents are produced in long conductors at ground level. Canada is especially vulnerable to this because Earth’s magnetic field bends inward near the North Pole.

The scale of the damage is directly proportional to society’s reliance on technology: The more electronics we use, the greater the risk. In 1859, telegraph operators received shocks through their equipment. In 1921, a coronal mass ejection disrupted train services in the United States, while telephone switchboards in Sweden caught fire. In 1989, a much smaller storm, just one-tenth the strength of the 1921 event, overloaded the Hydro-Québec grid and left the entire province in darkness for nine hours.

The odds of a major storm striking Earth are about 12 per cent per decade, with the likelihood increasing near the peak of the approximately 11-year solar cycle. At the last peak, in 2012, a coronal mass ejection narrowly missed Earth. And we’re near the peak of the current cycle now.

The most consequential damage of a massive storm would be to the large transformers that turn the high voltages used for long-distance power transmission into the low voltages used in businesses and homes. Each of these transformers could take years to repair or replace. But the fibre-optic cables that support the Internet are also vulnerable, especially the subsea ones, because of the large distances between their repeaters.

Satellites, too, are at risk. When the magnetic field becomes energized, it raises the atmosphere, which increases the drag in low orbits. If a satellite’s on-board thrusters are not powerful enough to counter this effect, it can be dragged down, back to Earth.

What else? Subways and other electric-powered trains would stop. Traffic lights would go dark. The electric pumps used to lift fuel out of gas station storage tanks would fail. After a few days, the backup generators at hospitals might run out of fuel. Water-pumping stations and sewage-treatment facilities would stop working. Supply chains would be cut and borders would have to close. As James Green, NASA’s recently retired chief scientist, told me: “We’ll all be chopping wood and hunting squirrels.”

In 2008, a report by the U.S. National Academy of Sciences estimated that a major solar storm would cost US$1-trillion to US$2-trillion during the first year, with a recovery time of four to 10 years. And then there are the security risks: A sudden loss of power, communications and satellite reconnaissance could easily be misunderstood as resulting from hostile military action.

But there is good news. We can build resilience into power grids, and in some cases we already have. After the 1989 event, Hydro-Québec installed converters that provide some protection against sudden influxes of “direct current” on its transformers. Hospitals can maintain larger stockpiles of fuel. Satellites can be built with better propulsion systems.

Most crucially, we can plan for the manual turning off of power grids, fibre-optic networks and satellites – effectively putting them into “safe mode” – before a major solar storm arrives. But a shutdown would have to be done as soon as we get a warning, for while robotic spacecraft stationed near the sun would provide one, it would arrive only a few hours before the storm itself.

Someone will have to make the tough but necessary decision to put the country on safe mode for about one week. That decision must then be communicated immediately to thousands of government and commercial operators. Last but not least, emergency alerts will have to be sent to the general public before power, cell networks and the Internet are turned off, to prevent unnecessary confusion and panic.

That’s why Canada needs a robust, well-tested protocol for when the warning of a coronal mass ejection is received. If we’re not ready, the effects will be far worse than a day without the Rogers network.

Keep your Opinions sharp and informed. Get the Opinion newsletter. Sign up today.