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The complexities of storms, outages & repairs

SALISBURY — The Eastern seaboard and upper Midwest are particularly vulnerable to electric blackouts in the event of a massive electromagnetic storm, warned Jeffrey Love of the United States Geologic Survey in a Zoom talk sponsored by the Scoville Memorial Library on Saturday, April 10.

And the contingency is not as remote as it might appear. In 1921, an electromagnetic storm took out a railroad station and communications technology between New York City and Albany, and disrupted communications nationwide.

The 1921 storm occurred between May 13 and 15, 1921. Love said such storms are triggered by solar activity, and travel at incredible speeds to the Earth, arriving in just 24 to 48 hours.

There have been three such storms in relatively recent times —one in September of 1859, the 1921 storm, and in March 1989.

Records on the 1859 storm are limited, but the 20th century storms are well-documented.

Love explained that railroads used telegraph systems for managing the trains. Telegraph (and later telephone) lines ran alongside railroad tracks.

And the rock underneath the tracks doesn’t conduct electricity very well.

That uncontrolled voltage has to go somewhere, and in the New York Railroad storm it went into the telegraph system.

Operators noticed the equipment was getting hot. Ultimately three fires broke out. One of them destroyed the station in Brewster, N.Y.

Amazingly, nobody was killed.

Radio, telegraph and telephone systems were disrupted across the U.S.

The March 1989 storm knocked out the power grid for the Canadian province of Quebec.

Love said a future electromagnetic superstorm would likely cause significant damage to civilian and military satellites, widespread disruption of GPS and radio communications, and widespread power outages.

“Possibly for months,” he added.

Love showed photos of a burned-out transformer in the 1989 storm. He noted that restoring power “isn’t just flipping a switch.” Transformers, he continued, are custom-built for specific parts of the power grid. Replacing them is not a simple or quick job. 

Love’s unit within the USGS has 12 full-time employees who study past events and work on ways to mitigate or avoid superstorm damage in the future.

The work involves space science, geology and engineering.

He showed maps indicating areas of the continental U.S. and their relative susceptibility to geomagnetic storms, with the most vulnerable areas in the upper Midwest (Minnesota, North Dakota) and the Eastern seaboard. Much of the southeast and southwest sections of the country have yet to be mapped.

He concluded that there is a lot of work to be done to “integrate studies of natural geoelectric hazards with studies of power-grid vulnerability so that proper mitigation can be performed, all so as to improve grid resilience.”

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