A 100-year solar storm could fry our power grids — these are the places most at risk

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The sun is the source of nearly all life on Earth. It will also doom our feeble planet in about 1 billion years.

Until then, while the star is still technically on our side, we'll have to worry about giant storms of charged particles that it burps off its roiling, plasmatic surface.

Each blast of particles — called a coronal mass ejection, or solar storm — can pack the explosive energy of thousands or even millions of nuclear bombs.

If such a blast strikes Earth, the wave of particles can bend and snap the magnetic field lines of our planet, trigger powerful geomagnetic storms, and randomly induce electrical currents throughout the world.

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The sun emitted a mid-level solar flare, peaking at 11:50 p.m. EST on Dec. 16, 2014. NASA’s Solar Dynamics Observatory, which watches the sun constantly, captured an image of the event. Solar flares are powerful bursts of radiation. Harmful radiation from a flare cannot pass through Earth's atmosphere to physically affect humans on the ground, however -- when intense enough -- they can disturb the atmosphere in the layer where GPS and communications signals travel. (NASA)
This image provided by NASA shows the sun releasing a M1.7 class flare associated with a prominence eruption on April, 16, 2012. This image was taken by the Solar Dynamics Observatory. This visually spectacular explosion occurred on the sun's Northeastern limb (left) and was not Earth directed. (AP Photo/NASA/SDO/AIA)
The sun emitted a significant solar flare, peaking at 1:48 p.m. EDT on Sept. 10, 2014. NASA's Solar Dynamics Observatory captured images of the event. Solar flares are powerful bursts of radiation....
NASA reported the sun emitted a mid-level solar flare, on August 24th. NASA's Solar Dynamics Observatory captured the images of the flare, which erupted on the left side of the sun. (Sept. 1)
This blend of two images taken by NASA’s Solar Dynamics Observatory shows a solar eruption that occurred on May 12, 2013. One image shows light in the 171-angstrom wavelength, the other in 131 angstroms. Scientists say the Mother’s Day solar flare was the strongest of the year and occurred on the side of the sun that faced away from Earth. (AP Photo/NASA's Solar Dynamics Observatory)
This July 2012 image taken from video provided by NASA's Solar Dynamics Observatory (SDO) shows ribbons of plasma and magnetic lines bursting from the sun. Stretching from one active region to another, magnetic field lines cause the looping formations. (AP Photo/Solar Dynamics Observatory/NASA)
This false-color image provided by NASA shows a solar flare, lower center, erupting from the sun on Thursday, July 12, 2012. Space weather scientists said there should be little impact to Earth. The flare erupted from a region which rotated into view on July 6, 2012. (AP Photo/NASA)
In this Tuesday, Jan. 7, 2014 image made available by NASA, a giant cloud of solar particles, a coronal mass ejection, explodes off the sun, lower right, captured by the European Space Agency and NASA's Solar and Heliospheric Observatory. The sun is obscured to show the atmosphere around it. The solar flare caused the cancellation of a launch to the International Space Station on Wednesday, Jan. 8, 2014. (AP Photo/ESA, NASA - SOHO)
This image provided by NASA shows a solar flare early Tuesday, Aug. 9, 2011, the largest in 5 years. The image was was captured by NASA's Solar Dynamics Observatory (SDO) in extreme ultraviolet light at 131 Angstroms. Scientists say the bursts of radiation hurled by the solar blast were not in the direction of Earth, so there’ll be little impact to satellites and communication systems. (AP Photo/NASA)
In this x-ray photo provided by NASA, the sun is shown early in the morning of Sunday, Aug. 1, 2010. The dark arc near the top right edge of the image is a filament of plasma blasting off the surface _ part of the coronal mass ejection. The bright region is an unassociated solar flare. When particles from the eruption reach Earth on the evening of Aug. 3-4, they may trigger a brilliant auroral display known as the Northern Lights. (AP Photo/NASA)
A powerful solar flare that erupted Wednesday afternoon Oct.29, 2003, at 3:48 pm EST, is seen with the Extreme ultraviolet Imaging Telescope aboard NASA's SOHO satellite.The telescope is sensitive to extreme ultraviolet light, resulting in the green hue. The event was the second in as many days.(AP Photo /NASA )
IN SPACE - FEBRUARY 15: In a screen grab taken from a handout timelapse sequence provided by NASA / SDO, a solar spot in the centre of the Sun is captured from which the first X-class flare was emitted in four years on February 14, 2011. The images taken by NASA's Solar Dynamics Observatory (SDO) spacecraft reveal the source of the strongest flare to have been released in four years by the Sun, leading to warnings that a resulting geo-magnetic storm may cause disruption to communications and electrical supplies once it reaches the earths magnetic field. (Image by NASA/Solar Dynamics Observatory via Getty Images)
IN SPACE - MARCH 6: In this handout from NASA/Solar Dynamics Observatory (SDO), a X5.4 solar flare, the largest in five years, erupts from the sun's surface March 6, 2012. According to reports, particles from the flare are suppose to reach earth early March 7, possibly disrupting technology such as GPS system, satellite networks and airline flights. (Photo by NASA/Solar Dynamics Observatory (SDO) via Getty Images)
NASA released powerful footage showing over a half a dozen solar flares in one day. A solar flare occurs when magnetic energy that has been built up in the solar atmosphere is suddenly released with intense variation of brightness. Photo: NASA/SDO
The US Space Agency Nasa has released new footage showing a series of powerful solar flares.
This image provided by NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center shows a significant solar flare erupting on June 10, 2014. The sun has emitted 3 X-class solar flares in two days. X-class denotes the most intense solar flares. (AP Photo/Goddard Space Flight Center)
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Humanity first learned about geomagnetic storms the hard way during the 1859 Carrington Event. That's when our then-newfangled electrical systems shocked us, shot sparks out of pylons, and lit telegraph papers on fire.

Today, those aberrant currents can overload, disrupt, or fry our most coveted modern technologies, including satellites and cellphone communication.

While the most persistent threat is to our electrical power grids, a new mapping effort by the US Geological Survey (USGS) shows how the hazards of geomagnetic storms are not the same all over Earth.

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"Power grids are grounded, so they can pick up electric fields generated deep inside the Earth. But that geoelectric activity depends on the geology, and that's different from one region to the next," Jeffrey Love, a research physicist at the USGS and leader of the new study in Geophysical Research Letters, told Business Insider.

At the center of the study is a new map of the hazards posed by geomagnetic storms of a strength that scientists expect to occur every 100 years — five times more frequently than "500-year" storms like the Carrington Event.

The map (below) is missing major regions, since the survey work that helped make it is not complete.

Meanwhile, the US government expects such storms could inflict $2 trillion worth of damage and a recovery effort that might drag out for months or years.

The danger to the grid

geomagnetic solar storm electrical induction power line hazard mapNASA/SDO

The map above shows where a geomagnetic storm's on-the-ground risk is the greatest in the US.

The darker the shade of red dot, the more electricity the ground will generate and conduct voltage into the power grid. Gray areas show where there is not yet enough data to map a geoelectric hazard.

While a volt or two — roughly equivalent to a small alkaline battery — spread over a kilometer may not seem like much, Love says the numbers are deceiving.

First, power transmission lines can extend for dozens or even hundreds of miles, so the voltage adds up. Second, the voltage fluctuates as wildly as the geomagnetic storm that's causing it in the ground.

"That's uncontrolled voltage in a system designed to control voltage. And it's not alternating current, it's more like a direct current," Love said. "That's something electrical transformers really don't like. They heat up and the coils inside can get fried."

When power transformers do go down, the damage is rarely isolated; disruptions can ripple across power grids and cause catastrophe.

For example, during the last major geomagnetic storm experienced by Earth in 1989, the entire Canadian province of Quebec went dark when a critical Canadian hydroelectric plant went down. Nearly 100 US electrical utilities connected by grid to the plant were disrupted as a result.

Meanwhile, GPS signals — which guide airplanes — were also lost for about 10 minutes, and auroras (caused by solar particles slamming into Earth's atmosphere) raced as far south as Cuba.

RELATED: See some of the most gorgeous solar eclipses

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A partial solar eclipse is seen through clouds in Hyderabad, Pakistan on Wednesday, July 22, 2009. The longest solar eclipse of the 21st century pitched a swath of Asia into near-darkness after dawn, as millions watched the once-in-a-lifetime phenomenon Wednesday. (AP Photo/Shakil Adil)
This combo shows different phases of the solar eclipse seen from Longyearbyen, Svalbard, an archipeligo administered by Norway, on March 20, 2015. AFP PHOTO / NTB SCANPIX / HAKON MOSVOLD LARSEN +++ NORWAY OUT (Photo credit should read Hakon Mosvold Larsen/AFP/Getty Images)
An annular solar eclipse is partially seen at sunrise Monday, May 21, 2012, from the coastal township of Gumaca, Quezon province, 187 kilometers (116 miles) southeast of Manila, Philippines. Millions of Asians watched as a rare "ring of fire" eclipse crossed their skies early Monday. The annular eclipse, in which the moon passes in front of the sun leaving only a golden ring around its edges, was visible to wide areas across the continent. (AP Photo/Bullit Marquez)
A total solar eclipse can be seen in Svalbard, Longyearbyen, Norway, on March 20, 2015. A partial eclipse of varying degrees is visible, depending on weather conditions, across most of Europe, northern Africa, northwest Asia and the Middle East, before finishing its show close to the North Pole. AFP PHOTO / NTB SCANPIX / HAAKON MOSVOLD LARSEN +++ NORWAY OUT (Photo credit should read Haakon Mosvold Larsen/AFP/Getty Images)
SOMERSET, UNITED KINGDOM - MARCH 20: A view of a partial solar eclipse in progress on March 20, 2015 in Somerset, England. Many parts of Europe bore witness as the largest solar eclipse since 1999 swept over the continent during the early hours of the morning. Only the Faroe Islands in the North Atlantic and Svalbard in the Arctic saw a total solar eclipse during this event. PHOTOGRAPH BY iVistaphotography / Barcroft UK Office, London. T +44 845 370 2233 W www.barcroftmedia.com USA Office, New York City. T +1 212 796 2458 W www.barcroftusa.com Indian Office, Delhi. T +91 11 4053 2429 W www.barcroftindia.com
The moon starts to block the sun during a solar eclipse over a statue of the Duomo gothic cathedral in Milan, Italy, Friday, March 20, 2015. An eclipse is darkening parts of Europe on Friday in a rare solar event that won't be repeated for more than a decade. (AP Photo/Luca Bruno)
UNSPECIFIED, UNSPECIFIED - MARCH 20: A rare partial solar eclipse is seen over Northamptonshire on March 20, 2015 in Northampton, England. (Photo by Clive Mason/Getty Images)
On 22 July 2009 the longest total solar eclipse of the 21st century was photographed from the Pacific Ocean for over 6.5 minutes. (Photo credit: Getty)
HÃFN, ICELAND - MARCH 20: The moon is moving out to the left during the solar eclipse on march 20, 2015 in Höfn, South Iceland. PHOTOGRAPH BY Pall Jokull / Barcroft Media (Photo credit should read Pall Jokull / Barcroft Media via Getty Images)
The moon slides across the sun, showing a blazing halo of light, during an annular solar eclipse at a waterfront park in Yokohama, near Tokyo, Monday, May 21, 2012. Millions of Asians watched as a rare "ring of fire" eclipse crossed their skies early Monday. The annular eclipse, in which the moon passes in front of the sun leaving only a golden ring around its edges, was visible to wide areas across the continent. (AP Photo/Shuji Kajiyama)
The moon passes between the sun and the earth during a total solar eclipse in Varanasi, India, Wednesday, July 22, 2009. The longest solar eclipse of the 21st century pitched a swath of Asia from India to China into near darkness Wednesday as millions gathered to watch the phenomenon. (AP Photo/Saurabh Das)
HÃFN, ICELAND - MARCH 20: A composite image of the first half of the solar eclipse where sun is visible just over the horizon on march 20, 2015 in Höfn, South Iceland. PHOTOGRAPH BY Pall Jokull / Barcroft Media (Photo credit should read Pall Jokull / Barcroft Media via Getty Images)
A partial solar eclipse visible over a statue located at the rooftop of Austrian Art History Museum in Vienna on March 20, 2015. PHOTO / JOE KLAMAR (Photo credit should read JOE KLAMAR/AFP/Getty Images)
A total solar eclipse can be seen in Svalbard, Longyearbyen, Norway, on March 20, 2015. A partial eclipse of varying degrees is visible, depending on weather conditions, across most of Europe, northern Africa, northwest Asia and the Middle East, before finishing its show close to the North Pole. AFP PHOTO / NTB SCANPIX / JON OLAV NESVOLD +++ NORWAY OUT (Photo credit should read JON OLAV NESVOLD/AFP/Getty Images)
A combo of three pictures shows the progression of a partial solar eclipse on March 20, 2015 over Strasbourg, eastern France. A partial eclipse of varying degrees is visible, depending on weather conditions, across most of Europe, northern Africa, northwest Asia and the Middle East, before finishing its show close to the North Pole. AFP PHOTO / FREDERICK FLORIN (Photo credit should read FREDERICK FLORIN/AFP/Getty Images)
A total solar eclipse is seen from an aircraft over Patna, India, Wednesday, July 22, 2009. The longest solar eclipse of the 21st century pitched a swath of Asia into near-darkness after dawn, as millions watched the once-in-a-lifetime phenomenon Wednesday. (AP Photo/Shreya Sahai)
MUNICH, GERMANY - MARCH 20: The sun is pictured during a partial solar eclipse on March 20, 2015 in Muncih, Germany. Over Central Europe the moon was scheduled to cover approximately 75% of the sun for a short period starting at approximately 9:30am. The next solar eclipse will not occur until 2021. (Photo by Alexander Hassenstein/Getty Images)
An annular solar eclipse occurs as the moon passes between the earth and the sun as partially seen at sunrise Monday, May 21, 2012, from coastal township of Gumaca, Quezon province, 187 kilometers (116 miles) southeast of Manila, Philippines. Millions of Asians watched as a rare "ring of fire" eclipse crossed their skies early Monday. (AP Photo/Bullit Marquez)
A solar eclipse is seen in Nairobi, Kenya, Friday, Jan. 15, 2010. Several Kenyan towns experienced the annual solar eclipse. (AP Photo/Sayyid Azim)
ABERDEEN TO BIRMINGHAM, UNITED KINGDOM - MARCH 20: A partial solar eclipse is observed during a flight between Aberdeen to Birmingham on March 20, 2015. (Photo by Tolga Akmen/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images)
GLOUCESTERSHIRE, UNITED KINGDOM - MARCH 20: A composite picture of the eclipse taken through a candle-smoke glass on March 20, 2015 in Gloucestershire, England. PHOTOGRAPH BY Jules Annan / Barcroft Media (Photo credit should read Jules Annan / Barcroft Media via Getty Images)
ICELAND - MARCH 20: A view of the partial solar eclipse as seen on March 20, 2015 in Iceland. PHOTOGRAPH BY Bragi Kort / Barcroft Media (Photo credit should read Bragi Kort / Barcroft Media via Getty Images)
SEVEROMORSK, RUSSIA - MARCH 20: A partial solar eclipse is visible through Russian solders on Russian North on March 20, 2015 in Severomorsk-3, Russia. (Photo Anatoly Zhdanov/Kommersant Photo via Getty Images)
Die partielle Sonnenfinsternis, fotografiert am Freitag, 1. August 2008, durch ein Teleskop der Sternwarte der Fachhochschule in Kiel. In Norddeutschland war die Sonne zu etwa einem Viertel ihres Durchmessers verdunkelt. Die totatle Finsternis war nur entlang der Zentrallinie, die vom Norden Kanadas ueber Groenland, Russland, China und die Mongolei verlaeuft, zu sehen. (AP Photo/Kieler Planetarium e.V.) ** NUR ZUR REDAKTIONELLEN VERWENDUNG; MANDATORY CREDIT ** --- The partial solar eclipse pictured through the telescope of the observatory of the University of Applied Science in Kiel, northern Germany, on Friday, Aug. 1, 2008. (AP Photo/Kieler Planetarium e.V.) ** EDITORIAL USE ONLY; MANDATORY CREDIT **
This photo provided by Tourism Queensland shows a total solar eclipse observed on Green Island, Queensland state, Australia, Wednesday, Nov. 14, 2012. Starting just after dawn, the eclipse cast its 150-kilometer (95-mile) shadow in Australia's Northern Territory, crossed the northeast tip of the country and was swooping east across the South Pacific, where no islands are in its direct path. (AP Photo/Tourism Queensland)
A partial solar eclipse of the sun is visible over Glasgow, Scotland on March 20, 2015. AFP PHOTO / ANDY BUCHANAN (Photo credit should read Andy Buchanan/AFP/Getty Images)
A combination of five pictures shows the motion of the moon as it passes the face of the sun during a partial solar eclipse seen through a break in the cloud cover over Scarborough, Northern England on March 20, 2015. AFP PHOTO / OLI SCARFF (Photo credit should read OLI SCARFF/AFP/Getty Images)
AKUREYRI, ICELAND - MARCH 20: The 2015 Solar Eclipse viewed at Akureyri on March 20 2015 in Iceland. PHOTOGRAPH BY Einar Gudmann / Barcroft Media (Photo credit should read Einar Gudmann / Barcroft Media via Getty Images)
A picture taken on March 20, 2015 shows a partial solar eclipse of the sun visible over the Israeli coastal city of Tel Aviv. AFP PHOTO / JACK GUEZ (Photo credit should read JACK GUEZ/AFP/Getty Images)
A combo of 9 pictures taken on March 20, 2015 in Gaiberg near Heidelberg, southwestern Germany, shows a partial solar eclipse from the beginning (top, L) to the end (bottom, R). A partial eclipse of varying degrees is visible, depending on weather conditions, across most of Europe, northern Africa, northwest Asia and the Middle East, before finishing its show close to the North Pole. AFP PHOTO / DANIEL ROLAND (Photo credit should read DANIEL ROLAND/AFP/Getty Images)
COTSWOLDS, UNITED KINGDOM - MARCH 20: A rare partial solar eclipse is seen at 09.46 over Burford on March 20, 2015 in the Cotswolds, United Kingdom. The solar eclipse, which occurs when the Moon passes between the Sun and the Earth, started at 08:24 GMT and continues until 10:41 GMT, with the maximum obscuration of the Sun happening at 09:31 GMT. The last significant solar eclipse visible from the UK was on 11 August, 1999. (Photo by Tim Graham/Getty Images)
An annular solar eclipse is seen in the sky over Male, Maldives, Friday, Jan. 15, 2010. Thousands of people viewed the spectacle of the eclipse of the sun looking skywards through special filter eyeglasses as the moon crosses its path blocking everything but a narrow, blazing rim of light. (AP Photo/Ali Nishan)
This combo of different phases of the solar eclipse seen from Longyearbyen, Svalbard, an archipeligo administered by Norway, on March 20, 2015. AFP PHOTO / NTB SCANPIX / Jon Olav Nesvold +++ NORWAY OUT (Photo credit should read JON OLAV NESVOLD/AFP/Getty Images)
A man uses a protective slide to watch as the moon passes infront of the Earth's star marking a total eclipse, the only one this year, in Vigo, northwestern Spain on March 20, 2015. The Norwegian archipelago of Svalbard, located 1,300 kilometres (800 miles) from the North Pole, is along with the Faroe Islands the only place the total eclipse will be visible, assuring three minutes of total darkness when the moon totally blocks the sun. AFP PHOTO/ MIGUEL RIOPA (Photo credit should read MIGUEL RIOPA/AFP/Getty Images)
The moon passes infront of the Earth's star marking the begining of a total eclipse, the only one this year, in Vigo, northwestern Spain on March 20, 2015. The Norwegian archipelago of Svalbard, located 1,300 kilometres (800 miles) from the North Pole, is along with the Faroe Islands the only place the total eclipse will be visible, assuring three minutes of total darkness when the moon totally blocks the sun. AFP PHOTO/ MIGUEL RIOPA (Photo credit should read MIGUEL RIOPA/AFP/Getty Images)
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And all it took, says Love, was a geoelectric surge of about 2 volts per kilometer.

"We've found a lot of areas in the US that could exceed that voltage," Love said.

The map's 'missing' Northeast

To generate the US-wide geomagnetic storm hazard map, Love and his team merged two important sets of data.

One was several decades' worth of geomagnetic storm measurements, taken by monitoring stations all over the nation. The other was an ongoing "magnetotelluric" survey.

During a magnetotelluric survey, crews stick big electrodes into the soil, record the signal with recording machines, and move the stations over a large area for several weeks. The data they pick up reveals how rock layers, the water table, and other factors deep underground affect the conductivity of that region — and, in step, how much electricity a geomagnetic storm can induce there.

Love said large regions of the map are empty because there's currently no congressionally approved plan to map the US Northeast.

"Hello, that's where a lot of people live," Love said. "It's also where a lot of power grid infrastructures is located, and it's sitting on top of some complicated geology."

Love's concern for mapping the US Northeast is well-founded.

When hot weather drove up electrical demand in August 2003, and transmission lines sagged into overgrown trees in Ohio, 55 million people in the Northeast lost power for days. Sewage treatment plants went offline, railways suspended service, gas stations couldn't pump fuel, and mobile communications were disrupted.

"I hope that we can complete this survey for the rest of the country," Love said. "The map raises an obvious question: what about the other half?"

Love estimates it'd take a year and about $500,000 to hire crews to fill in New England and nearby regions on the new map.

"The hope is to help power utilities find out where their networks have weaknesses, how their systems might respond, and how they could alleviate problems," Love said. "If we don't do it, we don't know what the risk is in the Northeast ... Given the stakes, which are quite high, and the costs, which are quite low, it's worth it. $500,000 is about the price of a condo."

What's the deal with Minnesota?

electrical power transmission lines united states useiaNASA/SDO

One of the most at-risk areas on the new USGS map is northern Minnesota.

Love says this is due to "complex" geology in the region, plus the fact that planet's magnetic fields funnel high-energy solar particles toward Earth's poles.

The hazardous areas map directly onto or close to several major Minnesota transmission lines (in purple):

electrical power transmission lines minnesota useiaNASA/SDO

Business Insider forwarded the new USGS study and map to the Minnesota Public Utilities Commission (MPUC), which regulates the state's electricity industry.

A MPUC representative declined to comment and instead directed us to contact the Midcontinent Independent System Operator, Inc. (MISO) — a nonprofit organization that oversees high-voltage power grid infrastructure and reliability across Minnesota, 14 other US states in the Midwest (in whole and in part), and parts of Canada. MISO didn't immediately provide comment.

We also contacted Allete, a company whose Minnesota Power (MP) utility serves more than 140,000 state residents and "some of the nation's largest industrial customers."

The company sent us comments from Kyle Rogers, a system performance engineer at MP, via an email from an Allete representative.

"In general, Minnesota Power has been aware for a long time that northern Minnesota is a hazardous location for geoelectric events and what we need to do to monitor and protect our system equipment and to design for potential disturbances," Rogers told Business Insider. "Also, the science behind GMD's [geomagnetic disturbances] and why we are at a heightened risk for has not ever changed."

Rogers added that the utility is signed up to receive alerts about solar storms from NOAA's Space Weather Prediction Center, then respond by keeping a close eye on the utility's transmission infrastructure for voltage swings and rising transformer temperatures.

He also said that while the new USGS research is "VERY useful for the entire electric industry," no utilities can yet act on it.

"This will change in the near-future, as everybody will be required to study a benchmark GMD event" for an upcoming standard being issued by the North American Electric Reliability Corporation. "At that point, the technical details in this research paper will provide important guidance when the industry works collaboratively on detailed planning models."

We forwarded Allete's response to Love, which included a 1991 industry-led study, and he said it was "very interesting."

"Insofar as they were aware of some geoelectric hazards associated with Northern Minnesota, our analysis puts all of this into a broader continental scale," Love said.

While the electric industry catches up to the threat posed by the sun, the best we can do is hope the next solar storm misses our planet — one barely missed us in July 2012 — and try to prepare for the worst.

NOW WATCH: The White House has a plan in case a solar storm wipes out our technology

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