It feels like everyday we are becoming more and more dependent on our computers, smartphones, and tablets. We now use them to read the news, send messages, call people, watch TV, get directions, make reservations, pay for things, take pictures, edit pictures, and read books. We use them as alarm clocks, weather stations, instrument tuners, metronomes, flashlights, blood pressure monitors, pedometersand the list goes on and on and on.
So what happens if it all stops?
On March 13, 1989, the entire province of Quebec, Canada suffered an electrical power blackout. Although hundreds of blackouts occur in some part of North America every year, the Quebec Blackout was different, because this one was caused by a solar storm!
The Quebec Blackout was by no means a local event. Some of the U.S. electrical utilities experienced their own problems that required attention. New York Power lost 150 megawatts the moment the Quebec power grid went down. The New England Power Pool lost 1,410 megawatts at about the same time. Service to 96 electrical utilities in New England was interrupted while other reserves of electrical power were brought online. Fortunately the U.S. had the power to spare at the time, but it was just enough. Across the United States from coast to coast, over 200 power grid problems erupted within minutes of the start of the March 13 storm but luckily none of these caused a blackout.
So what are these solar storms that can cause so much disruption to our electrical infrastructure on earth? There are many kinds of eruptions that occur on the sun’s surface. One is known as a coronal mass ejection (CME). It is a gigantic explosion of energy. A solar flare is also produced from an explosion of energy from the sun although it does differ from the CME. The difference lies in what they emit during the explosion. They also look and travel differently, and they have different effects near planets. The two phenomena do sometimes occur at the same time and the strongest flares are almost always correlated with coronal mass ejections.
Both eruptions are created when the motion of the sun’s interior contorts its own magnetic fields. Similar to the sudden release of a twisted rubber band, the magnetic fields explosively realign, driving vast amounts of energy into space. This phenomenon can create a sudden flash of light, also known as a solar flare. These flares can last minutes to hours and they contain tremendous amounts of energy. Traveling at the speed of light, it takes eight minutes for the light from a solar flare to reach Earth. Some of the energy released in the flare also accelerates very high energy particles that can reach Earth in tens of minutes.
When a CME arrives at Earth, its magnetic field interacts with that of our planet’s and disturbs the ionosphere — the layer of the atmosphere through which radio signals travel. Thousands of satellites also drift through the ionosphere, so a serious CME could disrupt the world’s entire telecommunications infrastructure.
On September 1-2, 1859 the earth experienced a massive solar storm, known as the Carrington Event. It was a powerful geomagnetic solar storm that hit the Earth’s magnetosphere and induced one of the largest geomagnetic storms on record. Auroras were seen around the world. At the time, electricity was used mostly to power telegraph systems, which failed all over Europe and North America, and in some cases gave telegraph operators electric shocks. Because the electrical infrastructure in place at the time was miniscule in comparison to what we have to day, the damage was limited in terms of the disruption it caused to people’s daily lives.
The Quebec incident in 1989, in comparison to the Carrington Event was considered a relatively minor CME. However, it was strong enough to shut down power for 6 million people in Canada. It is believed that a stronger geomagnetic storm could shroud about 130 million in darkness, possibly for months or years.
The San Francisco Treat
On April 22, 2017, a massive power outage created chaos in San Francisco for most of the work day. The outage was triggered by a fire in a PG&E Corp. utility substation and caused disruption toSan Francisco’s normally bustling financial district, home to banks and technology companies.
Traffic signals were knocked out, paralyzing businesses and halting the city’s famed cable cars. Office workers were unable to access elevators or use their keycards. Wells Fargo & Co closed 13 bank branches and four office buildings, while the New York Stock Exchange said its ARCA options trading floor in San Francisco was briefly unavailable. Employees in Goldman Sachs’ financial district office were sent home. For many others, there was little to do but wait.
Not in full flight!
On July 21, 2016, Southwest Airlines canceled 1,150 flights. The trouble stemmed from a “system outage,” and the ground stop lasted for just over an hour.
On August 8, 2016, Delta Air Lines flights were grounded for at least six hours by a global computer system outage, causing large-scale cancellations and stranding hundreds of thousands of passengers. Delta, the world’s second largest airline, said the problem was a power outage at its Atlanta hub. The local electric utility, Georgia Power, said the problem was “a failure overnight in a piece of equipment known as switchgear” that affected only Delta.
On May 27 of this year, thousands of British Airways customers had their flights cancelled or delayed after a worldwide computer failure. Screens went blank at British Airways check-in desks across the globe as the company’s computerised passenger and baggage handling system failed. Apparently, a problem within the hub of their system, based near Heathrow, had led to a power outage. British Airways has a very large IT infrastructure with over 500 data cabinets spread across six halls in two different sites near its Heathrow HQ.
It was later determined that the root cause of the London flight-grounding IT systems was “a power supply issue”. The airline cancelled all flights from London’s Heathrow and Gatwick amid what BAconfirmed to be a “global IT system failure”.
Down and out Bankers
On 9 June, 2012, the worst banking meltdown to date hit millions of customers of the Royal Bank of Scotland, NatWest and Ulster Bank, locking them out of their accounts for days, and in the case of Ulster Bank customers, for weeks. The meltdown hit not only customers of the three brands owned by the RBS Group, but also people who were expecting salary payments from businesses that held accounts with the bank and other transfers between banks. The incident is believed to have cost the bank more than £100m.
On August 04, 2012, the U.S. Bancorp experienced a two-hour outage that affected its 8,000 automatic teller machines across the nation. The owner of the Minneapolis-based U.S. Bank said that a power failure in Oregon was to blame. The U.S. Bank has more than 3,000 bank offices in 25 states. It’s the fifth-largest commercial bank in the U.S., with $353 billion in assets.
On January 26, 2014, Lloyds Bank and TSB experienced a technological meltdown, which led to many people being unable to withdraw money or use their cards. Lloyds said the problem was affecting debit cards and its internet banking service but not credit cards, while TSB said some customers were unable to use debit cards or withdraw money from ATMs.
On June 17, 2015, RBS suffered another IT incident where it admitted that it could take days for customers to receive 600,000 payments that failed to enter accounts overnight.
On October 21, 2016, Dyn, a company that controls much of the internet’s domain name system (DNS) infrastructure, had their servers hacked. They remained under sustained assault for most of the day, bringing down sites including Twitter, the Guardian, Netflix, Reddit, CNN and many others in Europe and the US. The cause of the outage was a distributed denial of service (DDoS) attack, in which a network of computers infected with special malware, known as a “botnet,” are coordinated into bombarding a server with traffic until it collapses under the strain.
On November 24, 2014, a cyberattack was launched on Sony Pictures. Employees logging on to its network were met with the sound of gunfire and scrolling threats. The attack wiped out half of Sony’s global network. It erased everything stored on 3,262 of the company’s 6,797 personal computers and 837 of its 1,555 servers. To make sure nothing could be recovered, the attackers configured a special deleting algorithm that overwrote the data seven different ways. When that was done, the code zapped each computer’s startup software, rendering the machines brain-dead.
We are at risk of coronal mass ejections taking down our electrical grids and computer infrastructures.
We are at risk of power outages knocking out computer systems leading to mass disruptions in numerous areas of our lives, which could be caused by natural disaster or human error.
We are at risk of foreign or domestic cyber attacks which could take down our systems and steal our identification.
So, the question is, as much as we enjoy our technological advances and gadgets that are supposed to be making our lives more productive and easier, are we being irresponsible by placing ourselves at the mercy of their flawless continued functionality?
Think about that next time you are stranded because you have had your flight cancelled, be rendered helpless by the theft of your identification and medical records, left penniless because you can’t access your savings or just left in the dark because the application that controls the lighting in your internet of things home has been rendered useless.
Look on the bright side, the last example can be rectified by some matches and a good old candle. It has been functioning since the dawn of man.