The Great Geomagnetic Storm of May 1921: Could It happen Again?

Discussion in 'Ham Radio Discussions' started by N1FM, May 16, 2021.

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  1. N1FM

    N1FM Ham Member QRZ Page

    Here are very interesting articles about a giant storm that happened at the end of lazy solar cycle 15.

    May 15, 2021: You know a solar storm is serious when buildings burst into flame. Sounds crazy? It really happened 100 years ago today.

    On May 15, 1921, the biggest solar storm of the 20th century hit Earth. Around 02:00 GMT that Sunday morning a telegraph exchange in Sweden burst into flames. Across the Atlantic, the same thing was going on in New York. Flames engulfed the switch-board at the Brewster station of the Central New England Railroad and quickly spread to destroy the whole building. During the conflagration, long distance telephone lines burned out in New Brunswick; voltages on telegraph lines in the USA spiked as high as 1000 V; and auroras were sighted by ships at sea crossing the equator. It was a Big. Solar. Storm.

    What if it happens again?

    "Suffice it to say, fire would be the least of our worries. Modern technology is far more sensitive to solar activity than the simple copper wires of 1921. The same solar storm today could black out regional power grids, expose air travelers to radiation, knock out satellites, and disable radio-based technologies such as GPS."

    Further Reading

    KM4FVI likes this.
  2. KP4SX

    KP4SX Premium Subscriber QRZ Page

    There was an article in the local paper talking about the aurora being seen here 100 years ago.
    It would be cool to see it but I can only imagine how much disruption there might be.
    PU2OZT likes this.
  3. K8DO

    K8DO Ham Member QRZ Page

    Of course it can. And of course it will.
    In the (very roughly) 5 million years Homo Sap. has been around as a distinct species can you even begin to imagine the number of times the Sun has hit us with a direct broadside blast. No wires in those days. No electronic anything. No one took notice.

    I remember the Aurora of 1958 vividly. We walked to the neighbors a quarter mile away for a birthday party. It was moonless and black except those leaping sheets of color were casting our shadows on the ground as we walked.
    It was silent, of course, and almost frightening because of the silence. If they had made noise I believe it would have seemed quite average, like a summer thunderstorm night.
    The neighbors commented that their phone was quite noisy and almost out of service. We didn't have a phone because of the expense. Our net worth at that time was the clothes on our backs and the baby that took every penny that came in. I was interested in ham radio then but had no equipment.

    The next shot like 1921 will bring the modern world to it's knees instantly. Pipelines, dams, power plants, the entire electrical grid, traffic signals, banks, wall street, military satcoms, weather satellite, satellite broadcasting, TV, radio, - everything will be down. Everything that depends on computer and internet control (and that is EVERYTHING that you see and touch about you) will freeze in an eye blink.
    It wont be the Blue Screen of death, it will be a black screen.
    WA1GXC and PU2OZT like this.
  4. W0PV

    W0PV Ham Member QRZ Page

    Hey, the Cycle 22 March 1989 Geomagnetic Storm was an impressive enough event for me to experience first hand!

    A good thing, I still vividly recall the Auroral E-skip opening it created on 144 MHz SSB, enabling spectacular and spooky-sounding QSO's from my MN QTH and New England, especially with W1SJ.

    But the bad things far outweighed that, outages and disruptions were widespread.

    The total Quebec Blackout, rolling-blackouts and mad scramble in USA power distribution, the halting of Toronto Stock Exchange, some important comms satellites did tumble out-of-control, fear of a nuclear strike, etc.

    How about this one - "Similarly, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) has begun a phased rule-making, published in the Federal Register, to examine the sufficiency of cooling systems of stored spent fuel rods of nuclear power plants now considered vulnerable to long-term power outages from events such as space weather, high-altitude nuclear burst electromagnetic pulses (EMPs) or cyber attacks.[18]"

    What about PIPELINES ??? (many out of fuel gas stations here still today! ;-)

    Interesting to radio amateurs may be these effects,

    "Substantial communications blackouts occurred. The burst caused shortwave radio interference, including the disruption of radio signals from Radio Free Europe into Russia. It was initially believed that the signals had been jammed by the Soviet government.[citation needed]"

    My personal favorite from the 1989 storm wiki article sited,

    Military - One of the few publicly reported military operations impacted was the Australian Army component of the United Nations (UN) peacekeeping force which was deployed to Namibia at the time. The storm occurred just as the advance elements of the contingent arrived in Namibia, but the effects were believed to last for weeks afterwards. The Australian contribution to UNTAG was heavily reliant on HF radio communications which were severely impacted.[12][13]


    Radio communications (link) - One of the major difficulties early in the deployment to Namibia was poor radio communications. The Australian contingent was equipped with PRC-F1 HF radios (manufactured by AWA), first issued to the Australian army in 1969. Output power was limited to one or ten watts PEP. :eek: HF radio communications were frequently impossible in the early month or two of the deployment. The primary factor was the March 1989 geomagnetic storm, exacerbated by skip zone, and ground plane effects resulting from the sandy environment and the high water table. Detachments were often out of radio contact for extended periods, with no satisfactory alternate means of communication except couriers. :eek: Because the Australian force operated over large distances, with troop deployments often up to 700 kilometres (430 mi) from squadron or force headquarters, courier communications often took days. :eek: Later in the deployment, the UN provided the contingent with higher-powered (100W) Motorola Micom X state-of-the-art HF equipment.[145]"

    And yet some USA gov't insider "expert" committee :rolleyes: has apparently advised the NTIA to suggest limiting 60 meter amateur power levels to similar QRP even though the primary reason for that allocation is to prepare for and provide training for such potential comms emergency inter-operations with DoD etc. :mad:
    Last edited: May 16, 2021
  5. W4HM

    W4HM XML Subscriber QRZ Page

    During the 1921 geomagnetic storm there was a big open bit copper mine along the McCaysville GA-Copper Hill, TN border area. Big sparks of electricity shot skyward from the mine during the storm. Some structures were set on fire. People that worked and lived there had no clue what was happening and were very freaked out.

    I visited the area when I lived in Kennesaw, GA in the 1990's. At the time I visited in 1994 the physical environment was very polluted.
  6. SA6CKE

    SA6CKE Premium Subscriber QRZ Page

    It will happen again and we depend a lot more on electricity today.

    But at the same time the electric code and circuits have been updated to accommodate for many of the issues related to voltage spikes. Many data networks today runs on optical fibers which means that they aren't sensitive to the magnetic flux unless it's getting so strong that the light in the fibers are bent out of shape and exiting the fibers, but if that would happen then I think we wouldn't have to worry anymore because there wouldn't be anyone left to worry.
  7. W6EM

    W6EM Ham Member QRZ Page

    And, that goes for the power grid as well. All sorts of transient overvoltage protection that didn't exist in the forms we have today. MOV's for example.
    Sure, if a significant event were to happen, some of the protectors would fail and cause outages, but the damage wouldn't be to the degree it was back then, at least on power systems at high voltage levels, as in transmission lines and substations.

    That is to say, unless power companies do not apply lightning/surge arresters throughout their systems. One particular western utility only installs surge arresters on its distribution system where there is significant lightning activity. While its transmission lines and substations do have transient overvoltage protection throughout its system, the distribution equipment in unprotected zones would suffer extensive damage. Any transformers that didn't have surge arresters close to them would likely explode and burn. Leaving hundreds of thousands without power for a long time until new ones could be installed. Add to that the fires and conflagration from the flaming mineral oil and well, not a pleasant thought. Perhaps there might be some salvation should the individual transformer fuses operate satisfactorily, but if the voltage were sufficiently high, even a fuse may not stop the fault current and resulting destruction.

    Not a pleasant thought, really. Especially since CA has experienced so much loss as of late from wild fires.
  8. W7HV

    W7HV Ham Member QRZ Page

    The storm of May 1921 can not possibly reoccur. A similar or larger storm can certainly happen, but it can't be the storm of May 1921. That ship has sailed.
    W3SY and KA4DPO like this.
  9. WZ7U

    WZ7U Ham Member QRZ Page

    Burt reincarnated
    AD5HR likes this.
  10. VK4HAT

    VK4HAT Ham Member QRZ Page

    If what happened in Texas a few months back is anything to go by, it shows just how susceptible and fragile critical infrastructure is and that you do not have political systems to address the issues. I would like to think that Australia is somehow better off because we have a national approach to a lot of key infrastructure and a lot of built in system resilience, but I am not so certain we learned the lessons from a couple years back when a storm took out a key interconnector and parts of South Australia lost power for days.

    Its not really a matter of IF, its a matter of WHEN and how much we are prepared to pay to ensure the least amount of disruption possible.
    KA0USE and PU2OZT like this.

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