Saskatchewan

Canada to study how solar storms impact power grids, banks, satellites

The Canadian Space Agency is planning to undertake a first-of-its-kind study on the impact of space weather on the country's infrastructure.

It's the first step to better understanding the threat space weather poses to Canada, expert says

Space weather impacts Earth when the sun emits solar flares that have the potential to disrupt radio and GPS communications. (Helioviewer/NASA)

Solar storms may sound like a piece of science fiction, but it's a threat Canada is taking more seriously. 

The most powerful one was recorded on Earth 158 years ago.  

Catalogued in history as the Carrington event—named after English astronomer Richard Carrington—the 1859 storm caused telegraph lines to go haywire, with reports of some stations bursting into flames.

More recently, it was discovered that the sun unleashed two of the most powerful solar flares since 2006 just two weeks ago, disrupting radio and GPS signals on the day side of the Earth and lighting up the night skies with auroras.

So what could happen if a massive solar storm were to erupt today?

Canadian scientists like Pierre Langlois paint a scene of mass power failures, fuel shortages, limited water supply and a collapse in GPS and communication systems. 

What causes space weather?

Space weather is caused by the sun. 

Langlois explained the most common events originate from sunspots, which are dark, cooler regions on the surface of the sun. Simply put, solar energy can be released from these areas in bursts called solar flares.

Scientists in Canada monitor larger sunspots for these eruptions on a daily basis. However, once a solar flare erupts it can result in an explosion of particles sent rocketing towards Earth, which is difficult to see until it reaches the planet's nearby satellites, he said. 

"It gives us like a 15-20 minute warning to say, 'Oh the cloud is coming.'"

"The problem with this is that only 20 minutes is not enough to alert all the power utilities and all the people who need to make decisions on actions to take."

Once in the Earth's magnetic field and depending on how powerful a flare, space weather has the potential to wreak havoc on satellite technologies and cause blackouts. 

"Space weather will disturb the ionosphere so that your GPS will give you a false reading or it could just give up and say well, 'I don't understand what the satellites are telling me anymore,'" Langlois explained.

A less disruptive, more enjoyable result of space weather is the northern lights.

As program lead for space utilization development at the Canadian Space Agency, Langlois is part of a team looking to understand how space weather could impact the country's infrastructure.

First-of-its-kind study

The agency is hiring a contractor to perform a first-of-its-kind study in Canada to assess how its most critical systems, like electrical grids, could be affected by space weather, according to a request for proposals (RFP) posted on the government's tenders page.

"I like to compare the risk of space weather to your risk of death," explained Langlois.

"So it's easy for you to say, 'Well, I've never died before so I don't think the risk is very high, but you know it's going to happen. So for space weather, it's like earthquakes in Canada, it doesn't happen very often—it doesn't mean it can't happen."

Langlois said the decision to explore the impact of space weather was borne out of a recommendation from the United Nations earlier this year.

In 2013, the United Kingdom released a similar study and in 2015, the United States unveiled a space weather strategy, according to the RFP. 

The study has a budget of $300,000 and will take 15 months.

Risk to banks, hospitals to be assessed

The agency wants risk assessments done on the impact space weather could have on a variety of infrastructure systems from road and railway transportation to satellite- based services such as navigation, telecommunication, and military efforts, as well as on government services, banks and hospitals.

Part of the contractor's job will be gathering sensitive information from industry, such as satellite operators, on how space weather affects them currently, Langlois explained.

"This is the first step to understand, to put numbers on the risk of space weather, but we have been studying space weather for many years now," adding that work is already underway at Natural Resources Canada to determine the probability of a solar storm happening. 

The request also asks the contractor include estimates on the cost of "space weather disturbance," as well as mitigation strategies. 

Findings will be used to develop a new space weather program, it states.

According to Natural Resources Canada, ours is one of the countries most affected by space weather given its proximity to the north magnetic pole. 

About the Author

Stephanie Taylor

Reporter, CBC Saskatchewan

Stephanie Taylor is a reporter based in Saskatchewan. Before joining CBC News in Regina, she covered municipal politics in her hometown of Winnipeg and in Halifax. Reach her at stephanie.taylor@cbc.ca