Could solar storms cause blackouts?

TULSA, Okla. — Quick Facts:

  • Space Weather Prediction Center monitors the sun daily for possible storms
  • Solar flares help give idea of what could impact Earth
  • Space storm in 1989 knocked out power in Canada to 6 million people

When severe weather hits, we sometimes lose power for a few hours.
Would you be prepared for a blackout that could last for weeks? FOX23's Ron Terrell investigated the chance of a storm in space impacting Earth and changing life as we know it.
Almost everything we do depends on power. Many of us realized how vulnerable we are in December 2007, when freezing rain created one of the costliest disasters to ever hit Tulsa.
An inch of ice accumulated all over the city and left some Tulsa residents in the dark for weeks.
While meteorologists watch the sky to predict weather, scientists at the Space Weather Prediction Center watch the sun constantly. Knowing where solar flares happen will give them the first indication of whether materials ejected during a flare might head toward Earth.
The strongest space storm in recent history knocked out power to 6 million people in Quebec, Canada, in 1989.
"When we see a big eruption from the sun, we'll give the power companies a heads-up. If we think we're going to have an extreme storm 18 hours from now, they'll get a call right away," said Bob Rutledge at the Space Weather Prediction Center.
The power industry is putting mechanisms in place to protect the grid against extreme storms, or geomagnetic disturbances.
Stan Whiteford of PSO told FOX23 that measures have been taken in Oklahoma in recent years.
"We've certainly had resistors and capacitors and things like that included in our major transmission system," Whiteford said.
So how likely would it be for a solar storm to have a major impact on Oklahoma? Whiteford said in over 100 years of operation, PSO has never seen any evidence of damage or outages as a result of solar storms.
Scientists say we're about to enter a more active period for solar storms, and while chances may not be high for Oklahoma, they aren't zero.
Whiteford revealed that PSO does maintain contact with NOAA and NASA in regard to solar storms. No protocols or regulations are in place now, but that could change after a conference on March 1 in Washington, D.C.