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Lights Out

A dramatization of disaster, and the science behind it.

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Eighteen hours before the power went out, scientists reported an enormous solar flare. Airlines rerouted our flights over the poles and local officials warned us not to rely on GPS. Public service announcements urged everyone to stockpile three days’ worth of water and food – anything that doesn’t require electricity to store or prepare. Somehow, the grid was in danger.

I already had three days’ worth of ramen, assuming I could build a fire in front of my apartment complex. But I went out for some better provisions.

Empty shelves

The grocery store was slammed. There wasn’t any water left. Canned goods were practically gone too, as was the peanut butter. And forget about batteries. I came home with a bag of Brazil nuts, coconut butter, bread, a bag of apples, a box of raisins and cereal. The only candles left were enormous pine-scented pillars. I bought one.

For water, I filled up old pop bottles that I had been neglecting in the back of my car, so I’m way ahead of the three gallons mandated by Speaking of my car, I waited through a two-hour line to fill up my gas tank. The road was practically blocked with everyone trying to fuel up.

I waited another hour at the bank. The ATM was empty. By the time I got to the desk, they were capping cash withdrawals, and they were out of small bills.

At home, I filled up my bathtub for more emergency water. Then, I trawled the web to find out what the heck was happening with the sun and the grid. A video newscast with a space weather researcher explained what was about to hit Earth.

Video playing

The messages were mixed. On the radio, representatives from FEMA warned that the storm could lead to rolling blackouts. There’s nothing rolling about this, at least not yet.

Tech Blog, blurry

And there were others on the tech blogs sounding like this was the apocalypse or something. No refrigeration, no financial system, no transportation as gas pumps won’t work. For years. It sounds crazy, but when I looked a little closer, I started to worry.

It seemed to come down to transformers - large pieces of electrical equipment that the power goes through before and after running down long-distance power lines. Apparently, because the wires between the transformers are hundreds of miles long, the movement of the Earth’s magnetic field can cause significant current to build up in the wires. When this current adds to that already in a transformer, it can cause the transformer to overheat and generally take it out. These transformers take more than six months to make, and there are no spares. At least, that’s what the apocalypse bloggers were saying.

Something called “The Carrington Event” came up again and again. It was a huge solar storm in 1859, which sent aurorae down to the tropics and created havoc on the telegraph system, lighting paper on fire and giving operators electric shocks. I would have taken it as a cute historical anecdote if we didn’t have a similar-sized storm coming our way, with a network of power lines stretching for hundreds of miles across the U.S.

I found this quote from some professor named Thomas Overbye at the University of Illinois:

“Some people say the transformers will not be permanently damaged, others think they will...For some, it’s just a bad day or bad couple days. Others think it could be catastrophic.”

So here I am, hoping it’s just a bad day or two.

I tried calling my parents, but I couldn’t get through. The cell networks must have been overloaded. When my eyes glazed over from staring at my computer screen, I crawled into bed to get some sleep. I stared at the ceiling for what felt like hours, playing through all the things that might go wrong.

Clock image, blurry

The Outage: Day One

The northern lights were so bright that I woke up at 3:57 AM. At least, that’s what my clock said seconds before it went dark. I figured a show like this only comes along once in a lifetime, so in spite of the chill in the spring night air, I went outside to watch the colors over the city until the sun drowned them out.

I didn’t feel like going back to sleep, and I didn’t have to go to work. We were told not to come in if the power was out. So I took a walk around my quiet town. Only a few people were out in cars. I guess a lot of us are aware that it might be a long time before we can fill up again.

When I got back to my apartment complex, I saw my neighbor outside. “At least this place still uses real keys, right?” she said, waving her key ring. “They’re propping doors open down the road.”

“Any news about when they’re going to get the power back up?”

She shook her head. “You know how they are. They say they’re working on it, but no time frame. The water stopped running an hour ago.”

I nodded. I was glad for my stockpiled bottles.

With nothing better to do, I made myself an enormous salad with the contents of my fridge as today’s breakfast, lunch and dinner. By tomorrow, I won’t trust it. I putzed around the rest of the day, thinking of odd jobs to do that didn’t require electricity and waiting for news.

Day Two

Last night, there were still some northern lights, but they were pale. They were gone by morning.

I went out for a walk. I thought about going to a friend’s apartment, but it’s five miles and it looked like it might rain in the afternoon. (It did.) Actually, I think I would have ridden my bike over if I could have texted to make sure she was there, but there’s still no service. So I just strolled around.

On my way back, I ran into my neighbor again. She said that there was a radio station broadcasting on backup power, and they were talking to experts about what exactly was going on. I went to her apartment an hour later, and we listened to her radio alarm clock, running on backup batteries.

I guess the power companies might just be taking stock after the storm knocked the grid offline. If that’s the case, we can expect to see the lights on again any time now. I felt a little better, but the expert also confirmed that the power could be out for weeks or months. I went back to my apartment to take stock. I could survive for another week with what I had, easily. But after that? And what would my neigborhood look like by the end of the week? And the state? The country?

Because I’m trying to save my computer and phone batteries for a moment when they might be useful, I’ve had nothing to do but read the articles I didn’t have time for in last month’s magazines. And, for a change, I write this. I go to bed when the pine scent starts giving me a headache.

Day Three

It felt like the whole city was waiting around for news. I’d heard so many things – that power would be up again in a couple of days, that all of Michigan was without power, that the entire country was down, that it was the end times and Jesus was coming back. I rode my bike down to the police station to see if there was an official statement.

The station was getting news over the phone. Apparently they still had landline access. It wasn’t that the entire country was without power, but a lot of it was. In the far north of Michigan, electricity was reported in some areas. To the south, the nearest electricity was supposedly on the west side of Illinois. From Maine to Georgia, the power was out. It was spotty in the heartland and Southwest, but at least there was some electricity.

I thought about Hurricane Katrina. How long until desperation set in in Ann Arbor? And how long until FEMA would reach a smallish city like this, when most of the east coast was down?

I heard that the hospital generators had run out of fuel. So much for life support. People who needed medications couldn’t get them from the pharmacies because the prescription data was all stored on hard drives. Not that they were getting new shipments of medication, anyway.

I walked by the co-op, which was open on a cash basis, selling formerly frozen food on the cheap and running out of nearly everything else. A cashier quietly gave me change for a hundred dollar bill. How long before someone will rob that place? How much longer will I be safe on the streets as a lone, unarmed person? I’m still writing by candlelight, like Charles Dickens or Laura Ingalls Wilder or something.

It’s time to skip town. I tried calling my parents from a rare working payphone. No one answered. I considered leaving immediately, but there was a good chance others had the same idea. I know what the highway north can be like when everyone is trying to leave town, and it’s not like I can check the traffic. To minimize wasted gas, I slept through the afternoon and evening.

Around two in the morning, I loaded up my car with the essentials—food, water, basic medical supplies, blankets and clothes. And a couple of kitchen knives, as if they’d actually do me any good if I was attacked.

Without my flashlight, it was pitch black except for a glow over the trees. I wondered if some hold-out still had fuel for a generator, as even campus had gone dark by now. But as I drove past, I could see flames leaping from a burning building. No water pressure, no fire service to help when someone knocked over a candle.

The journey north was otherwise uneventful. A few cars, the stars, and me. The one working radio station was giving the same emergency message I had heard from the police station.

“The utilities and government agencies are working around the clock to restore power. Remain calm. Now is the time for the nation to come together. Help your neighbors in need. FEMA and the National Guard will soon be distributing aid in the affected areas.”

Stuff like that. On the third run-through, I switched it off. I probably should have offered someone the chance to come with me.

My parents live in a small farm town. Perhaps I can stay there and work for our neighbors in return for food. They’ll need help with planting if they can’t run their machinery. Or perhaps we will continue north and try to escape the blackout. I really don’t know.

How realistic is this scenario?

It’s hard to tell. Pete Riley, senior research scientist and vice president of the San Diego-based Predictive Science Inc., forecast a 12 percent chance of a potentially catastrophic storm hitting Earth in the next decade.

Dave Szulczewski, an engineer who follows research on geomagnetic disturbances for DTE Energy, a Michigan-based power company, cited a likelihood of less than 0.02 percent for every two solar cycles, or 22 years.

“Authors who give different risk factors and probabilities caution that there hasn’t been a lot of historical data to draw from,” said Szulczewski.

But the Earth has seen extreme geomagnetic storms before, and we have crude measurements for two of them – the Carrington Event and another in 1921. Using information about the lengths of the telegraph wires and their operating voltages, researchers have estimated how quickly Earth’s magnetic field must have been changing.

Sketches of sunspot patterns drawn by the English astronomer Richard Carrington just before the 1859 flares, which sent enough plasma to Earth to cause a violent geomagnetic storm. Credit: Royal Astronomical Society/SPL

The most recent solar storm to affect the grid occurred in 1989, knocking out power in much of Quebec for about nine hours and possibly causing the breakdown of a transformer in Salem, New Jersey. It was 10 times weaker than the 1859 and 1921 events.

And we’re lucky we didn’t see a geomagnetic disaster in 2012, when a Carrington-scale mass of plasma flew through Earth’s orbit. It would have hit Earth if the flare had occurred just a week later.


Until recently, the population concerned about the possibility of a geomagnetic disaster was mainly comprised of survivalists and space weather researchers, including a team of leading space weather forecasters at the University of Michigan. Now, power companies and even the White House are paying attention to space weather’s potential to seriously damage the grid.

No one knows exactly what resources would still be available if the grid went down – this is one of the research areas described in the Space Weather Action Plan announced by the White House in October 2015. Likewise, experts disagree about whether large areas would be totally without power, or whether rolling blackouts could be achieved. Thomas Overbye, a professor of electrical and computer engineering at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign, cautions that some of the most at-risk, high-voltage transformers are located at power plants. If these go out, the power plants are disconnected from the grid.

In the event of an extensive long-term power outage, it could be as dark as our protagonist feared. No refrigeration. No running water. No pumps for the gasoline that could get you to powered territory, and no financial system to help you buy it anyway. Rolling blackouts are less debilitating, as the systems we rely on could hobble along.

The ability to prevent a geomagnetic disaster depends in part on the ability to forecast a geomagnetic storm. At present, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) is running software developed at U-M to predict how a plasma cloud ejected by the sun evolves on its way to Earth. Still, the researchers responsible for that software in the Center for Space Environment Modeling, directed by Tamas Gombosi, the Konstantin I. Gringauz Distinguished University Professor of Space Science and Rollin M. Gerstacker Professor of Engineering, are trying to take it to the next level by forecasting the eruptions themselves.

For this, they need to understand the details of magnetic activity on the sun. Flares occur when the sun’s magnetic field twists and stretches until it snaps. A useful prediction must say when the flares will happen, estimate how big the eruptions will be and chart the path of the resulting plasma cloud.

A large cloud of plasma ejected from the sun in 2002. If a large, fast-moving cloud of plasma hits Earth, it could damage crucial parts of the grid. Credit: NASA

Space weather forecasters also need to know the direction of the disembodied piece of the sun’s magnetic field. If it has the same alignment as Earth’s field when it arrives, the fields will repel one another, and the plasma will pass around the Earth without harming the grid. But if the fields join up, the wild fluctuations in Earth’s magnetic field could wreck the grid’s largest transformers, which take six months or longer to replace at the best of times.

Right now, the crucial detail of which way a plasma’s magnetic field is pointing wouldn’t be known until about 20 minutes before the storm hits, when the cloud passes by the Advanced Composition Explorer, or ACE satellite. That’s not a lot of time for an event so rare and potentially catastrophic. Gombosi and his team are also working to better predict this magnetic field alignment.

To improve space weather prediction, researchers need more observatories in orbit around the sun, says Gombosi, especially with the 2014 demise of a satellite that helped produce a 360-degree view of the sun. These new weather stations would observe parts of the sun’s surface we can’t see from Earth but that will be spinning to face us within hours.

“It’s like when you have a weather forecast, and you have a weather station just here outside the window,” said Gombosi. “It will tell you what is going on right now. But if you want to know what will happen tomorrow, you need something in Chicago.”

A new vigil

Of course, the best forecasting doesn’t do any good if utilities aren’t paying attention and ready to take action. Fortunately, they’re getting there.

In June 2014, the Federal Electric Regulatory Commission adopted a rule requiring utilities to prepare for geomagnetic disturbances. Companies responsible for the transmission network—or the high-voltage, long-distance portion of the grid—have paid close attention to these nascent regulations, and many have already published procedures for space weather events.

PJM, which operates a transmission network in the eastern and midwestern U.S., requires that transmission operators monitor individual transformers to look for currents caused by geomagnetic disturbances. These would be direct currents in addition to the alternating currents that utilities send through the network, as mentioned by Ian Hiskens, the Vennema Professor of Engineering at U-M, who was kind enough to humor us with that fictional radio interview.

Transmission lines can span hundreds of miles across the US. Because they are so long, variations in Earth’s magnetic field can generate large currents inside them.

Some transformers are fitted with a device that directly measures geomagnetic currents on the grounded line, where the currents come in. Other monitoring measures a transformer’s temperature and the extra power it consumes when it operates outside its preferred range.

PJM’s threshold for concern is a direct current of 10 amperes or more—an equivalent alternating current would be small enough to run on your household circuits. If such a current persists for at least 10 minutes, the operator is required to move to conservative operations. This includes running a lower current through the transformer, which helps keep it from overheating even if a geomagnetic disturbance adds an additional current.

Space weather drill

While the transmission network moves energy from power plants to cities and towns, the distribution network takes that power from the major substations to homes and businesses. The lower voltage at the distribution level means less risk, but they, too, are beginning to pay attention to threats from the sun. DTE Energy, which serves southeast Michigan, handles distribution as well as power generation.

The Fermi 2 nuclear power plant is one of DTE Energy’s power generating stations. If the transformers at the generating stations go out, the power can’t leave. Credit: AmyZZZ1 of Flickr

Vinay Bhakkad (MBA ’01), director of emergency and response at DTE, described actions DTE is taking to prepare for extreme geomagnetic storms.

“We subscribe to NOAA’s space weather service, so whenever there is risk of space weather or a solar flare, we get notification,” he said.

The warning initiates a sequence of actions needed to monitor the severity of the geomagnetic storm and mitigate its effects on the network. While we have yet to experience an extreme storm, DTE ran its first space weather drill in the summer of 2015, said Bhakkad. As they would be in a real event, the DTE team was on the phone with colleagues who manage the transmission network during the tabletop exercise.

“The transmission companies are a step ahead of us in terms of preparing for and reacting to the geomagnetic disturbances, and they should be a step ahead of us. They are at a greater risk because of their bigger equipment and higher voltage levels,” said Heather Rivard (BSE Aero ’92, MBA ’04), the vice president of distribution operations for DTE.

Still, DTE is in charge of the transformers at their power plants that connect to the transmission system, so their preparation is necessary to protect access to power in southeast Michigan.

The outlook

Because concern over the potential for a geomagnetic disaster is relatively new, and the events are very rare, much is still uncertain. Utilities are teaming up with researchers like Overbye to get a better handle on the real risk to transformers on their networks, and they are developing procedures to follow if a major geomagnetic storm occurs.

Most U.S. electric companies assume that their vulnerability is limited because the most extreme geomagnetic disturbances are thought to occur in the upper latitudes, where the aurora makes a more regular appearance. But Hiskens recently reviewed a study that suggested a space-induced storm could peak at a latitude of about 40 degrees – running right through the northern United States.

Large portions of the Eastern US and the Pacific Northwest could see a collapse of the grid in the aftermath of an extreme geomagnetic storm, according to calculations by John Kappenman, a space weather consultant to government agencies. Map courtesy of NASA.

If these extreme events could be forecast with days to spare rather than hours, power companies would have the opportunity to run through their procedures and notify their customers that temporary outages may occur as they protect the network. After all, no grid operator has experience protecting transformers from Carrington-scale geomagnetic disturbances.

While we’re in better shape than we were ten years ago, Gombosi warns against complacency. “We don’t know how prepared we are. Just because we talk about it doesn’t mean we are prepared for it,” said Gombosi.

And the test is coming. We just don’t know how soon.