Layer Of Rock Under I-95 Could Cause Catastrophic Power Outage For East Coast In A Solar Storm

June 13, 2018 - 3:18 pm

NEW YORK (WCBS 880) -- Picture this scenario – there is a layer of rock under Interstate 95 that could knock out the power from Washington, D.C. all the way to Boston in a major solar flare-up.

It sounds like the plot of a great action flick. But unfortunately, it’s real.

Bloomberg’s Brian Sullivan joined WCBS 880’s Steve Scott to talk about the 300-million-year-old Paleozoic-era rock, which, as Sullivan wrote, more or less traces the path of I-95 from Richmond, Virginia, to Portland, Maine.

Sullivan explains that the rock acts as an insulator for solar energy – and can cause major problems in the event of a solar storm.

“In a perfect storm of events, the sun will release a huge burst of energy which creates a massive geomagnetic storm on the earth. That energy can come down, and it can cause problems for the grid on the way down,” Sullivan said. “It hits this rock, it bounces back up, and it takes a double swipe at the grid, and it can knock out power for millions of people.”

Even tens of millions could be affected. The power would be out for just a few hours in some scenarios, but in the worst case scenario, the East Coast would be in for some serious trouble.

“If things really went wrong, and you started to lose transformers – which is possible, although the grid operators say is unlikely – the outages could last for months,” Sullivan said.

There are ways to measure the explosive energy of the sun, but there is no easy way of predicting a sun storm that could cause the catastrophic outage, Sullivan said.

He explained that the NASA Deep Space Climate Observatory (DSCOVR) satellite sits at Lagrange Point L1, located a million miles from the earth – and provides “a fairly good indication of just how powerful the sun’s explosive energy is as it’s coming in.”

“But there’s only about a 90-minute lag between the time it hits the DSCOVR satellite and it gets to earth, so these are not the kind of things that people can predict very well, and, you know, that’s what makes it all the more scary,” Sullivan said.

Fortunately, there might be more solutions than just getting a couple of plastic beach shovels and trying to dig out the rock.

“They’re in the process of testing all the grid infrastructure right now across the northeast; actually, North America-wide, in Canada, the United States, and Mexico. And they’re looking at it by developing really sophisticated models to see what would happen in the worst case scenario,” Sullivan said. “With this information that the USGS has produced, they can make much better models, which should give them a much better opportunity to figure out whether they can handle it.”