Public Eye

Great Northeast Power Blackout of 2003

On August 14, 2003, parts of the Northeastern United States and Southeastern Canada experienced widespread power blackouts. The US states of New York, New Jersey, Vermont, Michigan, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Connecticut, Massachusetts were affected.

Among the major urban agglomerations touched by the electrical power outage in the United States were the cities of New York City, Albany, Buffalo in New York, Cleveland and Columbus in Ohio, and Detroit. Ottawa and Toronto in Canada were also affected.

Power was suddenly lost around 4pm Eastern Standard Time. The blackout resulted in the shutting down of nuclear power plants in New York state and Ohio, and air traffic was slowed as flights into affected airports were halted. Terrorism was quickly ruled out as a cause for the incident by federal authorities. Approximately 50 million people were affected by the outage.

The cause of the outage was still being debated the following day, as efforts were still underway to retore power to affected areas. Industry and government experts were appearing to place the blame on an outdated interconneting grid system.

Previous incidents include the November 9, 1965 outage caused by a faulty relay at a power plant in Ontario, and which affected a large swath of land stretching from Toronto to New York. Another one followed on July 14, 1977, as a result of a lightning strike, which affected New York City. The power supply in nine western US states were also affected in August 1996 as a result of a high demand for electricity, a heat wave and sagging electrical power lines.

The images below were made by the orbiting Defense Meteorological Satellite Program (DMSP) satellite over regions of the world at night. They were released by the National Oceanic & Atmospheric Administration and the US Air Force Weather Agency.

The DMSP is a Department of Defense (DoD) program run by the Air Force Space and Missile Systems Center (SMC). The Defense Meteorological Satellite Program satellites carry the Operational Linescan System (OLS) in low-altitude polar orbits. These satellites record nighttime data. The Operational Linescan System has a unique low-light imaging capability developed for the detection of clouds using moonlight. In addition to moonlit clouds, the OLS also detects lights from human settlements,fires, gas flares, heavily lit fishing boats, lightning and the aurora. It is possible to distinguish four primary types of lights present at the earth's surface: human settlements, fires, gas flares, and fishing boats.



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