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Looking Back on the Massive Blackout of 2003

ImaGeo iconImaGeo
By Tom Yulsman
Aug 14, 2013 7:54 PMNov 20, 2019 4:53 AM


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Ten years ago, a massive blackout darkened much of the Midwest and Northeast, as seen in this animation of images from a DMSP satellite. (Source: NASA Earth Observatory) I woke up this morning to an excellent story on National Public Radio about the massive blackout of 2003, which struck much of the Midwest and Northeast exactly 10 years ago today. So I decided to see whether I could find any satellite imagery that shows before and after views of the region. I succeeded with my first search. In a post a few days after the event, NASA's Earth Observatory ran two images from a DMSP satellite, showing the change in nighttime city lights after the blackout struck late in the afternoon on August 14, 2003. I put the two images together in the animated gif above. (Click on it for a bigger version.) As NPR tells the story, here's how the blackout began: 

Ten years ago a sagging power line hit a tree near Cleveland, tripping some circuit breakers. To compensate, power was rerouted to a nearby line, which began to overheat and sink down into another tree, tripping another circuit. The resulting cascade created a massive blackout in the Northeast U.S., affecting power in eight states and part of Canada.

Power was restored to some cities within hours. But for 50 million people, it was out for days. You can see the transformation from light to dark in the animated gif. The first image was acquired on Aug. 14 about 20 hours before the blackout, according to NASA. The second image shows the same region seven hours afterward. Not all the lights are out. But Long Island goes almost completely dark. Detroit, Cleveland, Columbus, Toronto and Ottawa are particularly hard hit. Buffalo and much of upstate New York are too. Although not blacked out completely, the densely populated corridor from Washington to New York darkens considerably. But Boston seems to emerge unscathed. (I'm not sure why there are any lights at all in New York, since the city was blacked out.) Check out the NPR piece for details on why the blackout occurred, and what's been done to prevent something like that from happening again. Suffice it to say that while risks have been reduced, there are no guarantees.

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