Looking Back on the Massive Blackout of 2003

By Tom Yulsman | August 14, 2013 10:54 am

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.

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Remote Sensing, select, Top Posts
  • http://blog.abstractedge.com Scott Paley

    Lots of buildings in NYC have their own generators and didn’t lose power, if memory serves. I remember looking at Manhattan that evening from the Brooklyn Promenade. It was definitely a lot darker than normal, but plenty of buildings did still have lights – particularly the larger ones.

  • Joe Q.

    I lived in Boston at the time and we didn’t lose power. Southern Ontario (home to about a third of Canada’s population) was completely blacked out.

  • Tammy Whynot

    The reason there were still lights in New York had to do with buildings that had generators. Most hospitals have generators.



ImaGeo is a visual blog focusing on the intersection of imagery, imagination and Earth. It focuses on spectacular visuals related to the science of our planet, with an emphasis (although not an exclusive one) on the unfolding Anthropocene Epoch.

About Tom Yulsman

Tom Yulsman is Director of the Center for Environmental Journalism and a Professor of Journalism at the University of Colorado, Boulder. He also continues to work as a science and environmental journalist with more than 30 years of experience producing content for major publications. His work has appeared in the New York Times, Washington Post, Audubon, Climate Central, Columbia Journalism Review, Discover, Nieman Reports, and many other publications. He has held a variety of editorial positions over the years, including a stint as editor-in-chief of Earth magazine. Yulsman has written one book: Origins: the Quest for Our Cosmic Roots, published by the Institute of Physics in 2003.


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