On the morning of September 1, 1859, amateur astronomer Richard Carrington pointed his telescope at the sun. He immediately noticed some unusual activity. A cluster of massive dark spots marred the sun’s otherwise radiant surface. As he focused his attention on these patches, he witnessed what he described as “two patches of intensely bright and white light” erupting from the sunspots. The phenomenon lasted a mere five minutes. The effect would have global repercussions. Carrington had just witnessed the first recorded solar storm.
Before Carrington realized the significance of his observation, the dramatic effects of the storm rained chaos throughout the world. Showers of sparks erupted from telegraph wires and machines, sending electric jolts through operators and setting papers ablaze. Nighttime skies suddenly became as bright as day as the northern and southern auroras could be seen nearly to the equator. The effect was so dramatic that birds began to chirp, thinking the sun had risen.
The earth was being slammed with a monstrous solar flare with the energy of 10 billion atomic bombs. It doused the planet with electrified has and subatomic particles. It became known as the Carrington Event and was the largest solar storm on record to have struck our planet.
Sunspots are caused by the sun’s magnetic field. As magnetic activity increases, the field lines can stretch and twist, creating a solar flare. Solar flares send solar material careening into space. If it happens to hit the earth, the material interacts with our planet’s magnetic field and can affect anything that operates on electric power.
When the Carrington Event took place, humanity could hardly be described as “high-tech.” Its “internet” was the telegraph system, and it performed a vital role in the transmission of news, private communication, and business transactions. Although regional interference with the telegraph through thunderstorms or intense northern lights events had been experienced, nothing prepared the world for the global shutdown caused by the Carrington Event.
The first interruption happened a few days before Carrington peered through his telescope. Many telegraph lines across North America went out of service on the night of August 28 when a precursor of Carrington’s storm struck. E.W. Culgan, a telegraph manager in Pittsburgh, reported that the electrical surge was so powerful that platinum contacts were in danger of melting, and “streams of fire” were pouring out of the circuits. In Washington, D.C., telegraph operator Frederick W. Royce was severely shocked as his forehead grazed a ground wire. According to a witness, an arc of fire jumped from Royce’s head to the telegraphic equipment. Some telegraph stations that used chemicals to mark sheets reported that powerful surges caused telegraph paper to combust.
The second storm — the one observed by Carrington — struck four days later. It knocked out the worldwide telegraph network, cutting off communication across the planet. Some reported telegraph machines being so full of energy that they could work for up to 90 seconds unplugged from any power source.
Although nothing comparable to the Carrington Event has happened since 1859, one can’t help but wonder how we would fare if we experienced a repeat performance. On March 13, 1989, the earth was hit by a large solar storm that generated auroras that could be seen in the United States as far south as northern Florida. The surge of electrical power caused over 200 power grid issues in the United States and cut off power to the entire Canadian province of Quebec for nine hours. Many people went without power for several days. The 1,500 satellites in orbit slowed down because of sudden atmospheric drag. Many lost communication with the earth and tumbled out of control.
The 1989 solar storm was only one-third as powerful as the Carrington Event. It was also a full decade before the rise of the internet age. A comparable storm today would have even more disruptive consequences.
On a positive note, lessons learned from the Carrington Event and subsequent solar storms have allowed us to take some precautionary steps to minimize disruption. Several NASA missions continually monitor solar activity with the goal of giving as much as 12 hours of advance warning about an approaching solar storm. With sufficient advance notice, satellites can be powered down and electrical grids can be shut down so they do not get overloaded.
Despite that, a Carrington-level event would be beyond disruptive. If that doesn’t produce enough anxiety to keep you awake, keep in mind that the sun is capable of slamming us with something significantly more intense whenever it wants. Maybe you should spend some time practicing that old, quaint custom that was once observed way back in the distant 20th century: writing letters on paper and sending them through the mail. It’s possible that you might have to go for an extended time without email and text message communications.
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