solar flare

We still see the effect of Superstorm Sandy here on the east coast of the United States, but not many people know about the two powerful solar storms that hit the Earth back in August 1859. These were superstorms of a very different kind.

When the geomagnetic disturbances from the solar activity reached Earth:

  • Telegraph systems all over Europe and North America failed. Some telegraph operators received electric shocks and some telegraph pylons threw sparks and some telegraph paper ignited. Telegraph systems continued to send and receive messages despite having been disconnected from their power supplies.
  • Compasses were useless because the Earth’s magnetic field was wildly affected.
  • The northern lights were seen in Hawaii and as far south as Cuba and Jamaica. The southern lights, aurora australis, were seen in Santiago, Chile. In some places, the aurora was so bright that birds began chirping in the middle of the night because they thought the sun was rising. Over the Rocky Mountains, it was so bright that their glow awoke gold miners, who began preparing breakfast thinking it was morning. People who happened to be awake in the northeastern US could read a newspaper by the aurora’s light.

The solar storm of 1859 became known as the “Carrington Event” because the associated “white light flare” in the solar photosphere was first observed and recorded outside London by English amateur astronomers Richard Carrington and then independently by Richard Hodgson.

On September 1–2, ground-based magnetometers registered that the ejection hit the Earth’s magnetosphere. The Carrington Event was by far the strongest geomagnetic storm ever recorded. By examining ice core samples, scientist could determine that it was twice as powerful as any other storm in the past 500 years.

Because of the distance of our Sun, the coronal mass ejection took 17.6 hours to make the 93 million mile journey. But that is actually a relatively high-speed trip. Typically it will take several days to arrive at Earth. The theory is that a prior ejection which caused the large aurora activity on August 29 made it easier for the second ejection to make its way through the ambient solar wind plasma on September 1 -2’s Carrington Event.

Today, we have a tremendous amount of dependence on satellites and electronics which are affected by these solar flares. Beyond you losing your television and Internet connections, it would wreak havoc on GPS and navigation for planes and ships and affect computer systems worldwide.

In June 2013, researchers at Lloyd’s of London and the Atmospheric and Environmental Research (AER) in the United States used data from the Carrington Event to estimate the current cost to the U.S. from a similar event at up to $2.6 trillion. A study by the National Academy of Sciences, also estimated the total economic impact at $2 trillion or 20 times greater than the costs of a Hurricane Katrina. Multi-ton transformers damaged by such a storm might take years to repair.

Scientists estimate that there is a 12% chance of a similar event occurring before 2022. Though it didn’t make as big an impact on media coverage as you would expect, a powerful coronal mass ejection tore through Earth orbit on July 23, 2012. Luckily, the Earth wasn’t in the right position (or really, the wrong position) but the storm cloud did hit the STEREO-A spacecraft.

NASA scientists who studied the event have said that “If the eruption had occurred only one week earlier, Earth would have been in the line of fire.”

All this sounds like a good treatment for a summer blockbuster disaster film.