“The eastern sky appeared of a blood red color,” wrote a resident of South Carolina’s Sullivan Island. “The sea reflected the phenomenon, and no one could look at it without thinking of the passage in the Bible which says, ‘the sea was turned to blood.’ The shells on the beach, reflecting light, resembled coals of fire.”
Newspaper accounts from places far away from the Northern Lights, such as Cuba, Jamaica, Hawaii and El Salvador, referred to brilliant auroras of red, green and purple that illuminated the sky, turning night into day. Birds in Virginia began to sing at 1 a.m. Masons in South Carolina arrived at their job site and began to lay bricks until they realized it was the middle of the night. Unable to sleep because of the bright light, people in Boston got up and read by the light streaming through their windows.
A telegraph manager in Pittsburgh reported that the currents flowing through the wires were so powerful that platinum contacts began to melt and “streams of fire” poured from the circuits. Even when workers disconnected the batteries that powered the telegraph lines, they were able to send messages by the powerful current still flowing through the wires. Some telegraph stations reported that those powerful surges ignited their telegraph paper.
In New York City, people gathered on sidewalks and rooftops to watch what a New York Times writer described as “the heavens … arrayed in a drapery more gorgeous than they have been for years.”
Although it sounds like science fiction, these people all experienced what is known as the Carrington Event, a solar super storm that scientists believe was twice as big as any other such event in 500 years. It is named for Richard Carrington, an amateur astronomer who, on Sept. 1, 1859, at his London home, spotted two huge fireballs erupting from the sunspots he had been sketching.
Within five minutes, the fireballs disappeared from Carrington’s view, but within a few hours, they had made an impact on the entire world.
The Carrington Event made headlines 155 years ago, but life got back to normal fairly quickly afterwards. In ante-bellum America, dependence on technology was slight, and the event was more of an oddity than anything else for most people – something to write about in your diary or to tell your grandchildren.
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Today, however, a solar flare event of the magnitude of the Carrington Event could cripple life as we know it, disabling power grids and satellites and disrupting communications. Some estimates are that it could cause trillions of dollars in damage and take as much as a decade for technology to recover from the devastation.
So what exactly did Richard Carrington see, and how likely is it for this type of event to reoccur?
Carrington witnessed a white-light solar flare, a huge magnetic explosion on the sun. Astronomers now know that the sun goes through 11-year cycles of increased and decreased explosive activity. During the increased level, called solar maximum, the sun’s surface is dotted with sunspots, and a variety of gigantic magnetic whirlwinds can frequently erupt.
Occasionally, however, these flare-ups can explode outward from the sun, hurling massive amounts of charged particles into space and towards the earth.
Since energetic particles leave a record in nitrates in ice cores, it is possible for scientists to find evidence of geomagnetic storms by examining Arctic ice. Current information suggests that the Carrington flares were a once-in-500-years event. However, many scientists caution that we don’t have enough information to rule out another massive event in our lifetime. Indeed, there have been a few major events in recent decades including:
- August 4, 1972 — a huge solar flare knocked out long-distance telephone communication across Illinois, causing AT&T to redesign its power system for transatlantic cables.
- March 13, 1989 — A large flare disrupted electric power transmission from the Hydro Québec generating station, leaving nearly six million people without power for nine hours.
- October 19 through November 7, 2003 — The “Halloween storms” interfered with satellite communications, produced a brief power outage in Sweden and lit up the skies with colorful auroras as far south as Texas and Florida.
- December 14, 2005 – Another solar storm disrupted satellite communications and Global Positioning System (GPS) navigation signals for about 10 minutes.
The power of the Carrington Event dwarfed these more recent events, however, and scientists know that an event of that magnitude would severely damage or destroy the more than 900 satellites currently in the earth’s orbit. In fact, the earth nearly missed a Carrington-type disaster in 2012.
On July 23, 2012, a huge solar blast, perhaps as big as the 1859 one, dodged the earth, but barely. The event was detected by NASA’s Stereo A spacecraft and was the focus of an article by research physicists Ying D. Liu and Janet G. Luhmann that was published in Nature Communications in March, 2014.
If the blast had happened just nine days earlier, it would have clashed with our planet’s northward field, causing a shift in electrical currents that could have caused transformers to explode in flames, according to Luhmann, a member of the Solar Terrestrial Relations Observatory (STEREO) team based at the University of California Berkeley’s Space Sciences Laboratory. The fields also would have interfered with GPS, with satellites and with cell phone service.
The 2012 event was unusual because it happened during a calm solar period, the article stated.
“People keep saying that these are rare natural hazards, but they are happening in the solar system even though we don’t always see them,” Luhmann said. “It’s like with earthquakes — it is hard to impress upon people the importance of preparing unless you suffer a magnitude 9 earthquake.”
Probably the biggest fear of a huge solar storm is the damage it could do to the electrical grid, since solar particle surges could literally destroy hundreds of giant transformers at once, according to Daniel Baker, a co-author of a National Research Council report on solar-storm risks. A nationwide blackout is very possible.
One scientist put the odds for it happening by 2020 at 1 in 8.
So what are potential solutions? One possibility is rebuilding our aging power grid to be less vulnerable to solar disruptions. Another is developing better means of forecasting the storms. Data can help scientists predict where and when solar flares might appear, for example.
While many descriptions of the 1859 event reveal awe and even delight, a writer for the San Francisco Chronicle described the sky more ominously as a “red glare … over houses, streets, and fields, and the most dreadful of conflagrations could not cast a deeper hue abroad.”
Some observers took the Carrington Event as an apocalyptic sign, and references to the event found their way into early science fiction of the day. Poet William Ross Wallace, however, interpreted the Carrington Event as a message from God:
. . . ‘mid terror, we still
Can a symbol behold
Of the Heavenly Love
In the flame o’er us rolled;
Though in mantles of fire,
There are pitying smiles
From our God and our Sire –
O Lights of the North! As in eons ago,
Not in vain from your home do ye over us glow!
Do you consider a massive solar flare to be the greatest threat to the power grid? Tell us in the comments section below.