The Devastating Solar Storm Of 1859

By Aaron Short on Thursday, December 12, 2013
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“Shine out, fair sun, till I have bought a glass, / That I may see my shadow as I pass.” —William Shakespeare, Richard III

In A Nutshell

In 1859, the Earth was hit by a solar storm that extended the northern and southern lights all the way to the equator and set telegraph poles across the planet on fire. If the same event were to happen today, it could knock planes out of the sky, destroy Earth’s communication infrastructure, irradiate any astronauts in space, and plunge whole cities into darkness for up to a year.

The Whole Bushel

Richard Carrington was an astronomer who noticed something very strange on the surface of the sun in 1859: Large black spots had appeared across the star’s surface. While Carrington was still trying to make sense of this, he saw two globes of bright light erupting from the spots and shooting into space. Hours later, the Earth was hit by a geomagnetic storm with the strength of 10 hydrogen bombs.

The worldwide telegraph network was smashed, severing communication across the world, with telegraph poles exploding into showers of sparks. Later, there were reports of telegraph machines being so full of energy that they could work for up to 90 seconds unplugged from any power source. Perhaps it was this excess power that caused telegraph operators to receive powerful electric shocks or simply watch in horror as their machines burst into flames.

Around the planet, the skies were bright and colorful as the northern and southern lights were either much stronger than usual or simply appeared in places that they never had before, reaching as far as the middle of the equator. Some places were so bright that people rose in the middle of the night thinking it was sunrise or simply thought that the sky was burning.

This became known as The Carrington Event—the greatest solar storm of the last 500 years. If the same event were to happen today, it could knock out our satellites, affecting everything from GPS to credit card transactions. Next it could destroy crucial power grid transformers (which are hard to replace), overloading the power supplies of large cities and leaving them without power for up to a year. Luckily, our ability to detect such events means that we will be forewarned by about 12 hours . . . 

Show Me The Proof

History: A Perfect Solar Superstorm: The 1859 Carrington Event
National Geographic: What If the Biggest Solar Storm on Record Happened Today?