The Solar Storm of 1859, also known as the Carrington Event, was a geomagnetic storm of immense power that occurred during September 1-2, 1859. A solar coronal mass ejection (CME) struck Earth’s magnetosphere, producing one the greatest geomagnetic storms ever recorded. Worldwide, auroras lit up the sky, visible in the Rocky Mountains to the Caribbean, some newspapers describing the light as greater than a full moon, but more brilliant with a plethora of prismatic hues that the Baltimore American and Commercial Advertiser described as “gorgeous.” The Aurora lights appeared so bright that Americans in the North East could read newspaper print around midnight. The solar storm also caused equipment to malfunction, as reports came in of telegraphs in America and Europe failing, some even producing electric shocks to the surprise of unbeknownst operators. Telegraph pylons fired off sparks and some operators reported the ability to send and receive messages despite being disconnected from their power supplies.
Artist visualization of solar wind particles interacting with the Earth’s magnetosphere. Photo Credit: NASA
Richard Carrington’s sunspot sketches made on September 1, 1859. A and B mark the initial positions of an intensely bright event, which moved over the course of five minutes to C and D before disappearing.
British astronomers Richard C. Carrington and Richard Hodgson witnessed the event, noting sunspots and the white light flare produced by the sun’s photosphere which would become the earliest recorded observation of a solar flare. Their independent reports were published adjacently in the Monthly Notices of the Royal Society while their drawings of the event were exhibited that November at a meeting of the Royal Astronomical Society.
An event of this magnitude is difficult to fully grasp, for another geomagnetic storm of equal proportion occurring today would result in extensive damage to the electrical grid, causing widespread electrical blackouts, damage, and a public panic, as was seen during the geomagnetic storm blackouts in Quebec 1989.
Estimates of the current cost of damage by an event similar to the Carrington Incident in the United States alone ranges from $600 Billion to $2.6 trillion. The destruction of our power grid could potentially lead to societal collapse, especially in underdeveloped regions.
The solar storm of 2012 had comparable power, but missed the Earth by nine days. Solar flares are a reality, something we must learn to deal with and prepare in the event of a disaster. These things happen and are unpredictable and have hit Earth, will we be prepared for the next one?