On September 1st 1859, as the skies turned red and their technologies failed them, the entire population was left stunned, confused and terrified as the earth was brought to a halt by an unknown celestial force. Over the course of the next twenty-four hours, many would come to think the apocalypse was at hand.
Vivid reds witnessed in Sweden, green on the west coast of the United States and purple in Australia. Reports came in from various parts of the world, including the Caribbean and even areas close to the equator. Witnesses described the night sky as being ablaze with colours, shifting from one to the next as they surged like waves in the sky. From here, things only took a turn for the even more bizarre. The lights were so bright it was as if night had become day. People in the affected areas were waking up, thinking it was morning, only to be halfway to work realising that it wasn’t the sun in the sky, but something far stranger. It was so bright that birds were singing at midnight and people were reading newspapers. Confusion soon turned to fear, as people’s superstitions got the better of them. Many interpreted the lights in the sky as divine omens and signs of the end times. More than a few people were locked up for their own safety as they succumbed to the madness, convinced the apocalypse was at hand, and tried to convince others of their lunacy. The strangeness didn’t stop there.
It wasn’t just the people that these mysterious lights were disrupting. Beyond the celestial light show, more peculiar incidents unfolded. Telegraph systems, the cutting-edge communication technology of the time, experienced unprecedented interference. Operators reported receiving electric shocks, telegraph lines sparking, and even telegraph paper catching fire. In some instances, for the sake of safety, operators were instructed to disconnect their machines from their batteries. And yet, despite the telegraph systems being disconnected from their power sources, the operators soon found that messages could still be transmitted and continued to do so! By the time the evening of September 2nd had come around, the phenomenon was all but over. But people were still left with questions, wondering just what in the name of God had happened over the previous 24 hours. Nobody had a clue. Well, almost nobody.
The man in the know was Richard Christopher Carrington, a British astronomer who had come across the answers the day before the cosmic event. Carrington was at his private observatory at Redhill, Surrey. While sketching sunspots, he witnessed an intense brightening, marking the first recorded observation of a solar flare. This event, later known as the Carrington Event, proved instrumental in advancing our understanding of solar activity.
After Carrington realised the significance of his observations he promptly communicated his findings to the scientific community. He documented his observations and sent a letter to the Royal Astronomical Society (RAS) detailing the solar flare and its subsequent effects on Earth. In his letter to the RAS, dated November 1st, 1859, he provided a thorough account of the solar flare he had observed. The description included details of the flare’s appearance and duration.
Carrington’s letter to the Royal Astronomical Society was presented at a meeting on November 10th, 1859. His work received recognition and acclaim from his peers, establishing him as a prominent figure in the field of solar astronomy. As the news of his finding spread, it soon became known as the Carrington Event and went on to become a pivotal moment in the study of space weather and solar-terrestrial interactions. Despite the limitations in technology at the time, Carrington’s meticulous documentation and prompt communication of his findings laid the foundation for future research in solar astronomy. The Carrington Event remains one of the most studied space weather events in history, and Carrington’s contributions continue to be acknowledged in the scientific community. But just what exactly was happening?
It was no celestial being laying siege to the planet, nor was it a message from God or a supernatural force, or a world-ending event. The reality was far less exciting. The Carrington Event was a solar flare of exceptional intensity. Following the solar flare, a massive coronal mass ejection (CME) occurred. CMEs involve the expulsion of a vast amount of solar material, including charged particles and magnetic fields, into space. In the case of the Carrington Event, this CME was particularly powerful and directed toward Earth.
The Northern Lights, scientifically known as auroras, are breathtaking natural light displays that usually occur near the Earth’s polar regions. These lights are caused by the interaction between charged particles from the Sun and the Earth’s magnetic field and atmosphere. As a result of the solar storm, there were now a lot more of these charged particles hitting the earth’s atmosphere, all over it in fact. As a result, these auroras were witnessed across the globe during the event. Fortunately for those who were panicking, the lights were not in fact, signs of the end times. The brightness of these particles reacting with the Earth’s atmosphere was also the reason for night becoming day.
In the mid-19th century, telegraph systems were the primary means of long-distance communication. The geomagnetic storm induced electrical currents in telegraph lines, causing malfunctions and disruptions. These charged particles in the air were what were responsible for the shocks, the fires, and for the telegraph equipment continuing to function even when disconnected from power sources. The Carrington Event highlighted the vulnerability of emerging technologies to space weather.
The event demonstrated the vulnerability of emerging technologies to space weather and has hinted at the potential risks for modern electronic infrastructure. Our technology has come a long way in the past 150 years, and we are a lot more reliant on electricity now than we were back then. Today, our interconnected world relies heavily on satellites, power grids, and electronic systems, all of which are susceptible to the impact of severe space weather events. Just what could happen if such an event were to occur today? Though purely speculative, there are two likely scenarios that would occur:
With all the technology we have today, we have the tools to monitor the sun’s behaviour. Should a CME be likely to occur, we’d have a warning of it. With that information, it would be very easy to insulate the planet from any adverse effects of the solar storm. It would involve some minor disruption to the public, as power grids would need to be taken offline for the duration of the event in order to protect them. Power systems can’t be fried if there’s no power running through them. People would have to read a book for a day or two instead of accessing Netflix or TikTok, but Earth would come through the storm unscathed.
Let’s imagine a huge CME hits the planet with no warning. Any electrical system in operation would be fried – meaning pretty much all of the bug power grids across the globe. There would be mass blackouts, resulting in infrastructure falling apart pretty rapidly. Traffic lights, hospitals, cooling systems and the internet are just a few of the things that would be rendered useless. There would be mass panic, and certainly a lot of casualties too. It’s fair to say it would be an end-of-the-world situation, and it’s likely that society would fall apart if that much infrastructure unravelled. Fortunately, there are people working hard to prevent this from happening.
Given the potential impact of severe space weather on modern technological systems, there are ongoing research and monitoring efforts to better understand solar activity and improve our ability to predict and mitigate the effects of space weather events. Organisations like NASA and space agencies around the world continuously monitor the Sun to provide early warnings and protect critical infrastructure from the potential consequences of intense solar activity.
Severe space weather events are relatively rare on a human timescale. The frequency of such events depends on the solar cycle, which is an approximately 11-year cycle during which the Sun goes through periods of high and low solar activity. While less intense space weather events occur more frequently, events on the scale of the Carrington Event are estimated to have a return period of roughly once every 150-500 years. It’s also important to note that these estimates are based on historical records and reconstructions, as direct observations of such events are limited to the relatively recent past when our technological capabilities allowed for detailed monitoring of solar activity.
Assuming it’s 150 years, any mathematician will tell you that means we are a decade overdue. Bear that in mind the next time you think about leaving your plugs switched on.