If a tree falls in the forest, and there’s no one there to hear it, does it make a sound? The impact of a disaster – any disaster – can be significantly affected by where and when it happens. If something occurs in a remote region and affects nobody, it could even escape notice entirely.
But that doesn’t mean it didn’t happen; and we would do well to pay attention to events like these, even if their impact is small, because the lessons we learn could prevent a future catastrophe.
Weather has affected all of us at one time or another, so many of us are used to checking the local forecast before we head out. However, we wouldn’t generally expect to be affected by the weather outside our own area.
What if I told you that our lives could be seriously disrupted by a storm that happened almost 150 million km – that’s about 93 million miles – away?
That’s how far away we are from the sun. It’s the source of life on our planet, but like Earth, it can be subject to terrible weather, and a solar storm can lead to severe effects right here.
On two nights, the 28th of August and 2nd of September, 1859, people gazing into the night sky were treated to a spectacular sight.
The Belfast Evening News, on the 6th of September, published the following account under the headline, “BEAUTIFUL ATMOSPHERIC PHENOMENON”:
“On Friday night, the display of aurora borealis, or northern lights, was the most magnificent that has been witnessed in this country for many years. The interesting phenomenon commenced shortly after daylight had left the sky, when broad bands of light were observed to embrace the whole of the northern horizon, gradually accumulating, and, in a short time, darting sharp-pointed spires of trembling but bright light up towards the zenith. As the evening advanced, the appearance became more extended, and very beautiful, the whole of the northern heavens being illuminated by dancing masses of bright light in all cases shooting up towards the zenith, and, on their meeting, flashing out with a greatly increased brightness. These beautiful appearances continued until a late hour…”
Similar accounts can be found from all across the UK. According to the Manchester Guardian, “The phenomenon, as seen at Cheadle, Cheshire, was sufficiently luminous… to permit the reading of print letters 1-8th of an inch in size.” For those more accustomed to modern word processing, that would be a 9point font size, smaller than the usual default size.
Further south, the Suffolk and Essex Free Press said, “The appearance in the west was that of a large fire, but in the north and north-east it was a violet colour, and flashes of light of the same colour darted along the heavens with great brilliancy. The night was as light as if a full moon had been shining.”
The phenomenon wasn’t just observed in Britain, either; there were more accounts from across the Atlantic.
The Boston Transcript, on the 5th of September, reported:
‘‘On Sunday evening (in Vermont), the 28th… at seven and a half o’clock, we were notified of a large fire behind the mountain at the north, and we went out to see it: and presently the red clouds began to disappear, and spires of green shot up from the same place. It was the most magnificent display ever witnessed in this section…’’
The New York Herald’s description stated that, “At one time the northern portion of the heavens assumed an almost blood red appearance, while here and there long streaks of light shot up from the horizon to the zenith.”
The Washington Daily National Intelligencer offered a particularly poetic description.
“…it was like resting beneath the wings of the Almighty. The crown above, indeed, seemed like a throne of silver, purple and crimson, hung and spread out with curtains or wings of dazzling beauty.”
Not all seemed to appreciate it quite so much; the San Francisco Herald said, “Half-past eleven. The appearance now is positively awful. The red glare is over houses, streets, and fields, and the most dreadful of conflagrations could not cast a deeper hue abroad’’
According to the New Orleans Daily Picayune, ‘‘Many took it to be a sign of some great disaster or important event, citing numerous instances when such warnings have been given’’
It also caused some confusion, both in man and beast. An account in the Rocky Mountain News said that the aurora was so bright that some were convinced it was morning, and started making breakfast shortly after midnight. A gentleman in New Orleans was reported to have shot and killed three birds at one in the morning; larks who had apparently been woken early by the light.
Meanwhile, in the Southern hemisphere, the Hobart Town Mercury wrote on the 30th of August that the aurora seen in Tasmania “was beyond all conception the most magnificent aurora ever seen in the colony.”
The Sydney Morning Herald reported that, “A bright red light in the south-west quarter of the heavens, made many at first suspect that a great fire had broken out somewhere, but the changing hues and forms of light revealed at last to the initiated the Aurora Australis.” A similar account came from Moreton Bay, now better known as Brisbane; this was the most northerly report of this event in Australia.
Of course, in some parts of the world the Aurora Borealis and Aurora Australis, or Northern and Southern Lights, are not an uncommon sight. However, they’re usually restricted to areas of high latitude; people make special trips to places like Alaska, Northern Norway and Iceland in the north, and New Zealand and Tasmania in the south to try and get a glimpse of them. Most auroras are seen around the areas between 60 to 70 degrees latitude.
In this case, however, the Northern Lights were seen as far south as Cuba and Honolulu, only about 21 degrees north of the equator, while the Southern Lights were sighted in Santiago, Chile, about 33 degrees south. There were even accounts recorded in ships’ logs, both in the Atlantic and the Pacific, many reporting the same red aurora described in the newspaper accounts, at latitudes as low as 11 degrees north.
The fantastic displays of light were not the only unusual phenomenon reported on those nights. There was also widespread disruption to the telegraph network.
According to the Manchester Courier and Lancashire General Advertiser on the 2nd of September;
“On Sunday the deflections of the needles at the telegraphic offices were strong and erratic, but not being a business day, the inconvenience was not great; yesterday, however, during the early part of the day the electricity was so abundant that no information could be obtained for the newspaper offices, nor were private messages transmissable. The needles instead of being obedient to the ordinary magnetic current, were violently agitated and deflected by the electricity of the atmosphere, the result being that the telegraphic clerks could only decipher a word or two of a sentence, leaving the information incomplete, consequently valueless.”
The Dublin Evening Mail also noted issues with the telegraph, although not as an item of news in itself:
“LONDON STOCK EXCHANGE – THIS DAY. (BY MAGNETIC TELEGRAPH)
Owing to the state of the atmosphere, and the prevalence of what are known as “earth currents,” the telegraphic wires were unable to work from an early hour this morning. We are necessarily curtailed of the greater portion of our ordinary supply of intelligence through this channel.”
The following day, the 3rd, the Hull Advertiser and Exchange Gazette published a notice to their readers:
“Yesterday, owing to atmospheric causes, the electric current on all the lines of communication was greatly impeded, and almost stopped, so that we are unable to give that amount of telegraphic news which we are accustomed to do.”
Many newspapers made frequent use of the telegraph to gain news for their columns; as a result, there were a lot of notices along the same lines published over the next few days.
Telegraph stations on the continent were also affected. The Illustrated London News would later report that, ‘‘The French telegraph communications at Paris were greatly affected, and on interrupting the circuit of the conducting wire strong sparks were observed. The same thing occurred at the same time at all the telegraphic station in France.”
Again, similar experiences were being noted in the States. A New York telegraph operator named J.C. Crosson was reported to have “experienced considerable difficulty in working on account of the variation of current. Upon looking out the doors I perceived broad rays of light extending from the zenith toward the horizon in almost every direction. I then concluded the difficulty arose from the mysterious influence of the Aurora Borealis.’’
In some cases, the issues went beyond not being able to transmit or receive messages. Washington D.C. telegraph operator Frederick Royce told the New York Times,
“During the display I was calling Richmond, and had one hand on the iron plate. Happening to lean towards the sounder, which is against the wall, my forehead grazed a ground-wire which runs down the wall near the sounder. Immediately, I received a very severe electric shock, which stunned me for an instant. An old man who was sitting facing me, and but a few feet distant, said that he saw a spark of fire jump from my forehead to the sounder.”
However, there were also reports from some telegraph operators who found that they were still able to send and receive messages clearly – by turning the power off.
The Boston Traveler reported a conversation that had taken place on the 2nd of September, between operators of the American Telegraph Line in Boston and Portland.
Boston operator: Please cut off your battery entirely for fifteen minutes.
Portland operator: Will do so. It is now disconnected.
Boston: Mine is disconnected, and we are working with the auroral current. How do you receive my writing?
Portland: Better than with our batteries on. – Current comes and goes gradually.
Boston: My current is very strong at times, and we can work better without the batteries, as the aurora seems to neutralize and augment our batteries alternately, making current too strong at times for our relay magnets. Suppose we work without batteries while we are affected by this trouble.
Portland: Very well. Shall I go ahead with business?
Boston: Yes. Go ahead.
After the event, there was naturally quite a lot of curiosity about how and why it had happened.
Some suggested that the aurora might have been a result of “falling matter from erupting volcanoes” – not unreasonably, considering the effect that the 1815 Mount Tambora eruption had had on sunsets as far away as London.
However, others were nearer to the truth.
The Manchester Courier, on the 3rd of September, published two articles, right next to each other; one described the “extraordinary electricity in the atmosphere” in relation to the telegraph stoppages, while the second spoke of “celestial and terrestrial phenomena”. This second article began;
“The recent very hot weather in this country and abroad, it is suggested by scientific men, has some connection with the prevalence of spots on the face of the sun, or, as they otherwise describe these appearances, openings in the solar atmosphere…”
Richard Carrington, an English astronomer of the time, had taken a particular interest in observations of the sun; he recorded his observations of spots on the face of the sun from 1853 to 1861, and happened by chance to be observing the sun at just the right time.
“While engaged in the forenoon of Thursday, Sept. 1, in taking my customary observation of the forms and positions of the solar spots, an appearance was witnessed which I believe to be exceedingly rare… within the area of the great north group… two patches of intensely bright and white light broke out… I hastily ran to call some one to witness the exhibition with me, and on returning within 60 seconds, was mortified to find that it was already much changed and enfeebled.”
Another astronomer, Richard Hodgson, was also fortunate enough to see the flare; reports from both were published side by side in the Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society.
The following day, Scottish physicist Balfour Stewart, at the Kew Observatory, recorded a particular geomagnetic effect which is sometimes referred to as “magnetic crochet” – a hook in the magnetic records – and the geomagnetic storm which caused the widespread aurora and telegraphic disruptions was recorded.
Carrington suspected that these events were connected, and showed a connection between solar events and terrestrial ones. He was right – it was a solar storm that had produced all these strange phenomena on Earth, nearly 150 million kilometres or nearly 93 million miles away from its source.
It would be decades before scientists properly understood the mechanics of solar storms, but Carrington’s early observations and contribution to that understanding led to the 1859 storm becoming known as The Carrington Event.
At this point, you may be wondering what exactly the disaster here is; aside from a few electrical shocks and disruption of communication, the solar storm didn’t actually do much.
However, that has a lot to do with the fact that it happened in 1859. Electricity was still in its infancy; the telegraph was basically the only widespread system that used it. Today, however, it would be a completely different matter. You only need to look around you; we all depend on electricity on a daily basis.
So, what could happen if a solar storm on the scale of the Carrington event happened today?
The first people at risk would be astronauts aboard the International Space Station. If a flare occurred while they were conducting any extravehicular activity – or spacewalks – they would have to return to the station very quickly, as their space suits would not provide enough protection from the ensuing radiation storm. Considering that a spacewalk usually takes between five to eight hours, and the first particles from the Carrington event took only one hour to reach Earth, that could be quite a scramble.
However, inside the station, they should be safe; their procedure for extreme events is to retreat to the most protected modules, where they can ride the weather out. During one event, in 2006, the crews of the ISS and the shuttle Discovery simply slept through the storm.
The ISS isn’t the only thing we have orbiting above the Earth, though; there are also over a thousand active satellites which could easily be affected. Amongst these are the satellites which power GPS and communications systems. When a solar storm hits these satellites, it could cause widespread disruption to those systems.
You may well have a GPS device in your car; it makes it easy to get to your destination because all you have to do is type in your destination and a friendly voice will take you through each and every turn. However, according to satnav expert Roger McKinlay, former president of the Royal Institute of Navigation in the UK, this could actually make it harder to remember the route. Research suggests that navigation skills deteriorate quickly if we don’t actively use them, so our reliance on GPS makes it easier for us to get lost when it’s not available.
It’s also been reported that two-thirds of under 25-year-olds can’t read a map at all.
But disruption to the Global Positioning System wouldn’t just affect you in your private car. Airplanes also use GPS, often connected to their auto-pilot. It’s sometimes even used for the complex operations of final approach and landing. Errors or loss of the GPS signal here have the potential to contribute to catastrophe.
Other uses of GPS include shipping, where it allows precise marking for emergency situations like a person overboard, construction, mining and agriculture, where it’s used for navigation and positioning, the monitoring of convicted criminals, navigation and rescue aids for hikers and mountaineers, military guided munitions and location based services on your mobile phone.
The GPS industry was valued at 37.9 billion US dollars in 2017, and it’s estimated that it could grow to 146.4 billion US dollars by 2025.
As for the communications systems, that would disrupt a lot more than international phone calls. With satellites out of commission, the load would be rerouted to terrestrial and undersea cables – and there simply wouldn’t be enough bandwidth for modern usage. Credit card transactions, television and radio transmissions, and anything based on the internet could fail. Considering the uproar we’ve seen in the past few years whenever one of our favourite social media platforms is down, it’s hard to imagine how people would cope with losing essentially all our modern communication options. There’s precedent for this in an incident in 1998; one single satellite went out of commission, and pagers all across America stopped working, causing widespread disruption to emergency workers and doctors who relied on the system.
Combine failure of the GPS and communications systems at the same time, and the chances of air crashes go up even further; air traffic controllers would struggle to track or speak with the planes they were trying to coordinate.
According to Francis O’Sullivan, director of research for MIT’s Energy Initiative, speaking to CNET in June 2018;
“It’s not just the lights going off now. It’s bank accounts disappearing… If you think what would happen if the stock exchange was taken offline for a week or month or if communications were down for a week or a month, you very quickly get to a point where this might be one of the most important threats the nation faces, bar none.”
There’s an even bigger fear, though, in what could happen to the power grid. The 1859 event caused enough surging electricity to allow telegraph operators to work without batteries, and even sent sparks flying. That sort of electrical surge today could have a catastrophic effect on power transformers, causing them to blow and plunging large parts of the world into darkness. Just one blown transformer can be a fairly serious issue; replacement costs can run into the millions of dollars, and an outage can be very costly in terms of lost revenue for consumers and expenses for the suppliers. If more than one transformer blows at the same time, it gets even worse; they are large and complex and, in the words of Ed Cliver, a space physicist at the U.S. Air Force Research Laboratory in Bedford, Massachusetts, “They don’t have a lot of these on the shelf.” Lead time for large power transformers is usually between six and sixteen months; it’s hard to imagine what kind of impact an outage that long could have.
In total, it’s estimated that a Carrington-level storm hitting the Earth today could cost more than two trillion US dollars; that’s twenty times the economic impact of Hurricane Katrina.
There is precedent for these fears. On the 12th of March 1989, another solar storm hit the Earth. Although not believed to be as severe as the Carrington Event, it had serious effects. The electrical currents it brought, as well as creating an Aurora Borealis that could be seen as far as Florida and Cuba, caused severe communications issues and tripped vital circuit-breakers on the power grid in Quebec, Canada. At about quarter to three in the morning, the province’s entire power grid went down – and stayed down for more than nine hours. During this time, schools and businesses, the Montreal metro and Dorval airport (now Trudeau airport) were closed.
In the wake of this event, Hydro-Quebec has strengthened its power grid, but because it is positioned over a large rock shield, and has very long transmission lines, it remains vulnerable. The rock prevents the current from finding a safer route, meaning that the power lines are the least resistant path.
Another event, at Halloween in 2003, meant that “[aircraft controllers] had to re-route aircraft, it affected satellite systems and communications, and it also caused a power outage in Sweden for about an hour,” according to Dr. Holly Gilbert, a solar scientist at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center. This event was unusual in that it happened a few years after the peak of the 11-year solar activity cycle – a time which should have been quiet.
Because not all of the risks involved can be mitigated – for example, the location of the Quebec power grid – prediction is vital.
According to Rodney Viereck, a physicist at the Space Weather Prediction Center, “Improved predictions will provide more accurate forecasts, so [officials] can take mitigating actions.” However, we’re not in a position to make accurate long-range forecasts. Viereck compared space weather prediction today to terrestrial weather forecasts fifty years ago.
The most damaging emissions from a solar storm do travel slowly enough that satellites observing the sun should detect them before they reach us; Viereck says that we should have about twenty hours to take action from that point.
That doesn’t sound like much, but it would be enough to allow power companies to protect the transformers on their grid by simply switching them off. Obviously, that would still mean blackouts, but it would just be for the duration of the storm; once it passed, they could be safely switched back on.
According to Tim Bogdan, director of the Space Weather Prediction Center,
“What’s at stake are the advanced technologies that underlie virtually every aspect of our lives… The good news is that these storms tend to pass after a couple of hours.”
So what are the chances of a storm on the scale of the Carrington event actually happening again?
Physicist Pete Riley of Predictive Science Inc. published a paper on that very subject in February 2014. He calculated that the odds of a Carrington-class storm hitting the Earth in the next ten years was 12%.
“Initially, I was quite surprised that the odds were so high, but the statistics appear to be correct,” he said. “It is a sobering figure.”
Even more sobering is the fact that we quite recently came within a week of that exact scenario.
Daniel Baker of the University of Colorado, along with colleagues from NASA and other universities, published a study of the solar storm which passed through Earth’s orbit in July 2012. He said;
“I have come away from our recent studies more convinced than ever that Earth and its inhabitants were incredibly fortunate that the 2012 eruption happened when it did. If the eruption had occurred only one week earlier, Earth would have been in the line of fire… In my view the July 2012 storm was in all respects at least as strong as the 1859 Carrington event. The only difference is, it missed.”
It did, however, hit something; perhaps the best possible something in space – the STEREO-A solar observatory, which was not only well-equipped to survive the impact of the storm but also had the right equipment to monitor it, allowing scientists to learn a lot more about the phenomena, and hopefully providing the knowledge needed to improve those predictions – before the next extreme solar storm occurs.
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Sources, References and Further Reading
Many of the quoted newspaper articles can be found in the British Newspaper Archive.
Solar Storm of 1859 – Wikipedia article
Richard Carrington – Wikipedia article
A Solar Storm Of Similar Magnitude To 1859 Carrington Event Could Cause Trillions Worth Of Damage – Tech Times, 3 Jun 2019
What If the Biggest Solar Storm on Record Happened Today? – National Geographic, 4 Mar 2011
Here’s What Would Happen if a Solar Storm Wiped Out Technology as We Know It– Science Alert, 21 Jun 2018
A massive solar storm could wipe out almost all of our modern technology — and we’d have just hours to prepare– Business Insider, 6 Sep 2016
Near Miss: The Solar Superstorm of July 2012 – NASA Science, 23 Jul 2014
Scientists Discuss the Dangers of Space Weather – APS News, Mar 2016
Eyewitness Reports of the Great Auroral Storm of 1859 – ResearchGate, James Lauer Green, Scott A Boardsen, Sten Odenwald, John Humble, Katherine A Pazamickas