On the morning of September 1, 1859, Richard Carrington an English amateur astronomer was in his observatory on his country estate outside of London.
After opening his Observatory dome to reveal a clear blue sky, he pointed his brass telescope toward the sun and began to sketch a cluster of enormous dark spots that were scattered over its surface.
Suddenly, Carrington spotted what he described as “two patches of intensely bright and white light” erupting from the sunspots. Five minutes later the lights vanished, but within hours their impact would be felt across our planet.
That night, telegraph communications around the world began to fail. Reports came in of sparks showering from telegraph machines, which gave operators electric shocks and set papers on fire.
All over the globe , colourful auroras illuminated the nighttime skies, glowing so brightly that birds began to chirp and labourers started their daily chores, believing the sun had begun rising. These auroras were seen as far north as Queensland and as far South as Hawaii.
Some thought the end of the world was at hand, but Carrington had spotted the true cause for the bizarre happenings. It was a massive solar flare having the energy of 10 billion atomic bombs.
The flare sent electrified gas and subatomic particles towards the Earth, and the resulting geomagnetic storm—dubbed the “Carrington Event”—was the largest on record to have ever hit the planet.
Many telegraph lines across North America were rendered inoperable on the night of August 28 as the first of two successive solar storms struck.
EW Culgan, a telegraph manager in Pittsburgh, reported that the resulting currents flowing through the wires were so powerful that platinum contacts were in danger of melting and “streams of fire” were pouring forth from the circuits.
In Washington DC, telegraph operator Frederick W Royce was severely shocked as his forehead grazed a ground wire. According to a witness, an arc of fire jumped from Royce’s head to the telegraphic equipment. Some telegraph stations that used chemicals to mark sheets reported that powerful surges caused telegraph paper to burst into flames.
Newspapers from France to Australia featured glowing descriptions of the brilliant auroras that had turned night into day.
One eyewitness account from a woman on Sullivan’s Island in South Carolina ran in the Charleston Mercury: “The eastern sky appeared of a blood red colour. It seemed brightest exactly in the east, as though the full moon, or rather the sun, were about to rise. It extended almost to the zenith. The whole island was illuminated.
Ice core samples since have determined that the Carrington Event was twice as large as any other solar storm in the last 500 years.
So the question is – what would be the impact of a similar storm today?
Nobody knows for sure obviously how bad things would be, but given how reliant we are on today’s technological and electronic superstructures – compared to that of 1859 – it would certainly not be insignificant.
It could cause extensive social and economic disruptions due to its impact on power grids, satellite communications and GPS systems.
The potential price tag? Between $1 trillion and $2 trillion.
Perhaps our most relevant clue lies in some strange events that occurred in March, 1989.
Back then, a severe but not-Carrington-class solar storm struck Earth, courtesy of another coronal mass ejection from the Sun. Again, intense auroras resulted, leading some to think they could be seeing hazy after-effects of World War III.
Yet it wasn’t a nuclear strike disrupting radio signals and satellite communication systems, but the flow of charged particles getting caught up in Earth’s magnetic field lines.
The most extreme results were felt in Quebec, Canada, where the power grid went offline, meaning some 6 million people were immediately deprived of electricity.
For many, the outage lasted only hours, but for others it took days for the power to come back on.
It’s this kind of medieval scenario that has scientists at the White House worried a doomsday-scale geomagnetic storm on the level of the Carrington Event could effectively send the world back to the Dark Ages.
In a best-case scenario, a severe geomagnetic storm might only result in limited communications disruptions.
But as history has shown, even such small-scale interference with the wrong kind of technological systems can have devastating consequences – like taking the world to the brink of nuclear war.
Just where a more powerful solar storm might take us next – or when – is the trillion-dollar question.
Under majestic auroras, we might be forced to undergo a brutal, incalculable reset.
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 have no internet or mobile phones etc some cars may no longer work and technology would be severely impaired.
Unlike a nuclear bomb or asteroid hit – it would not have significant loss of human life but the impact on life as know it could be very interesting.