The 1859 Carrington Event was a massive solar storm that hit Earth over 160 years ago. It has been brought back into the limelight because of the recent solar flare activity that we have been experiencing. These flares cause Coronal Mass Ejections which are what has been causing auroras to appear in locations where they usually would not be visible, which has sparked much interest and discussion. It has certainly been a topic of interest with our guests at Milroy Observatory with Donna the Astronomer.
A solar flare is an intense burst of radiation that occurs when magnetic energy is released from sunspots. These flares can last minutes to hours and are our solar system’s most significant explosive events. The most severe ones, M-class and X-class flares can trigger coronal mass ejections – which are a release of a massive amount of plasma and magnetic field from the Sun. These ejections have the potential to disrupt Earth’s magnetosphere and cause geomagnetic storms, which can lead to auroras appearing closer to the equator than is usually possible.
The Carrington Event is a prime example of how dangerous these solar storms can be. On the morning of September 1, 1859, amateur astronomer Richard Carrington witnessed a massive solar flare that sent electrified gas and subatomic particles towards the Earth. The resulting geomagnetic storm, the largest on record, caused telegraph communications worldwide to fail. It also sparked colourful auroras that could be seen as far north as Queensland and south as Hawaii.
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. Newspapers from France to Australia featured glowing descriptions of the brilliant auroras that had turned night into day.
Ice core samples since have determined that the Carrington Event was twice as large as any other solar storm in the last 500 years. If a similar storm were to hit us today, experts warn that the impact on our technological and electronic systems, which we rely on so heavily today, would be significant. The potential price tag? Between US$1 trillion and $2 trillion.
In 1989, a severe solar storm struck Earth, resulting in power outages for over 6 million people in Quebec, Canada. If a storm like the Carrington Event were to hit us today, the consequences could be even more severe, potentially causing extensive social and economic disruptions due to its impact on power grids, satellite communications, and GPS systems. It could effectively send the world back to the Dark Ages.
It’s essential to keep in mind that while solar flares and geomagnetic storms may seem like a distant concern, they have the potential to cause significant damage to our modern society. The next big one could happen anytime, and we need to be prepared for its impact. As we continue to study the Sun and its behavior, we’ll hopefully learn more about how to protect ourselves from the worst of its effects.
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