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This Week in History
August 31 - September 6, 2014

The Carrington Event of 1859

by Meghan Rouillard

While man’s destiny has always been to control the stars, sometimes it takes a shocking event to force him to acknowledge this fate.   The last week of August through September 3, in 1859, provided such an opportunity for mankind. During that week, the accumulation of observed sunspots, or regions of intense magnetic activity on the Sun, culminated in the most extreme geomagnetic storm on record to ever hit earth, producing auroras visible as far south as Cuba, and causing telegraph system failures. In some cases, systems disconnected from their power sources continued to send messages!   Numerous articles from across the nation reported on this incident: "People in the northeastern U.S. could read newspaper print just from the light of the aurora" according to one account. (See box.) Astronomical events like this have happened earlier in history, but we did not have the ability to detect them. Sunspots were first observed and recorded in the 1600s.  This 1859 Coronal Mass Ejection  (CME) which caused the subsequent geomagnetic storm during solar cycle 10 was dubbed the “Carrington event,” after the English amateur astronomer Richard Carrington. This CME which preceded the storm reached earth in 18 hours, whereas this “trip” usually takes 3-4 days!

Carrington's sketch of the sunspots which caused the 1859 geomagnetic storm

In 1921, we faced another extreme storm which resulted in widespread radio disruption, but the overall effects were still limited because the world was so much less dependent on electrical systems. In the modern electrical era we’ve had two smaller but still damaging events in 1989 and 2003 which resulted in power outages and damage to satellites. These storms could have been about 1/5 the size of the Carrington event. In 1989, notably, Hydro-Quebec lost power generating capabilities for about 9 hours, leaving 6 million Canadians in the dark. According to a study by Metatech Corporation, an event of the strength of the 1921 event, let alone another “Carrginton-style event,”  (a major geomagnetic disturbance, on the order of an event which occurred in 1859) could ostensibly leave 130 millions Americans without power for up to months.

How serious is the threat of a severe space weather event to the global electric grid? Pretty serious. The threat of a new so-called "Carrington event" looms over mankind here on Earth, and with it, the possibility that half of the US population could be left without power for months on end, as the electromagnetic atmospheric disturbances resulting from CMEs can induce disruptive and irreversibly destructive currents in transformers, satellites, GPS, and other hardware. The transformers we would need to regain our electricity generating capability, were such a devastating CME to hit Earth, are no longer even produced in the U.S. (they are currently only manufactured by Germany and South Korea).  In addition, the ACE satellite (Advanced Composition Explorer), currently located at the L-1 Lagrange point, tells us of an oncoming geomagnetic storm. Were we to experience a Carrington style event, orders of magnitude more powerful anything we’ve seen since, this satellite would tell us that we were going to be hit by a much weaker storm. That’s to say, it “maxes out” at a reading which is much weaker than what another Carrington event would be. Let that sit for a moment, and think about what you’re willing to do to get Obama out so we can upgrade our satellites!

An aurora as seen from the Space Station.

It was once joked at a conference on this subject that the best a statistician could do was to say that these events appear to occur every 75 years, since we’ve been hit by two extreme storms in the past 150 years. William Murtagh, the Program Coordinator of the NOAA space weather prediction center, noted that these extreme storms have often occurred during especially weak solar cycles.  And you thought we had nothing to worry about after 2013, the peak of our current solar cycle? Real planetary defense should deal with such physical economic considerations, in addition to expanding our capabilities in solar forecasting, which also might have implications for earthquake and other kinds of forecasting. Such considerations should draw the attention of any serious President or presidential candidate, and serve as the basis for real policy making in defense of humanity. President Obama is on record as being anti-weather forecasting, disaster preparedness, and has shown callous indifference to any recovery effort which the extreme weather we’ve been experiencing has demanded..[1]

A couple things are clear: 1) We aren’t well prepared, at all. Not only does the United States no longer manufacture the high voltage transformers which would be knocked out in the event of such a geomagnetic storm, but, indicative of the state of our extended sensorium, in need of a serious upgrade, the very satellite which warns us of an oncoming geomagnetic storm is getting old, and in need of replacement. 2) Under Obama, we have no good prospect of overcoming, without massive damage to infrastructure and likely human life, the real threat posed by a severe space weather event.  Let the 1859 Carrington event of September 1, 1859  be a reminder to us today or what could be in store for us.

[1] It must be said that the Electromagnetic Pulse (EMP) Congressional Caucus (and Newt Gingrich) have a rather unbalanced focus in this respect, focusing on the threat that Iran will “EMP us,” or even Russia or China. This outlook should be dumped. In fact, we should be collaborating SDI-style with these nations to further the scientific and technological development we need to understand these events and what’s needed to protect our people.


August 29, 1859 Newspaper Accounts of the Aurora Caused by the Carrington Event

A brilliant display of Northern lights was witnessed from 8 o'clock to half-past 9 last night. The glare in the northern sky, previous to defining itself into the well-known features of the Aurora Borealis was sufficiently vivid to call out some of the fire companies. [The Evening Star, Washington DC]

'The City 'Change of Weather '…Towards half past eight o'clock a singular phenomenon took place. The horizon from north to north east became of a deep crimson hue, which expanding slowly, made the sky appear as if lighted by a Bengal fire…At first it was supposed that some great conflagration had taken place on the outskirts of the city, but it was soon recognized that no natural fires could produce this particular hue…Crowds of people gathered at the street corners, admiring and commenting upon the singular spectacle. Many took it to be the sign of some great disaster or important event, siting numerous instances when such warnings have been given. Several old women were nearly frightened to death, thinking it announced the end of the world, and immediately took to saying their prayers. A fat old citizen tremblingly stated that this was the avant courier of a dreadful epidemic like cholera of 1833, whilst a French gentleman pooh-poohed, and gravely assured us that this was the well known sign of a revolution in Paris, requesting us to make a note of the date. [New Orleans Daily Picayune, p.5]

The Aurora Borealis : The Brilliant Display on Sunday Night, The present generation have listened with wonder and admiration to the stories their fathers and mothers have told them of auroras and meteors. They have opened their ears and mouths and eyes as they heard of stars falling from the heavens like rain, of the sky at night becoming red as with blood, and in the day time of its being so darkened that stars were visible. Few have had the opportunities of witnessing these sublime displays; but on Sunday night the heavens were arrayed in a drapery more gorgeous than they have been for years…Such was the aurora, as thousands witnessed it from housetops and from pavements. Many imagined they heard rushing sounds as if Aeolus had let loose winds…[The New York Times, ]

'The Electrical Light' [exerpted from the New York Express] The light in the heavens on Sunday night is noted in all directions..The crown above, indeed, seemed like a thrown of silver, purple and crimson being and spread out with curtains or wings of dazzeling beauty. Never did the heavens seem to be more the work of the Creator, nor the sublimest work of art sink in comparison so far beneath the wondrous skill and power of the Architect of the Heavens. The tremulous motion of moving light, which the inhabitants of the Shetland Islands call the 'merry dancers' was less apparent than usual, but in place of it came those, full, bright, changing, but more steady streams of light, which gave the intense brilliancy to the whole heavens. [Washington Daily National Inteligencer, p.2??,]

"Aurora Borealis" - For the first time in several years we had last night a grand exhibition of the 'Northern Lights'. The first appearance was at five minutes past nine o'clock as told by the fire watchman on the roof of the City Hall. The greatest illumination was at about twenty minutes before ten o'clock, when the light was so brilliant that it shone on Telegraph Hill and the upper story and cupola of Wright's building like the reflection of an extensive conflagration. The light, or rather columns of light, were of a deep red hue, and at one time extended from the horizon almost to the zenith. It was a magnificent sight - quite superior to the Chinese fire exhibitions in the theater.[San Francisco Daily National p. 2]