On the morning of Sept. 1,1859, Richard Carrington ascended to his observatory, pointed a two-meter long telescope to the heavens and set about drawing the spots on the sun. It’d been his routine for six years — imagine his patience! — but never had the gods rewarded him like this: He saw a blotch on the solar surface that was huge, 10 times the diameter of the the earth.
And then it exploded.
Great gusts of electromagnetism were rushing his way: 12 hours later, the world went haywire.
Or, as Carrington described later, “Two patches of intensely bright and white light broke out,” brilliant as direct sunlight. He jiggled the telescope, figuring it had fallen out of place, but the lights remained. Carrington, “somewhat flurried by the surprise,” noted the time on his chronometer before charging out of the room to find a witness. He returned less than a minute later and “was mortified” that the lights had “much changed and enfeebled.”
Little did he know that great gusts of electromagnetism were rushing his way: 12 hours later, the world went haywire. The skies flared up in hysterical colors, awakening sleepers from the Rocky Mountains to Cuba. Midnight auroras were “so bright that one could easily read common print.” Sailors in temperate latitudes saw so many St. Elmo’s fires they thought they were living through hell. Telegraph lines faltered, then intensified, and shocked some of their operators.
Carrington disclaimed a link when when he presented his notes at the Royal Astronomical Society that November — “One swallow does not make a summer,” he told the members — but he was probably playing modest. The Carrington Event became “a tipping point in astronomy,” a “demonstration of the Sun’s ability to disrupt life on earth,” according to astronomer and journalist Stuart Clark. In other words: Carrington made solar studies sexy.
It turns out the sun is a stormy place. Plasma churns on its surface, directed by active magnetic fields. Huge discharges of matter and energy can result. These coronal mass ejections, in turn, can cause geomagnetic storms on earth, and they’re more common than you may think: A 1989 storm knocked out communications in Quebec for 90 seconds; a series of solar flares in 2003 knocked out satellites, rerouted planes and damaged some power stations.
Solar storms in the news
Electricity regulators warned it’s time to prepare the grid for the next solar storm, before a strike interrupts power to 130 million people in the U.S. alone.
Researchers announced that the solar plasma belched out during solar storms behaves similarly to a supernova.
Such solar storms were annoyances, but a Carrington-level event would be far more severe. It could cause widespread power outages and interfere with GPS and electronic communications for a couple of days. More importantly, it could melt down transformers or cause them to explode — in effect, knocking them out for months or years. Insurer and risk analysis firm Lloyd’s of London warns that a Carrington-level event would cause economic losses of between $600 billion and $2.6 trillion — just because of North American electrical grid failures. After all, all of our critical infrastructure depends on the grid.
How likely is it? Lloyd’s of London estimates a Carrington-size event occurs once every 150 years — which means it chould happen any day now. Like many preppers and doomsdayers, Roscoe Bartlett, the octogenarian former Congressman, remains resolutely off the grid in anticipation. NASA, on the other hand, predicts Carrington-level events occur on a cycle of 500 years, which means we need not expect another until the 24th century.
Our optimistic half prefers to believe the scientists. Our pessimistic half wouldn’t worry about it anyway: Chances are we’ll have found another route to apocalypse before then.
This OZY encore was originally published Feb. 22, 2014.
Why you should care
Solar storms are yet another way the world might end — or at least incur lots of damage.