On September 1, 1859, amateur astronomer Richard Carrington was working in his private observatory sketching a cluster of enormous dark spots on the surface of the Sun. Suddenly two patches of bright, white light erupted from the sunspots, vanishing about five minutes later. Later that night the world began to experience the devastating effects of what became known as the 1859 Carrington Event.
The Carrington Event was caused by a gigantic solar flare, and the resulting geomagnetic storm that affected our planet is believed to be the largest ever to hit the earth. It actually consisted of two separate storms and caused confusion and chaos around the world.
Brilliant, colorful auroras appeared all over the planet as electrified gas and subatomic particles entered Earth’s atmosphere. The skies glowed so brightly that confused birds began to chirp and workmen arose to start work. People living in the southern parts of the United States, Jamaica and Cuba, and even in Australia were startled when they saw northern lights, which rarely appear so far south.
Skies on the eastern coast of the United States appeared to be blood red. Some observers wondered if neighboring areas had somehow caught fire. Others thought they were looking at an especially brilliant sunrise, though daybreak was still hours away. In Boston, Massachusetts, people found that they could read their newspapers under the bright sky. Some thought the world was coming to an end.
The most devastating effect of the phenomena was that the event interrupted telegraph service around the world. Telegraph lines across North America went out of service. Currents flowing through telegraph wires were so powerful that circuits caught fire. Telegraph paper caught fire as the chemicals used in the paper reacted to the electromagnetic effects of the storm and operators did not dare touch their keys.
On September 2, the chaos continued after the arrival of a second storm. Telegraph operators working at the American Telegraph Company’s office in Boston found that they could neither transmit nor receive telegrams. Then they figured out the atmosphere was so charged that they could disconnect their batteries and actually use the power produced by the magnetic storm to transmit messages to Portland, Maine. Later that morning, they were able to reconnect their batteries and transmit, although there were sporadic problems throughout much of the day.
If an event the size of the 1859 Carrington Event were to occur today, the result would be absolute chaos. Our modern world is absolutely dependent on electronic devices such as computers, power grids, satellite communications, GPS, and so forth. A large event such as the Carrington Event would potentially cause massive shutdowns of anything that relied on electronic devices. Airplanes could fall from the skies, most cars would stop in their tracks, power grids would fail. The result would be absolutely catastrophic.
Solar flare activity is now known to operate in an 11-year cycle of high and low activity. Is it possible that another Carrington Event could erupt during a period of high activity? Yes, it is.
There’s more detail on the 1859 Carrington Event here.