In 1859, British astronomer Richard Carrington saw a beam of white light on the surface of a celestial body. sunThis is what scientists now call the Carrington Event, the largest solar storm ever recorded. It is associated with the extraordinary auroras – the Northern and Southern Lights – which can be seen in the sky near the poles and equator from anywhere from Canada to Australia. The giant solar outburst also caused power outages from Paris to Boston.
While the Carrington incident appears to be a thing of the past, there is concern about what might happen if an event as powerful as (or even stronger than) Carrington strikes Earth Today, humans are much more dependent on electricity.
related: Will Solar Storms Destroy Earth?
The Carrington Incident of 1859
On Thursday, September 2, 1859, at approximately 11:18 a.m., in the town of Redhill, outside London, Carrington was investigating a group of black spots on the sun known as sunspots when he discovered he later What was called “a bizarre burst” lasted about five minutes of light. ”
This is the first one flare seen and reported, According to a 2016 study in the journal Advances in Space Research (opens in new tab).
Magnetic sensors at the Kew Observatory in London Earth From August 28th to September 7th of the year, especially on August 28th and September 2nd. The 2016 study noted that these times may have coincided with the strongest auroras in the past 160 years.
“The waves of light rolled up in rapid succession all the way to the zenith, with some brilliance enough to cast a perceptible shadow on the ground,” Times of London, September 6, 1859 (opens in new tab).
The colorful displays are reportedly so bright that people in Missouri can read through atmospheric light after midnight 1859 report (opens in new tab) In Western Weekly. Gold miners in the Rocky Mountains woke up at 1am local time, brewing coffee, bacon and eggs, thinking the sun was rising on a cloudy morning, According to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) (opens in new tab).
The Northern Lights and Southern Lights usually appear near the Earth’s poles. However, a 2016 study noted that during the Carrington event, auroras were witnessed along the way in the tropics, including Cuba, Jamaica and Panama.
Auroras are also seen in the southern hemisphere. In Moreton Bay, Australia, for example, according to a report from Moreton Bay, “Most of our readers saw three nights last week, starting just after sunset, with the sky lit up with brilliant red, southern lights,” A 2016 study noted that the messenger was on September 7, 1859.
At the same time, telegraph lines experienced “one of the most shocking and bizarre electrical phenomena,” a “surplus of electricity in the air” that allowed telegraphs to send messages from New York to Pittsburgh without the help of batteries, According to the Washington Star in 1859 (opens in new tab).
Sparks fly from the telegraph in Paris, According to a report in the Illustrated London News, September 24, 1859 (opens in new tab)Frederick Royce, a telegrapher in Washington, D.C., reported “a very severe shock that left me speechless for a while” The New York Times reported on September 5, 1859“An old man who was sitting across from me a few feet away said he saw sparks coming from my forehead.”
All told, the Carrington incident affected nearly half of the telegraph stations in the United States, according to a 2016 study.
What caused the Carrington incident?
Solar flare, the world’s largest explosion solar systemis the intense eruption of plasma and radiation associated with sunspots, According to NASA (opens in new tab)The sun unleashes solar flares when the magnetic energy built up on our star is suddenly released, solar physicist Hugh Hudson of the University of Glasgow in Scotland writes in a 2021 study in the journal . Annual Review of Astronomy and Astrophysics (opens in new tab).
Solar flares are usually accompanied by the release of huge bubbles of solar material, known as coronal mass ejection (CME). These eruptions can contain billions of tons of plasma — clouds of charged particles — that can spew out at millions of miles per hour, NASA states (opens in new tab).
Hudson’s 2021 study estimates that the radiation from the Carrington flare could carry about 4 X 10^32 ergs of energy, the equivalent of 10 billion 1-megaton nuclear bombs. He also estimated that the CME of the event may have carried about 3 X 10^32 ergs of kinetic energy.
Hudson noted in his research that the Carrington event created a magnetic storm on Earth.
The explosion could have ejected a coronal mass ejection, blasting our planet with a cloud of superheated plasma with high-speed gusts embedded with a strong magnetic field. When such an outburst slams into Earth’s magnetosphere — the outer shell around the planet that houses plasma trapped by Earth’s magnetic field — this plasma can flow down Earth’s magnetic field lines and hit molecules in the Earth’s atmosphere, resulting in aurora.
Solar flares can also induce strong electrical currents in the magnetosphere, according to NOAA. These currents, in turn, can create magnetic field disturbances on Earth’s ground, creating electrical currents in long lengths of conductive material such as power lines, telecommunications cables and pipes.
Geomagnetic storms have the potential to wreak havoc on Earth. In 1989, a geomagnetic storm knocked out power throughout the Canadian province of Quebec in 90 seconds, leaving 6 million customers in the dark for 9 hours, According to NASA (opens in new tab). It also damaged transformers as far away as New Jersey —including a nuclear power plant (opens in new tab)— Nearly paralyzed the U.S. power grid from the East Coast to the Pacific Northwest.
Geomagnetic storms can also distort the atmosphere by changing the path of radio signals, disrupting radio communications and GPS navigation, NOAA noted. For example, the Halloween storm in 2003 prevented the Federal Aviation Administration from providing GPS navigation guidance for about 30 hours, According to a 2011 study by the U.S. Department of Homeland Security (opens in new tab).
Solar plasma can also heat Earth’s upper atmosphere, causing them to expand and potentially drag down satellites in low-Earth orbit, NOAA says (opens in new tab).
What will the Carrington event do today?
The world has become more dependent on electricity than it was when Carrington happened. If an equally powerful solar flare were pointed at Earth—rather than far from our planet, it wouldn’t have any immediate effect on our world—and exploded now, it could wreak havoc like never before.
E.g, A 2013 study (opens in new tab) Power outages from a Carrington-level event could cost the North American power industry alone as much as $2.6 trillion in lost revenue, according to estimates from UK insurance giant Lloyd’s of London. The study also found that years-long global power outages could occur, as such an event could damage multiple hard-to-replace ultra-high voltage transformers at the same time. This, in turn, could cause major disruptions to financial markets, banking, telecommunications, business transactions, emergency and hospital services, water and fuel extraction, and food delivery.
Similarly, A 2017 study (opens in new tab) in the magazine space weather (opens in new tab) It found that under the most extreme power outages, affecting 66 percent of the U.S. population, daily domestic economic losses could total $41.5 billion, plus an additional $7 billion from disruptions to international supply chains. By comparison, if it affected only the extreme northern states, which make up 8 percent of the U.S. population, the economic loss could reach $6.2 billion a day, plus $800 million in international supply chain losses. (The study uses 2011 dollars.)
However, as powerful as the Carrington event was, “we’ve seen similar events since then,” Hudson told Live Science in an email. For example, two so-called Halloween solar flares in 2003 may have each emitted a comparable amount of radiant energy as the Carrington event.
Therefore, Hudson believes that a Carrington-level solar flare may not pose as much of a threat to humans as some fears. Still, the Carrington event, which points to Earth today, “will have significant implications, primarily for human activity in space.” Hudson said: “We don’t have much practice with such an event because space assets don’t yet have Exposure to an event of this magnitude.” In fact, Apollo astronauts traveled to the moon during solar activity — “it’s on a smaller scale, but it’s still very dangerous for unprotected humans in space,” Harder said. Sen pointed out.
In addition, there is evidence that the Sun may produce “superflares” that release 10 times or more more energy than the Carrington event. For example, in a 2021 study, astrophysical journal (opens in new tab), scientists using NASA’s now-retired Kepler space telescope found that, over a four-year period, 15 Sun-like stars unleashed 26 superflares that were 100 times as powerful as the Carrington event. A study in 2020 astrophysical journal (opens in new tab) Similar results were found during the first year of NASA’s ongoing TESS mission.
In addition, scientists analyzing tree rings have found evidence of radioactive carbon-14 atoms—two more neutrons in the nucleus of each atom than ordinary carbon atom – from the explosion of the sun. Hudson said the carbon-14 peaks in 660 BCE, 774 CE and 994 CE likely came from superflares that were much stronger than the Carrington events.
“It’s worth noting that even a Carrington event, or a fairly large normal event, is not detectable by carbon-14 technology,” Hudson said in an email. “So these ancient records are ominous.”
When will the next Carrington event happen?
This 2021 Astrophysical Journal Research (opens in new tab) Analysis of the Kepler data shows that a superflare with 10 times more energy than the Carrington event occurs about every 3,000 years, and a superflare with 100 times more energy occurs about every 6,000 years. Still, Hudson said, the rate at which our Sun might unleash a Carrington-like or more powerful flare in particular is “not very clear.”
He noted that when it comes to solar explosions that can release the main spikes of carbon-14 atoms in tree rings, scientists now know at least six “spread over the Holocene, a timescale of 10,000 years.” However, “we don’t understand how these relate to normal solar eruption events like the Carrington event, and I’m afraid all bets are off until we do.”
Originally published on Live Science.