The 1859 Carrington Event

Like many Victorian gentlemen of means, Richard Carrington did not need to sully himself with labor; instead, he turned his energies to the study of natural philosophy. It was the field of astronomy to which Carrington would apply himself, but unlike other gentlemen of similar inclination, he began his studies not as the sun set, but as it rose. Our star held great interest for Carrington, and what he saw on its face the morning of September 1, 1859, would astonish him. On that morning, as he sketched an unusual cluster of sunspots, the area erupted in a bright flash as an unfathomable amount of energy stored in the twisted ropes of the Sun’s magnetic field was released, propelling billions of tons of star-stuff on a collision course with Earth.

Carrington had witnessed a solar flare, and the consequent coronal mass ejection that would hit Earth just 17 hours later would result in a geomagnetic storm of such strength that it would be worldwide news the next day, and would bear his name into the future. The Carrington Event of 1859 was a glimpse of what our star is capable of under the right circumstances, the implications of which are sobering indeed given the web of delicate connections we’ve woven around and above the planet.

A Mortifying Spectacle

Richard C. Carrington. Source: SolarStorms.org

Solar science was in its infancy in 1859, and while Carrington’s instruments were crude by today’s standards — a 4-1/2″ equatorial mount telescope projecting an image onto a white card — it was enough. Using similar equipment, astronomers had begun to tease out the secrets of the Sun, observing that the number of sunspots and their location on the Sun’s face occur in cycles. They also knew that sunspots were associated with observable phenomena on Earth, such as the aurora borealis and aurora australis, and that there was a clear association between solar activity and the Earth’s magnetic field. Some solar observatories even had magnetometers that could record changes on Earth and correlate them to solar activity.

The event that Carrington was lucky enough to have watched unfold on September 1 was only one of many outbursts that the Sun would have over a multi-day period. Solar observers reported large numbers of sunspots starting on August 28, with strong aurora being seen at unusually low latitudes starting that night. That suggests that one or more of the sunspots had created a solar flare and coronal mass ejection (CME) of sufficient energy to fling a cloud of plasma toward Earth sometime in the prior two days — while the electromagnetic effects of a solar flare are visible about 8 minutes after it happens, the matter subsequently ejected takes several days to push through the 93 million miles (150 million km) of space between the Sun and the Earth.

Carrington’s observations of the sunspots seen on Sept. 1, 1859. The flare started in the white regions (A and B) and spread over the whole face of the 35,000 mile-wide cluster for five minutes before fading. Source: Richard Carrington [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
Those eruptions would pale in comparison to what the Sun would release on September 1st. Carrington’s routine observation of the sunspot cluster that day was interrupted at 11:18 AM local time by the appearance of two intensely bright white spots of light that moved across the entire face of the sunspot before gradually fading out and disappearing. He at first thought something had happened to his apparatus and that direct sunlight was being projected on his viewing screen, but it became clear that he was witnessing something rare and unusual. He rushed to find someone else to witness the event, but when he returned a minute later was “mortified to find it was already much changed and enfeebled.” The whole thing lasted less than five minutes.

But the energy released in those few minutes would have enormous consequences. Gigatons of charged particles were blasted from the surface of the Sun, to ride along a twisted knot of the Sun’s magnetic flux on a collision course with Earth. That the first effects of the arriving CME were reported a mere 18 hours after Carrington saw the flare suggests that the previous solar flares had cleared the space between Earth and the Sun to make the plasma cloud travel faster than the usual million miles (1.6 million km) per hour; or perhaps the CME that arrived the night of September 2nd was in fact released by an earlier, unobserved solar flare.

Here Comes the Sun

No matter the source, the arriving beast caused a geomagnetic storm of epic proportions. The Earth’s magnetosphere was violently shoved aside, allowing charged particles to slip into the atmosphere and couple with gas molecules, producing strong aurorae. The lights were seen in both the northern and southern hemispheres at latitudes approaching the tropics; people reported being able to read a newspaper on the street at midnight and mistaking the bright display for sunrise and starting their days hours too early.

As awe-inspiring as the auroral displays were, they were but a backdrop to the destructive energy that was then sleeting down on the planet. As with the geomagnetic storm on 1989, the distortions of the Earth’s magnetic field eventually reached a point of collapse. NASA has a good simulation video of this, used as the image at the top of the article. The collapsing magnetic field released its stored terawatts of energy back into the Earth. With little in the way of electrical infrastructure, most of the current eventually dissipated harmlessly. But the nascent telegraph network would suffer the brunt of the damage. Telegraph offices reported outages and connection problems, switchgear crackled and sparked, and operators were shocked when they touched the keys. Some offices reported damage as paper tapes in the recording receivers burst into flames.

The storm continued for two days, damaging telegraph equipment across the globe. Some operators, in an attempt to spare their networks from further damage, disconnected their batteries from the lines, only to find that they could still send messages using only the current provided by the storm. Wires on poles coupled enough energy to light them on fire, and damage was considerable. By the time the storm was over, millions of dollars in damage had been inflicted upon the fledgling network.

So Much More to Lose

In the century and a half since Richard Carrington made his observation, solar scientists have studied the Carrington Event and searched ice-core and other records for evidence of similar storms hitting Earth. Everything found thus far pales in comparison to the fury of the 1859 storm. There have been far more near misses, of course. One, a “Carrington class” CME launched by a 2012 solar flare, missed intersecting with Earth in its orbit by a mere nine days.

Famed insurer Lloyd’s of London, a firm with much to lose in such an event, commissioned a study to estimate the impact of a Carrington-level event striking the Earth today. They knew the stakes were much higher, what with 160 years of wires, switches, repeaters, satellites, and radios added to our grid, not to mention our complete dependence on the services built upon that infrastructure. They concluded that we might possibly see up to $2.6 trillion in grid damage in the United States alone, with power outages lasting up to two years.

57 thoughts on “The 1859 Carrington Event

    1. It really does depends on the duration of after effects of the CME which would be moving at between 1.5 million km per hour to 2 million km per hour (They take about 3-4 days to get from the sun to earth which is 149.6 million km away). The diameter of the earth is only 12742 km wide so a CME the size of earth would pass the earth in a couple of minutes. The after effects would need need to last at least 4 hours to take out all the LEO (low earth orbit) satellites and probably 12 hours to take out all the geostationary satellites.

      Could the human race survive if 70% of our satellites are fried and 95% of everything that uses electricity on one one side of the planet is dead.

      1. > The diameter of the earth is only 12742 km wide so a CME the size of earth would pass the earth in a couple of minutes.

        Do you have any basis for saying that a CME might only be the size of the earth? The Carrington event appears to have lasted longer (if it it was long enough to fool people into starting their day early due to an apparent sunrise). Do we know what size a Carrington event CME might be?

      2. 90 hours is enough time for quite a lot of dispersion. The ejection takes only seconds or minutes, but after traveling so far the cloud has time to grow many times larger, maybe taking days to pass, as indeed it appears to have happened in 1859.

  1. In many ways the 1989 flare and CME that knocked out part of Canada was more powerful than the carrington flare.
    Solar Physics (2004) 224: 407–422, THE 1859 SOLAR–TERRESTRIAL DISTURBANCE AND THE
    CURRENT LIMITS OF EXTREME SPACE WEATHER ACTIVITY, http://www.leif.org/research/1859%20Storm%20-%20Extreme%20Space%20Weather.pdf

    The danger isn’t really increased much since then (1989) because the danger is to very long conductors. The timescale of the rate of change in the Earth’s magnetosphere is too long even in intense events to generate voltages large enough across transistor junctions or circuit bits to damage them. So the danger is to things like the backbone transformers of the power grid. The really big ones that take months to manufacture and transport. There has been a campaign since the early 2000s to install fast ground fault interruption circuits on these backbone transformers as part of a national security initiative but it never got the funding bill inclusion it needed to do it widespread (in the USA).

    So anything long and continuous like telephone, power, liquid pipes, etc could have damaging currents induced.

    1. Huh, I never thought about water pipes having these currents induced in them. This is one source of “ground” in the electrical system of our house. Would a solar event like this be enough to generate back current trough that system? I would think not, since there’s a direct path to ground since they’re buried pipes. But then again I was surprised that solar events can be large enough to collapse earth’s magnetic fields. The scale of such a thing is incredible.

      1. Ooo can o worms needs opening. Ground in quotes good choice. Make a Van de Graaff or Wimshurst, or buy one. Note how well or doesnt work with/ without that pipe “ground”. Then try to compare how charges are similar to type of radiation… Ah nevermind. Puts can back on shelf still open.

          1. Worms are Great for the garden and compost heap as well. Are you saying I can’t catch fish with an open can of worms left on a shelf? That can is for stinking and rotting and being ignored. please dont bring fishing metaphor to it.

      1. There is probably enough stock within a country for national governments to seize and replace damaged ones on lines that feed transformer factories. It would take awhile to get back up to normal life again and I’m sure many would die but the world would recover.

        1. “enough stock”…
          I have my doubts about that, as JIT (Just-in-Time) manufacturing is becoming the norm worldwide.
          That means, not only will there be very few spares warehoused, but a minimal amount of the necessary components to build replacements are in stock right now.

          One thing that occurred during the Reagan Administration was companies were taxed (annually) for their warehouse inventories. Many companies dumped usable spares that would not have been likely used in the coming year. (i.e. a lot of spare NOS parts, New Old Stock) disappeared.
          (sigh!)

          I think someone mentioned once on HaD, that electrical utilities have around 10% of replacement parts in stock
          (wire, transformers, poles, fuses/breakers). I would be surprised if they have more, and not surprised if the figure is less than 5%.

          1. I agree with your observations regarding JIT and inventories. Our society now is so complex that even a minor disruption of anything has large consequences.

      2. Yeah, there’s sure to be spare transformers around, and even the ones in use at the time wouldn’t *all* be knocked out. But it sounds like significant portions of the backbone infrastructure could suffer significant damage, and the logistics of repairing widespread damage of that nature would surely be a nightmare.

      3. First datacenter all have diesel generator to backup power failure. Secondly major data communication on earth use fiber optic which is insentive to electromagnetic events. I guess major infrastructures will hold except for the power transformers at end of hundred and thousand kilometers long power lines not equiped with fast ground fault breaker.

        1. I work at a telecom company…the fibre optic wires themselves may be immune, but every major fibre trunk cable will have some form of copper “finder wire” so they can locate it when digging, or if there’s a break between repeaters.And with fibre optics – those distances between repeaters is measured in tens to hundreds of kilometers so that finder wire could very well get an induced current.They also have some form of metallic shielding built into them, mostly for protection against digging. Same goes for undersea cables – they have a thick wire that goes down the middle that they use to locate magnetically to find it to splice in other cables or connect to the on-shore networks.

          1. Yeah but…no one here seems to understand that the same dH/dT happens to the ground as to whatever is buried in it. Net result is that your ground may not be at the same potential as mine, but since everything works out common mode…there isn’t even really a good way to tell! Yeah, if something induced some excessive stuff *between* the phases of long distance 3 phase transmission, there’d be a problem. But then have this tendency to run all 3 wires more or less parallel to one another….
            Work it out, there’s really not much meaning to absolute potential.
            Current in pipes has what return path, again? Shorted out by something (dirt) exposed to the very same field as the pipe, you say? This is high school stuff, or was back when school taught things other than just indoctrination.

            I think only a few things now use the actual earth as a ground return for anything, the old telegraphs did. Maybe some local power, but I think most of that’s been replaced.

            Investigate the properties of 2 wire transmission line if you don’t understand me. Common mode simply doesn’t matter for almost everything. CME’s don’t create normal mode stuff between closely spaced conductors and they’re all pretty close for this frequency band (much less than 1 hz – work out the wavelength for that).

  2. Coast to Coast AM brings this subject up often. It’s effects are right out of this world, and they pressure legislation action to harden the grid. Now where are the aliens to throw up a big metal mesh to protect us?

  3. In a remarkable coincidence, I just today reserved a library book that mentioned the Carrington Event in its blurb. It’s a fictional account of the response/results of such an event today. Sorry, I don’t recall the title or author at the moment (Fitchner?), but an earlier book of his was titled “One Second After” – a story about the results of an EMF attack.

      1. Yeah, it’s a great book but it’s story doesn’t really apply here. That involved a 300-1000 km high nuclear fission bomb and the compton scattering EMP from the xrays and free charges interacting. That primary EMP has a very short timescale (high frequency) and intensity. It can burn out small circuits and integrated circuits.

        The timescale of the electromagnetic effects of a coronal mass ejection at Earth’s magnetosphere are much longer. There is not a danger to disconnected electronics or directly to integrated circuits components like transistors.

  4. Looking again at Carrington’s drawing of the event, I wonder if any of our “local” solar observation satellites would survive such an event. At least we have his drawings, a satellite could leave us with nothing…
    (By local, IIRC, there are two other solar obs sats leading and trailing by a third(?) of Earth’s orbit), one or both could probably survive a Earth CME impact.

  5. This event is why I always laugh at my friend’s “zombie apocalypse plans”. Zombies are fiction — this was not. My apocalypse plan is to accrue knowledge and experience to rebuild or repair what is lost, in any type of “apocalypse”. This includes tools, “dead tree” copies of knowledge, (and some weapons, as panicky humans may be a problem). Hopefully, such an event will cause spotty damage at best, the worst hit being infrastructure, but allowing smaller devices to escape damage in some areas. Hopefully

    1. “zombie apocalypse” is a catch-all phrase for when the SHTF.
      The Centers for Disease Control saw the “zombie apocalypse” phase a few years ago as a teaching moment for people to prepare for any disaster where a major disruption occurs to infrastructure. (e.g. hurricane, tornado, cholera/ebola, war, acts of terror, extended power outage). So, stocking up on non-perishable food, bottled water, medicine, first aid supplies, sanitary needs, batteries, and such is not a foolish idea.
      For instance, I keep a voltmeter, a ham radio, a shortwave radio, hand cranked radio, in a metal garbage can with a tight fitting metal lid to hopefully protect them from an EMP.

      https://www.cdc.gov/cpr/zombie/index.htm

  6. Loss of power, or complete lack of power is a daily event throughout large parts of the globe. Those likely to be worst affected are the snowflakes who live on a diet of starbucks and youtube videos. For those of us from, shall I say a more rugged time, no electricity and no internet will be an irritation.

    The real problems occur if the outage starts to affect the logistics of feeding large urban snowflake populations. The phrase “Any society is three square meals away from anarchy” applies. Never mind the millennium bug that is Brexit, or Trumps demonstration that a country can function perfectly well for extended periods without a functioning government, the real test of a society is how well it can feed itself in times of strife.

    1. I was in a certain city during the power outage in 2003. After 3 days we were told that sewage pumps have enough fuel for their generators for only 1 day more … In short, modern cities would be rendered inhospitable in a week or two.

      Not to mention crowds breaking into the supermarkets because their refrigerated food is now spoiled. One week at most.

    2. I always loved the Emberverse books by S.M. Stirling. Where the great cities like L.A. and New York become little more than deathtraps and everything within several days walk of the city is picked clean and destroyed by the hoards looking for supplies. Sure whats left of the cities not brought down by fires do eventually become mines for refined products but the citizenry is essentially a write off.

    1. But, I suspect it will be a minimally funded project, with little results, until a disaster clearly occurs and then the government can declare to the press, “We have been working on it, but we need more funding to implement it.”
      (i.e. plausible deniability) And then truckloads of money will be thrown at the project with most money going to favored contractors/individuals who will pocket/waste most of the money.

        1. Well, that is sort of what happened with Obama’s “shovel ready” infrastructure initiative…
          Hundreds of Million$ went to Universities and studies which didn’t involve any infrastructure improvements or maintenance.

  7. I have several pages of backup plans.
    If there is another event on this scale its possible for example to run an ATX motherboard from a car battery, using a 12V solar panel to charge it for accessing basic though limited library resources and monitoring the ambient radiation levels via the sound card and +420V supply to the SBM20.
    The big annoyance is generating the 5V@12A and 3.3V@21A but this is doable with minimum effort using a small circuit board with a couple of cheap regulators based on some MOSFETs.
    Sure it won’t run *well* but better than nothing for most applications with a 12V powered LCD.

  8. I recommend the book “The Sun Kings: The Unexpected Tragedy of Richard Carrington and the Tale of How Modern Astronomy Began.”

    Knowing this story opens ones eyes to the power of convention in science and how it can affect conclusions.

  9. Harvard’s Earth Shield CAN REPEL space threats and AVERT the RISING BLACKOUTS (as 2017’s’ in 15 US cities) & all nuclear plants’ explosion by the next solar superstorm, as we thankfully escaped in July 2012* https://astronomy.fas.harvard.edu/news/impact-and-mitigation-strategy-future-solar-flares *http://science.nasa.gov/science-news/science-at-nasa/2014/23jul_superstorm – http://www.swpc.noaa.gov/sites/default/files/images/u33/final_shibata_SWW_2015.pdf
    9 MONTHS BLACKOUT!!!… THANKFULLY their nuclear plant was decommissioned in 1970. Even US STATE channel PBS ALERTS https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Km2m4H2TdoY
    Simulated laser plasma shield: https://phys.org/news/2017-07-scientists-laboratory-astrophysical.html Princeton, RochesterΝΥ, Michigan, New Hampshire. https://thewire.in/159826/tifr-tabletop-laser-plasma-omega-parker-aditya .
    30 super lasers ALREADY EXIST!
    https://www.cambridge.org/core/journals/high-power-laser-science-and-engineering/article/petawatt-class-lasers-worldwide/77B55882D24E72D26E233B691A8376D2

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