Thursday, October 24, 2019

108. The Carrington Event

On Sept 1-2, 1859, a solar coronal mass ejection hit Earth's magnetosphere and caused one of the largest geomagnetic storms on record. Just prior to this event, astronomer Richard C. Carrington (1826–1875) observed a cluster of enormous dark spots on the sun's surface from his observatory from which “two patches of intensely bright and white light” erupted. Five minutes later the fireballs vanished, but within 17 hours their impact were felt across the earth. Telegraph communications around the world began to fail. There were reports of sparks showering from telegraph machines, shocking operators and setting papers ablaze. All over the planet, colorful auroras illuminated the nighttime skies, glowing so brightly that birds began to chirp in the middle of the night and laborers started their daily work, believing the sun had begun rising. Newspapers from France to Australia featured descriptions of brilliant auroras that had turned night into day. One eyewitness account from a woman on Sullivan’s Island in South Carolina was recored in the Charleston Mercury: “The Eastern sky appeared of a blood red color. It seemed brightest exactly in the east, as though the full moon, or rather the sun, were about to rise. It extended almost to the zenith. The whole island was illuminated. The sea reflected the phenomenon, and no one could look at it without thinking of the passage in the Bible which says, ‘the sea was turned to blood.’ The shells on the beach, reflecting light, resembled coals of fire.”

SDO captured this image of an M7.3 class solar flare on Oct. 2, 2014.
NASA's Solar Dynamics Observatory captured this image of a solar flare on Oct. 2, 2014. The solar flare is the bright flash of light on the right limb of the sun. A burst of solar material erupting out into space can be seen just below it. 
Image Credit: 
As compared to the relatively crude technology of 160 years ago, today's technology is extremely sophisticated, delicate, and much more ubiquitous. Almost all aspects of modern life are now dependent on electronic-based technology and are highly vulnerable to such an event if it were to be repeated in our day. Such storms can release huge amounts of energy. The likely consequences of a similar solar storm hitting earth today would be much more damaging than a few paper fires and a disruption in coarse telegraph wires for a few hours. The chair of Harvard’s Astronomy Department, Professor Abraham Loeb, recently went on record to state that "A Carrington-type event would cost roughly $2-3 trillion in terms of infrastructure damage. This includes damage to global supply chains, communication satellites, electric power grids and so forth." (20x greater than hurricane Katrina).

In a paper published in July of this year, speaking of the effect of a large, sun-caused geomagnetic storm on earth, US Geological Survey scientist Jeffrey Love stated: "Today, it is recognized that numerous technological systems are potentially vulnerable to the impacts of intense magnetic storms. They are associated with damage to satellite electronics and increased orbital drag, disruption to over‐the‐horizon radio communication, degradation in the accuracy and reliability of global‐positioning and timing systems, interference with geophysical surveys, increased radiation exposure to astronauts and high‐altitude pilots, and the induction of currents in electric‐power grids that sometimes cause blackouts.

Scientists from every major agency have stated that another solar storm comparable or greater to the Carrington event is inevitable in the future. Although the volatility of the maximum period within a given sun cycle is extremely difficult to predict, a major solar storm has occurred every 100-500 years. There was a near miss (by just 9 days) in 2012 in which a massive solar eruption was sent out into space instead of impacting earth (ReutersNASA). What actually happened in 2012 was that multiple coronal mass ejections were launched into space within a relatively short period of time. This is what is thought to have also occurred during the Carrington Event of 1859. The Sun has an 11-12 year cycle, oscillating from solar minimum to solar maximum. In our current cycle, the solar maximum will be reached in 2025, in which there is typically the highest frequency of flares on the sun's surface.

Physicist Pete Riley of Predictive Science Inc. analyzed records of solar storms going back 50+ years and published a paper in Space Weather in 2012 in which he calculated the probability of a Carrington-class storm hitting the Earth in the next ten years at 12%. This may seem like a small probability, but that is more than a 1 in 10 chance.

Think about the implications of what might be impacted by such an event. The voltage produced by such a storm would likely be sufficient to overcome the insulation resistance in most wiring, including transformers, power plants, substations, and telephone wires, causing fuses to fail and frying the delicate circuitry (chips, transistors, etc) in most electronics if they are plugged into the electrical system. Even those not plugged in to the system could be effected given the permeation of the electromagnetic disruption. This could also result in fire. Means of transportation could be rendered useless for undetermined lengths of time until repairs could be made (cars, trains, airplanes, delivery trucks, boats). People might not be able to commute to work. Food might not be able to be transported from far away regions so we can have tomatoes all year long. Means of communication could be rendered inoperable (telephone wires, cell towers, cell phones). GPS systems could cease to function. Anything relying on electricity could be inoperable (household appliances, water systems including sewer [which relies on pumps to maintain pressure], gas stations, banks, credit card readers). Farm equipment could cease to function properly. And perhaps most significant in our day, the internet, our main source of information, commerce, communication, and employment, could go down (during a recent internet-outage at my place of work, which only lasted a few hours, work completely ceased). Such an event can happen at any time, even in the dead of winter. Such an event could create quite a change in our way of living.

1 comment:

  1. And now I got one more thing to keep me up at night.... Thanks for that James! :)


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