September 2, 2015

Reprinted from SpaceWeather.com 2 Sep 2015

156 YEARS AGO, A GEOMAGNETIC MEGA-STORM: On Sept. 2nd, a billion-ton coronal mass ejection (CME) slammed into Earth’s magnetic field. Campers in the Rocky Mountains woke up in the middle of the night, thinking that the glow they saw was sunrise. No, it was the Northern Lights. People in Cuba read their morning paper by the red illumination of aurora borealis. Earth was peppered by particles so energetic, they altered the chemistry of polar ice.

Hard to believe? It really happened–exactly 156 years ago. This map shows where auroras were sighted in the early hours of Sept. 2, 1859.

As the day unfolded, the gathering storm electrified telegraph lines, shocking technicians and setting their telegraph papers on fire. The “Victorian Internet” was knocked offline. Magnetometers around the world recorded strong disturbances in the planetary magnetic field for more than a week.

The cause of all this was an extraordinary solar flare witnessed the day before by British astronomer Richard Carrington. His sighting marked the discovery of solar flares and foreshadowed a new field of study: space weather. According to the National Academy of Sciences, if a similar storm occurred today, it would cause a trillion dollars in damage to society’s high-tech infrastructure and require four to ten years for complete recovery.

In fact, a similar flare did occur just a few years ago. On July 23, 2012, a CME of rare power rocketed away from the sun. The storm was in all respects at least as strong as the 1859 Carrington event. The only difference is, it missed. no harm done. The July 2012 event serves as a reminder, however, that extreme space weather is not a thing of the past.