The Carrington Event
On the morning of September 1, 1859, England’s foremost solar astronomer, Richard Carrington observed on the sun a large area of sunspots when suddenly there was a large flash over the sunspots. Within 60 seconds the flash had already started to dissipate. Early the next morning, reports of the northern lights (Aurora Borealis) were reported to be so bright that people could read the newspaper as if it were daylight. The brilliant auroras were reported much further south than usual in places like Cuba, the Bahamas, Hawaii and El Salvador in Central America.
The northern lights were unusual enough but then worldwide telegraph systems started going out. Telegraph operators were being shocked unconscious and the flying sparks from the telegraph machines were setting the papers and their machines on fire. When the telegraph operators disconnected their machines from the batteries, there were still sparks flying. This is because the power of solar flares induced electricity into the lines that carried the telegraph signals from one telegraph station to the next.
Since that time astronomers have been studying the sun and its solar flares, and have classified them as to their strength of magnitude much like we do hurricanes. We have satellites that constantly monitor the sun for any signs of the next big flare and scientists issue solar forecast and storm warnings. Solar flares are classified by brightness at their X-ray wavelengths.
- X-class is the largest flare.
- M-class is a medium sized solar flare.
- C-class is the smallest of the flares.
Numbers are attached which are logarithmic, powers of 10. A class X-4 flare is more than 10 times more energetic than a class X-3 flare would be.
Large Solar Flares
Recent large flares and their effects were:
- March 13, 1989, disrupted power in Quebec blacking out 6 million people for 9 hours. Like the Carrington Event, this also induced current into the lines, causing power surges that melted a transformer in New Jersey. There were also 200 other incidents reported on the North American power grid including a nuclear power plant in New Jersey.
- May 1998, a solar flare disabled the PanAmSat's Galaxy IV satellite and disrupted ATM machines, credit card machines, weather tracking services and 80% of all pagers in the United States.
- November 4, 2003, the largest solar flare ever measured occurred. The x-rays from this storm were so powerful that it overloaded the Geostationary Operational Environmental Satellite (GOES) that was measuring the sun, so scientists had to use other means to measure the flare. This solar flare was rated it at X-28.
- Before this flare, the strongest ever measured were X-20 flares on April 2, 2001 and August 16, 1989. Had these flares been pointing at the Earth, the damage to the satellites and power systems could have been substantial. If the flare isn’t pointing at Earth, then most of the energy goes by the Earth, which is a good thing for us.
What Would Happen Today?
What could happen today if another solar flare the size of the 1859 Carrington Event were to hit the planet? According to a report by the National Academy of Science (NAS) it could induce electrical currents that would knock out at least 300 main transformers cutting off power to 130 million people, all within 90 seconds.
Solar storms also cause the upper atmosphere to expand or swell which causes the orbiting satellites to drag in the expanded atmosphere. This can pull a satellite out of its orbit, fail or actually cause satellites to burn up in the atmosphere.
The power grids of the United States and other countries are like large antennas, picking up stray signals. Most of these signals do not cause any harm since they are small and taken to ground or dealt with properly. When a large solar flare occurs the geomagnetic currents hit the earth and the power lines pick them up. This is called geomagnetically induced currents (GIC). A major solar storm can overwhelm the system. The solar storm of 1989 that blacked out Quebec took only 90 seconds from the initial event to a complete blackout. This causes a cascading affect that if severe enough can cascade beyond the affecting power company. Our power grid is so interconnected today, that a failure in one area can cascade to numerous other areas quickly.
A current report by the NAS warns that if a similar event occurred today, it could cause $1 to $2 trillion dollars in damage to the power systems and technological infrastructure and take between four to ten years for a complete recovery. Some areas could be without power for years. Its not just the lights, but electricity controls everything from the water supply, phone service, banking and finance, internet and fuel pipelines to name a few. According to the NAS report, the damage to the US economy in the first year alone would be at least $2 trillion.
Monitoring The Sun
The main agency for watching the sun is the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administrations (NOAA) Space Environment Center (SEC). The SEC warns of impending solar storms so power, cell phone and satellite companies can take precautions.
NASA has a fleet of spacecraft watching and monitoring the sun, constantly sending data to Earth. If another major solar flare occurs and it is pointing at our planet, then the power companies and everyone else who might be affected can take appropriate action, much like heeding a tornado warning. The big question remains, will the warnings matter if there isn’t a lot that can be done to protect the fragile power grids.
Seems like there is always some danger lurking, but this isn’t a brand new danger as power companies have known about this danger since the telegraph days. Now that our economy and our daily lives are so dependant on technology, computer chips and electricity, the concern is for real.
At this time the sun is in an unusually long quiet period, if the sun acts as expected, the activity should be picking up again the next couple of years as we reach another peak in the 11-year solar cycle.
Massive Solar Flare in 2012
A massive solar flare narrowly missed the Earth on July 23, 2012. If it had happened just nine days earlier, it would have hit the Earth and possibly caused billions of dollars of damage.
There is a lot to worry about. Could another Carrington Event send us back to the dark ages? How long would it take to fix the power grid? What about food? There is a lot to think about.
Warning: Never look at the sun with binoculars, camera or a telescope without proper store bought sun filters, or you will damage your eyes.
Copyright © 2009-2014 Sam Montana
NOAA Space Weather Solar Forecasts