The sky was lit with a bright glow from a direct hit from a massive, solar storm. The year was 1859 and while it seems like eons ago, the Carrington Event disrupted telegraph services and had people talking. "Is this the end?"
Imagine what a sizable, solar flare storm could do today. Scientists feel such a disrupter will happen sooner rather than later. In July of 2012, we survived a near miss most of us never knew about. More on that later.
Let's look back on the Carrington event, its effects, and what we can learn from it, so you can better prepare for an unexpected solar knock out should one happen this year.
A Perfect Storm - The Carrington Event
Travel back with me, for a moment, to 1859. Oregon became America's 33rd state. Harper's Ferry Raid was squashed by General Lee and Big Ben rang for the first time across Westminster, London. Back then, you would have traveled long-distance by train or steamboat and sent your "texts" via the telegraph.
But, something big happened just before noon on September 1, 1859. Had it happened today, one can only imagine the effects. Richard Carrington, an English astronomer, pointed his telescope into the blue sky over his rural property outside London and discovered the beginning of a global disrupting event. He noticed, "two patches of intensely bright and white light" coming from dark spots on the sun's surface. Within minutes, the fireballs vanished, but by evening, their effects impacted the world.
Otherwise known as the "Carrington Event," these enormous solar flares lit up the Northeastern United States to the Rockies. The glow woke up coal miners and shed enough light to read the paper! The lightened sky reached as far south as Cuba and Honolulu.
On Saturday, September 3, 1859, the Baltimore American and Commercial Advertiser wrote,
"Those who happened to be out late on Thursday night had an opportunity of witnessing another magnificent display of the auroral lights. The phenomenon was very similar to the display on Sunday night, though at times the light was, if possible, more brilliant, and the prismatic hues more varied and gorgeous. The light appeared to cover the whole firmament, apparently like a luminous cloud, through which the stars of the larger magnitude indistinctly shone. The light was greater than that of the moon at its full but had an indescribable softness and delicacy that seemed to envelop everything upon which it rested. Between 12 and 1 o'clock, when the display was at its full brilliancy, the quiet streets of the city resting under this strange light, presented a beautiful as well as singular appearance."
The effects on the telegraph and the magnetism in the atmosphere were unlike those from any previous thunderstorms or Northern Lights. Some telegraph operators received electric shocks. Systems across Europe and North America faltered. Telegraph pylons and wires sparked. According to History.com,
"When American Telegraph Company employees arrived at their Boston office at 8 a.m., they discovered it was impossible to transmit or receive dispatches. The atmosphere was so charged, however, that operators made an incredible discovery: They could unplug their batteries and still transmit messages to Portland, Maine, at 30- to 90-second intervals using only the auroral current. Messages still couldn't be sent as seamlessly as under normal conditions, but it was a useful workaround. By 10 a.m. the magnetic disturbance abated enough that stations reconnected their batteries, but transmissions were still affected for the rest of the morning."
Solar storms hurdling toward Earth arrive in three phases; however, each storm is different and might or might not present all three occurrences.
"First, high-energy sunlight, mostly x-rays, and ultraviolet light, ionizes Earth's upper atmosphere, interfering with radio communications. Next comes a radiation storm, potentially dangerous to unprotected astronauts. Finally comes a coronal mass ejection, or CME, a slower moving cloud of charged particles that can take several days to reach Earth's atmosphere. When a CME hits, the solar particles can interact with Earth's magnetic field to produce powerful electromagnetic fluctuations." (National Geographic)
Image the effects on:
- Internet Commerce
- GPS Systems
- Electrical chips in automobiles
- cell phone communications
- power grids
- and all satellite transactions
A similar storm could blast the globe today. And you know what, friends? Solar storms aren't going away. They will happen again.
Solar Flares in Modern Times - Quebec 1989
On Friday, March 10, 1989 astronomers watched an incredible explosion on the sun. Colliding magnetic forces on the sun (like thousands of nuclear bombs exploding at the same time) released a billion-ton cloud of gas. At a million miles an hour, the storm and flares raced toward the earth. Now friends, think back to 1989. We still weren't as dependent on the Internet and technology, as we are today, but...
"Just after 2:44 a.m. on March 13, the currents found a weakness in the electrical power grid of Quebec. In less than 2 minutes, the entire Quebec power grid lost power. During the 12-hour blackout that followed, millions of people suddenly found themselves in dark office buildings and underground pedestrian tunnels, and in stalled elevators. Most people woke up to cold homes for breakfast. The blackout also closed schools and businesses, kept the Montreal Metro shut during the morning rush hour, and closed Dorval Airport. The Quebec Blackout was by no means a local event. Some of the U.S. electrical utilities had their own cliffhanger problems to deal with. New York Power lost 150 megawatts the moment the Quebec power grid went down. The New England Power Pool lost 1,410 megawatts at about the same time. Service to 96 electrical utilities in New England was interrupted while other reserves of electrical power were brought online." (NASA)
A series of large solar flares could seriously cripple today's tech-dependent world. Then, it almost happened again.
In 2012, It Was a Near Direct Hit
It had the power to knock us back to the Dark Ages. A solar storm On July 23, 2012, a coronal mass ejection as powerful as the Carrington Event 150 years early, had a near miss with the Earth. The path of the solar flare crossed perilously close crossing our planet's orbit shortly after the Earth passed through that point in space.
Daniel Baker of the University of Colorado and other NASA colleges noted, "If the eruption had occurred one week earlier, the Earth would have been in the line of fire." A 2013 study later estimated that a direct hit would have had an economic cost to the United States of up to $2.6 trillion. Yes, that's "trillion" with a "t". A long-term power grid outage and ensuing disruption to our country's food supply chain would have been highly likely.
Let's unpack that idea.
Survival after a Solar Flare - Simple Steps
Scientists believe the new Solar Dynamics Observatory spacecraft can help to predict the sun's behavior, as the sun moves deeper into its next phase and begins generating bigger storms. NASA's Parker Solar Probe mission, scheduled to launch the summer of 2018, will probe the sun's atmosphere for a year. The objective will be to learn more about how a star works. That includes the production of solar flares.
Even with better predictive technology in place, what can you do if your cell phone, desktop, power, refrigerator, and transportation die? A complete, long-term power grid failure is likely.
"Imagine large cities without power for a week, a month, or a year," said Baker, during a geophysics meeting in 2011. It's something to plan for.
Should this happen, first, it would be wise to have three months to a year's supply of survival food on hand. Let's not forget something for water purification too. If tower pumps and purification plants fail, you should have an Alexapure Pro standing by to ensure clean drinking water. Preparing for a long-term emergency with a supply of heirloom seeds to grow fresh produce would be smart - even if you live in an apartment and can only grow small amounts in flower pots with an Urban Garden Seed Kit.
Also, have a communications plan in place with family and friends. The world might rely once again on snail mail during a solar flare event. All businesses should have an immediate backup operational plan - especially if your business relies on the Internet for sales.
Be ready with a store of cash, silver, gold or items to barter if global financial markets were to crash or become temporarily inoperable. And squirrel away extra gasoline for your vehicle. You also might want to own at least one car that doesn't rely on electronic chip technology.
The good news is that scientists are always working to find new ways to better predict and survive a solar flare event. But just in case no one comes to your rescue, be ready to rescue yourself from the sun. We all know that in a widespread national emergency, the government will not be able to provide.
Now, don't get burned by the sun this summer! Have a great weekend and stay alert, friends.
Elizabeth Anderson, Preparedness Advisor