A Very Powerful Solar Storm Hit the Earth Back in 1582

“A great fire appeared in the sky to the North, and lasted three nights,” wrote a Portuguese scribe in early March, 1582. Across the globe in feudal Japan, observers in Kyoto noted the same fiery red display in their skies too. Similar accounts of strange nighttime lights were recorded in Leipzig, Germany; Yecheon, South Korea; and a dozen other cities across Europe and East Asia.

It was a stunning event. While people living at high latitudes were well aware of auroras in 1582, most people living closer to the equator were not. The solar storm that year was unlike anything in living memory, and it was so strong it brought the aurora to latitudes as low as 28 degrees (in line with Florida, Egypt, and southern Japan). People this close to the equator had no frame of reference for such dazzling nighttime displays, and many took it as a religious portent.

“All that part of the sky appeared burning in fiery flames; it seemed that the sky was burning,” wrote Pero Ruiz Soares, an eyewitness in Lisbon, and the author of a 16th-century Portuguese chronicle. “Nobody remembered having seen something like that…At midnight, great fire rays arose above the castle which were dreadful and fearful. The following day, it happened the same at the same hour but it was not so great and terrifying. Everybody went to the countryside to see this great sign.”

An aurora caused by a coronal mass ejection in 2010, as seen from the International Space Station. Image Credit: NASA, ISS Expedition 23 crew.

These centuries-old accounts of the 1582 solar storm were recently uncovered by researchers hoping to learn more about the event. Just as early modern peoples sought meaning in the auroras, modern day scientists are also eager to understand the fiery skies of 1582. That massive solar storm, and other storms like it, are important indicators of historical solar weather patterns. Understanding them can help predict future solar activity.

The historical record seems to suggest that major storms like the one in 1582 are, at minimum, a once-in-a-century occurrence, and so we should expect one or more of them to hit Earth in the twenty-first century.

While pre-modern solar storms had little effect aside from their incredible auroras, a major solar storm today could do billions of dollars of damage and shut down power grids worldwide. A moderately large storm in 1989, for example, completely knocked out the power grid in Quebec, and a more powerful storm could do worse. The most severe solar storm in recorded history, the Carrington Event of 1859, were it to happen now, would be far more damaging, although at the time it only affected early telegraph lines.

Solar storms are caused by disturbances in the Sun’s atmosphere. High energy explosions known as solar flares can be accompanied by an enormous rush of solar wind known as a coronal mass ejection. These fast-moving solar particles interact with Earth’s magnetosphere, producing vibrant auroras and interfering with electronics.

The ‘Seahorse Flare’, which caused a solar storm in August 1972. Image Credit: NASA, Big Bear Solar Observatory.

Solar storms can also carry with them deadly doses of radiation. Earth’s protective magnetosphere keeps us safe from their effects, but as NASA and its partners look to return to the Moon and beyond in the coming decades, an accurate model of solar weather is going to be vital for mission planning. This lesson was learned during the Apollo era, when a solar storm blasted by Earth in August 1972. The storm would have been fatal to astronauts, had they been on the Moon at the time. Luckily, Apollo 16 had returned to Earth in April that year, and Apollo 17 did not launch until December, so catastrophe was avoided. Careful planning, and a little luck, will be required to keep future Lunar astronauts safe.

Should we be worried about future solar storms? Perhaps. At the very least, we ought to be prepared for them, just like any other natural disaster. Since the 1989 power outage, the power generation industry has begun working on mitigation techniques, and taken preventative measures to make power grids more resistant to solar weather, but it’s hard to be fully prepared. When the next big solar storm comes, and it will come someday, we may not be fully ready for it. But one thing is for sure: it’s going to put on one heck of a show.

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Feature Image: Artist’s rendition of Earth’s magnetosphere. Credit: NASA

2 Replies to “A Very Powerful Solar Storm Hit the Earth Back in 1582”

  1. If the same sort of CME that hit Earth in 1582, without any warning, it would have probably taken our modern world down a few notches. Fortunately modern astronomical tools can give us fair warning of such events. I just wonder what can be done. Will shutting down the entire global electrical grid help mitigate the worst of the effects? What kind of other safeguards are being put into place? I hope scientists and electrical engineers are considering measures to prevent the worst effects of such an event, because sooner or later such an event WILL occur.

    1. A lot of work has been done since the 1989 Quebec power cut. The step up / down transformers are much more resilient and only older designs and ones near the end of life would be affected and they are usually triply redundant. Also the risk is highly variable depending on the underlying geology. Crystalline resistive rock increases the risk, conductive decreases it. High latitude increases, low latitude decreases. It also depends on the length of the powerlines as the total voltage is the result of the voltage per kilometer integrated over the length of the powerline.

      Using that the scientists can make risk maps picking out the individual powerlines that are most at risk and power grid companies can focus on making those particular lines more resistant. There is usually some warning of a few days for a major solar storm too, so they can prepare.

      Modern estimates are of the order of tens of billions to perhaps a hundred billion dollars for the US, similar to a major hurricane in economic damage and $100 billion a year is how much damage there is from the ordinary power cuts that happen every year anyway. So it is like doubling that if you have a major solar storm. As for blackouts, they would be rare, because of the triple redundancy and the resilience work. There might be a few blackouts for a few hours to days. I summarize some of the recent research here: https://debunkingdoomsday.quora.com/What-would-the-effects-be-of-a-major-solar-storm-Short-term-local-power-cuts-for-hours-not-widespread-blackout-for-mo

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