What Was the Carrington Event?

What Was The Carrington Event?

Isn’t modern society great? With all this technology surrounding us in all directions. It’s like a cocoon of sweet, fluffy silicon. There are chips in my fitness tracker, my bluetooth headset, mobile phone, car keys and that’s just on my body.

At all times in the Cain household, there dozens of internet devices connected to my wifi router. I’m not sure how we got to the point, but there’s one thing I know for sure, more is better. If I could use two smartphones at the same time, I totally would.

And I’m sure you agree, that without all this technology, life would be a pale shadow of its current glory. Without these devices, we’d have to actually interact with each other. Maybe enjoy the beauty of nature, or something boring like that.

It turns out, that terrible burning orb in the sky, the Sun, is fully willing and capable of bricking our precious technology. It’s done so in the past, and it’s likely to take a swipe at us in the future.

I’m talking about solar storms, of course, tremendous blasts of particles and radiation from the Sun which can interact with the Earth’s magnetosphere and overwhelm anything with a wire.

Credit: NASA

In fact, we got a sneak preview of this back in 1859, when a massive solar storm engulfed the Earth and ruined our old timey technology. It was known as the Carrington Event.

Follow your imagination back to Thursday, September 1st, 1859. This was squarely in the middle of the Victorian age.

And not the awesome, fictional Steampunk Victorian age where spectacled gentleman and ladies of adventure plied the skies in their steam-powered brass dirigibles.

No, it was the regular crappy Victorian age of cholera and child labor. Technology was making huge leaps and bounds, however, and the first telegraph lines and electrical grids were getting laid down.

Imagine a really primitive version of today’s electrical grid and internet.

On that fateful morning, the British astronomer Richard Carrington turned his solar telescope to the Sun, and was amazed at the huge sunspot complex staring back at him. So impressed that he drew this picture of it.

Richard Carrington’s sketch of the sunspots seen just before the 1859 Carrington event.

While he was observing the sunspot, Carrington noticed it flash brightly, right in his telescope, becoming a large kidney-shaped bright white flare.

Carrington realized he was seeing unprecedented activity on the surface of the Sun. Within a minute, the activity died down and faded away.

And then about 5 minutes later. Aurora activity erupted across the entire planet. We’re not talking about those rare Northern Lights enjoyed by the Alaskans, Canadians and Northern Europeans in the audience. We’re talking about everyone, everywhere on Earth. Even in the tropics.

In fact, the brilliant auroras were so bright you could read a book to them.

The beautiful night time auroras was just one effect from the monster solar flare. The other impact was that telegraph lines and electrical grids were overwhelmed by the electricity pushed through their wires. Operators got electrical shocks from their telegraph machines, and the telegraph paper lit on fire.

What happened? The most powerful solar flare ever observed is what happened.

In this image, the Solar Dynamics Observatory (SDO) captured an X1.2 class solar flare, peaking on May 15, 2013. Credit: NASA/SDO

A solar flare occurs because the Sun’s magnetic field lines can get tangled up in the solar atmosphere. In a moment, the magnetic fields reorganize themselves, and a huge wave of particles and radiation is released.

Flares happen in three stages. First, you get the precursor stage, with a blast of soft X-ray radiation. This is followed by the impulsive stage, where protons and electrons are accelerated off the surface of the Sun. And finally, the decay stage, with another burp of X-rays as the flare dies down.

These stages can happen in just a few seconds or drag out over an hour.

Remember those particles hurled off into space? They take several hours or a few days to reach Earth and interact with our planet’s protective magnetosphere, and then we get to see beautiful auroras in the sky.

This geomagnetic storm causes the Earth’s magnetosphere to jiggle around, which drives charges through wires back and forth, burning out circuits, killing satellites, overloading electrical grids.

Back in 1859, this wasn’t a huge deal, when our quaint technology hadn’t progressed beyond the occasional telegraph tower.

Today, our entire civilization depends on wires. There are wires in the hundreds of satellites flying overhead that we depend on for communications and navigation. Our homes and businesses are connected by an enormous electrical grid. Airplanes, cars, smartphones, this camera I’m using.

Credit: Wikimedia Commons.

Everything is electronic, or controlled by electronics.

Think it can’t happen? We got a sneak preview back in March, 1989 when a much smaller geomagnetic storm crashed into the Earth. People as far south as Florida and Cuba could see auroras in the sky, while North America’s entire interconnected electrical grid groaned under the strain.

The Canadian province of Quebec’s electrical grid wasn’t able to handle the load and went entirely offline. For 12 hours, in the freezing Quebec winter, almost the entire province was without power. I’m telling you, that place gets cold, so this was really bad timing.

Satellites went offline, including NASA’s TDRS-1 communication satellite, which suffered 250 separate glitches during the storm.

And on July 23, 2012, a Carrington-class solar superstorm blasted off the Sun, and off into space. Fortunately, it missed the Earth, and we were spared the mayhem.

If a solar storm of that magnitude did strike the Earth, the cleanup might cost $2 trillion, according to a study by the National Academy of Sciences.

The July 23, 2012 CME would have caused a Carrington-like event had it hit Earth. Thankfully for us and our technology, it missed. Credit: NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center

It’s been 160 years since the Carrington Event, and according to ice core samples, this was the most powerful solar flare over the last 500 years or so. Solar astronomers estimate solar storms like this happen twice a millennium, which means we’re not likely to experience another one in our lifetimes.

But if we do, it’ll cause worldwide destruction of technology and anyone reliant on it. You might want to have a contingency plan with some topic starters when you can’t access the internet for a few days. Locate nearby interesting nature spots to explore and enjoy while you wait for our technological civilization to be rebuilt.

Have you ever seen an aurora in your lifetime? Give me the details of your experience in the comments.

Incoming! CME On Its Way Toward Earth

As you read this, a huge cloud of charged solar particles is speeding toward our planet, a coronal mass ejection resulting from the X1.4-class flare that erupted from sunspot 1520 on July 12. The CME is expected to collide with Earth’s magnetic field on Saturday, potentially affecting satellite operations and tripping alarms on power grids, as well as boosting auroral activity. It’s on its way, and all we can do is wait. (Thank goodness for magnetospheres!)

Actually, the effects from the incoming CME aren’t expected to be anything particularly dramatic. NOAA is predicting a geomagnetic storm level raging from G2 to G4, which although ranges from “moderate” to “severe” a G2 (Kp = 6) is most likely, according to Dr. C. Alex Young from NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center.

[Read: What Is a CME?]

“A G2 level storm can cause some power fluctuations that may set off some voltage alarms for power companies,” Dr. Young told Universe Today. “Damage to transformers is possible for longer events, but unlikely. Satellite companies may have to make some orbit corrections for their satellites, and at higher latitudes where there are aurora they can be some disruption of high frequency radio broadcasts.

“All in all the effects should be minor,” he concluded.

And this may not be the last we hear from 1520, either.

“Its complexity has decreased but it is still large and has a ‘delta’ configuration,” added Dr. Young, “when there is opposite polarity magnetic field of the umbra within the penumbra of the sunspot. This is an unstable configuration that is indicative of larger releases of energy, lots of flares — in particular M and X flares.”

Below is a computer model of the CME from Goddard Space Weather Center. Impact with Earth is expected on 7/14 at 10:20 UT (+-7 hrs), 6:20 am EDT.

Auroras may be visible at lower latitudes this weekend, so check the NOAA’s updated auroral oval map to see if visibility extends into your area over the next several nights. Hopefully aurora photographers around the world will be able to get some great photos of a summer sky show!

You can keep up with the latest news on solar activity on Dr. Young’s blog, The Sun Today. And of course, stay tuned to Universe Today for more updates on any noteworthy space weather!

The video below uses SDO AIA footage in 131(teal), 171(gold) and 335 (blue) angstrom wavelengths, and shows the X1.4 class flare erupted from the center of the sun on July 12, 2012 at 12:52 PM EDT. Each wavelength shows different temperature plasma in the sun’s atmosphere. 171 shows 600,000 Kelvin plasma, 335 shows 2.5 million Kelvin plasma, and 131 shows 10 million Kelvin plasma. The final shot is a composite of 171 and 335 angstrom footage.

Top image: illustration of a CME about to impact Earth’s magnetosphere (NASA). Model animation: NASA/GSFC. Video courtesy NASA/SDO and the AIA science team.

UPDATE: The CME took a bit longer to arrive than expected, but impact with Earth’s magnetic field was detected at around 1800 UT (11 a.m. PDT/2 p.m. EDT), activating a geomagnetic storm. According to SpaceWeather.com: At the moment, conditions appear favorable for auroras over high-latitude places such as Canada, Scandinavia, Antarctica and Siberia. It is too early to say whether the storm will intensify and bring auroras to middle latitudes as well.

Huge Coronal Hole Is Sending Solar Wind Our Way

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An enormous triangular hole in the Sun’s corona was captured earlier today by NASA’s Solar Dynamics Observatory, seen above from the AIA 211 imaging assembly. This gap in the Sun’s atmosphere is allowing more charged solar particles to stream out into the Solar System… and toward Earth as well.

Normally, loops of magnetic energy keep much of the Sun’s outward flow of gas contained. Coronal holes are regions — sometimes very large regions, such as the one witnessed today — where the magnetic fields don’t loop back onto the Sun but instead stream outwards, creating channels for solar material to escape.

The material constantly flowing outward is called the solar wind, which typically “blows” at around 250 miles (400 km) per second. When a coronal hole is present, though, the wind speed can double to nearly 500 miles (800 km) per second.

Increased geomagnetic activity and even geomagnetic storms may occur once the gustier solar wind reaches Earth, possibly within two to three days.

The holes appear dark in SDO images because they are cooler than the rest of the corona, which is extremely hot — around 1,000,000 C (1,800,000 F)!

Here’s another image, this one in another AIA channel (193):

AIA 193 image of the March 13 coronal hole

Keep up with the Sun’s latest activity and see more images on NASA’s SDO site here.

Images courtesy NASA, SDO and the AIA science team.