“If you have built castles in the air, your work need not be lost; that is where they should be. Now put the foundations under them.”
― Henry David Thoreau, Walden
Hi folks welcome to this week’s Tale of History and Imagination. First thing I should say, I often play fast and loose with the quotes and today this is especially true. Sorry fans of Henry David Thoreau. Second I am putting the Somerton man topic to one side for a while – it is a multi- parter, and I am stretched thin as it is at the moment. Once the podcast is up we’ll take a trip to Sommerton beach, I promise.
This week I wanted to do something a little different. Let’s just jump in and I’ll explain why I am fascinated by this tale at the end.
The date of today’s tale, September 2nd 1859. The location, many – but let’s start off where I started the first blog – in Boston, Massachusetts. It is 9.30 am at the telegraph office on 31 State Street and the air is positively electric – quite literally electric. The telegraph operators, like many others across the country had fired up the machine that day only to find sparks coming from the telegraph machines. In some cases the sparks had set fire to nearby objects. Any time I have heard this story operators got electrical shocks or burns – though none of the dozen secondary sources I have read on this make this claim. In Boston, if you remember my bit on Samuel Morse, the home of the telegraph – they simply unhooked the batteries. Imagine their shock and amazement when the telegraphs kept running anyway. The air was so charged that day, that the machines kept on going, as if they were somehow possessed. A telegraph station in Portland, Maine had gotten the same idea, and shared their amazement with 31 State Street. Across much of the USA this behaviour was observed.
That night people stared up to the sky in amazement. That, in the dead of night it was bright enough to read a newspaper is one thing, but the Aurora Borealis, the northern lights normally only ever seen at far north latitudes, could be seen in the tropics – reports coming from places as far afield as Cuba and Hawaii. On the same night the Aurora Australis, the southern lights were on display. As far north as Santiago, Chile people stared in wonder, and perhaps a little dread. The New York Times wrote, the following day
“With this a beautiful tint of pink finally mingled. The clouds of this colour were most abundant to the North East and North West of the zenith… There they shot across one another, intermingling and deepening until the sky was painfully lurid”
You may wonder what on earth could cause such a thing. Some at the time, no doubt attributed it to the divine. Others at the time put forward suggestions which included volcanoes giving off a massive amount of gas all at once, or a meteor shower turning to a pink mush in our atmosphere. An amateur astronomer in Surrey, UK by the name of Richard Christopher Carrington had a pretty fair inkling what had caused the phenomenon. On the 28th August 1859 he had been staring out 150 million kilometers away, at the surface of our sun. for five years he had spent many an hour staring out to space, and had noticed solar flares – explosions of energy with an average power rating of 1,000 atomic bombs going off- before. Carrington observed a number of solar flares over the following day, till there was a particularly large one on September 1st. This was the one which caused what is now known as a Coronal Mass ejection. I’m not super clued into science (hence not Tales of Science and Imagination) but my understanding is the Corona is a huge ring of plasma which surrounds the sun – this is the halo you can see in a solar eclipse. Occasionally, when a solar flare is powerful enough, it ejects huge sums of plama out of the Corona, out into the wilds of space- often followed by a powerful wave of electro-magnetic energy. Of course we are on a tiny spheroid, a very long way from the sun. We rarely get hit, but this wave – hereafter known as the Carrington event – hurtled towards us, clearing 150 million kilometers in a little over 17 hours. At the time the experts of the day, Lord Kelvin included, dismissed Carrington’s explanation as preposterous. Over time he was proved Oll Korrect, in the Boston speak of the time. Carrington’s event would be the most powerful of it’s kind – scientific measurements of nitrogen levels in ice show, at least in the last 500 years, his solar storm was twice as powerful as the next most powerful event to hit the earth.
But what would happen if we got hit with a Carrington event part two? It would be pretty right? Free electricity? Well… this is how I got to thinking this story would make a good post.
Last weekend I got thinking about the precariousness of the ones and zeros which make up our lives so much these days. First it was going through a collection of CDs full of legal downloads from the iTunes store. When iTunes first came along I was an early adopter- and I spent a tonne of money on my music collection – several hundred CDs worth of music. In 2015 I was sent into a mad panic when my laptop died, taking many gigabytes of data with it. Of course the music library was still on the cloud – I could still download it when I got a new hard drive. I only got as far as the letter E. Spotify had been the new thing for a little while, and iTunes will be up there forever right? Last month Apple announced they were closing down the platform. A second incident jumped out at me – waiting round at my parents’ place to go out shopping with my mum, I stopped to look at the photo albums they have over there – actual physical wooden boxes, with glass covers, and wood bound volumes which sit like upside down files in a filing cabinet. Volume after volume of family memories, some going as far back as my great- grandparents. We may curate our lives in an almost hyper-graphic intensity these days, but you know there is something more ‘real’ to one of George Eastman’s kodak moments… or at the very least, less transitory. Well the scary news is, if Carrington part two happens we may well lose our cloud based existence as easily as I lost that hard drive. Add to this any travel requiring a GPS would be impossible, GPS would bite the dust. Satellites would become useless space junk. The electrical grid, wherever the CME hit, would become worthless as transformer after transformer blew. Potentially we could be plunged back into the past for years.
In a 2011 National Geographic article I read, Daniel Baker of The University of Colorado’s Laboratory for Atmospheric and Space Physics estimated the costs of such an incident, if it hit the USA in 2011, at 2 Trillion dollars. Of course we have only become more reliant on vulnerable technologies – electronic banking among them – since then. Oh, and in 2012, that apocalyptic Mayan year, the Earth only narrowly avoided being hit by another CME almost as big as the solar storm of 1859.
This week’s Tale of History and Imagination is brought to you by well… anywhere which sells solar storm proof external hard drives I guess?
Catch you all next week, for another Tale. As always please share us around, like, comment.
Originally posted 19th July 2019 on the Tales of History and Imagination Facebook page. Copyright 2019 Simone T. Whitlow.