“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
Strange, magical things were afoot in Boston, Massachusetts on September 2nd 1859. It is 9.30 am at the telegraph office on 31 State Street and the air is positively electric – quite literally electric. Telegraph operators fired up the machine that morning. It immediately began firing sparks at them. Operators from across the USA similarly dodged electrocution by telegram. Some telegraphs did set fire to nearby objects. Urban legend has it several operators got electrical shocks and burns – though no academic sources I’ve read have ever back up this claim. If no-one was seriously injured though, it would have been a miracle.
At 31 State Street they simply unhooked the batteries. To everyone’s shock and astonishment, the telegraphs kept running as if possessed regardless. A telegraph station in Portland, Maine had the same idea, and shared their disbelief with State Street.
That night people stared up at the sky in wonder. That, in the dead of night it was bright enough to read a newspaper is one thing. The Aurora Borealis – the northern lights normally only ever seen at far north latitudes – could be seen in the tropics. As far afield as Cuba and Hawaii people took in the light show. On the same night the Aurora Australis, the southern lights, were on display as far north as Santiago, Chile.
The following day the New York times reported
“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 attributed it to the divine. Others guessed at scientific causes including volcanoes all over the planet expelling massive amounts of gas all at once and a meteor shower turning to a pink mush when it struck our atmosphere. While many of the day’s greatest scientists spitballed questionable ad hoc theories, an amateur astronomer in Surrey named Richard Christopher Carrington had a pretty fair inkling what caused the phenomenon.
On the 28th August 1859 Carrington was staring up at the sun, 150 million kilometres from the Earth. The son of liquor barons, Carrington had trained in astronomy, and secured work in the field – but left, finding the role too restrictive. For five years he had studied the universe privately – in that time becoming particularly interested in solar flares. Why wouldn’t one be interested in solar flares? They are explosions of energy 1,000 times more powerful, on average, than an atomic bomb. Carrington observed several solar flares over the following days, till a particularly large one cut loose on September 1st. This caused the Coronal Mass ejection.
One should never stare directly into the sun, but were you to look at a photo of the star, the Corona is a huge ring of plasma surrounding it. This is the halo you see in a solar eclipse. It is super-heated matter (usually a basic gas like hydrogen, nitrogen or oxygen) that has become so hot it has split from it’s electrons, becoming an ionised gas. Occasionally, when a solar flare is powerful enough, it ejects a wave of plasma out into the wilds of space, followed by a powerful wave of electro-magnetic energy.
Of course Earth is a tiny spheroid, a long long way from the sun. The odds of getting hit by a coronal mass ejection are extremely low – but this wave – now known as the Carrington event, did hurtle towards us. Capable of moving at staggering speeds, The Carrington Event cleared the 150 million kilometers in a little over 17 hours. The experts of the day, Lord Kelvin included, dismissed Carrington’s explanation as preposterous. Over time scientists unravelled enough, especially around the sun and radiation to prove Carrington’s theory correct.
(Sidebar:Kelvin had no clue radiation was even a thing for most of his career, leading to such gaffes as his theory the Earth was between 20 and 100 million years old based on his comparisons of the estimated temperature of the Earth’s core vs the cooling of a cup of tea. That unstable elements break down till they eventually stabilise into lead, giving off vast levels of energy in the meantime, was a game-changer)
The Carrington 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, the solar storm of 1859 was twice as powerful as the next most powerful CME to hit the earth.
This all begs the question, what happens if Earth is hit with a Carrington event part two? Sure it would make for some beautiful scenery. A lesser CME appears to have hit Earth in 774 AD, and though little surviving appears written about it, The Anglo Saxon Chronicles mention a ’burning cross in the sky’ at night. It was as good a reason as any for the people of Northumbria to depose their unpopular king, Alhred. There were strange lights in the sky across Europe, January 25- 26 1938. Some Roman Catholics took this as confirmation the second ’secret’ given to three young girls in Fatima, Portugal was coming true.
(Another Sidebar: We’ll have to cover ‘Our Lady of Fatima’ at some point, but suffice to say in October 1917 thousands of people in Fatima looked into the skies one day and claim to have seen something like a blockbuster movie play out across the heavens. Three young girls in attendance, who had been filling the minds of locals with stories of visitations of angels for months before ‘the miracle of the sun’ claimed angels had left them three secrets. The second secret was a second world war would happen if people didn’t stop offending God. In January 1938 one did not need a gallery of angels to predict WW2.)
Writers the world over recorded ’fire in the sky’ at night for up to three days in March 1582, in yet another solar storm. This particular one is thought to have cleared some degree of space junk out of the way between Earth and the Sun, making subsequent CMEs all the more stunning.
Of course before there was an abundance of electronic technology, a coronal mass ejection was pretty much a beautiful light show. The levels of radiation it brought were considerable, but under Earth’s atmosphere not life threatening (outside of the Earth this could be another story – A 1989 solar storm hit cosmonauts in the Mir space station, hitting them with a year’s maximum intake of solar radiation in a couple of hours.) What the Carrington Event pointed to, with the telegraph lines – played out again in Solar storms of 1872, 1882, 1903 and 1909, to name but a few – is CMEs damage electrical infrastructure. The New York Railroad Storm of May 1921 started fires in Telegraph stations, damaged phone lines and undersea cables. Electricity in peoples’ houses becoming more of a thing, many New Yorkers experienced blackouts as their fuses blew.
The 1989 storm took this up a notch, taking out The entire power grid in Quebec, Canada for nine hours. More worryingly, a smaller solar storm on May 23 1967 took out US spy satellites monitoring the Northern Hemisphere. The purpose of these satellites was to pick up rockets launched from the USSR. An attack on these satellites alone would be considered a declaration of war. While scientists tried to work out just what the hell happened, the world briefly edged towards nuclear annihilation.
But one doesn’t even need to think of nuclear war to be concerned about the possibility of Carrington Event part two. Over the years we have built massive amounts of inter-connected infrastructure which is dependent on both power and electronics. From records to monetary systems, traffic lights to communication systems. All aspects of our lives, even the personal stuff – photos and music saved in digital code to the cloud – and especially electricity – it is all vulnerable to attack from a CME
In a 2011 National Geographic article, Daniel Baker of The University of Colorado’s Laboratory for Atmospheric and Space Physics estimated if The Carrington Event hit the USA alone in 2011, it would cause 2 Trillion dollars of damage. Of course an event that large would affect most of the world. We have only become more reliant on vulnerable technologies since 2011 too. One only has to think of recent disasters, the San Francisco earthquake in 1989, The Boxing Day Tsunami of 2004, Hurricane Katrina in 2005, closer to my home – the Christchurch earthquakes of 2011 – these all took years to rebuild from – multiple trillions of dollars worth of damage to infrastructure across the globe would cause catastrophic effects that could take generations to recover from.
One final thing. In 2012, that apocalyptic Mayan year some people held their breath cause the Mayan calendar came to an end – That year was scarier than many of us imagine. In 2012 the Earth only narrowly avoided being hit by another CME, this one nearly as big as the solar storm of 1859.
Originally posted 19th July 2019 on the Tales of History and Imagination Facebook page. Tweaked heavily 2022 for a ’From the Vaults’ episode of the podcast.