Saturday, February 27, 2021

The Carrington Event was a huge solar storm that caused auroras all over the world (and mass destruction)

By the following evening, the particles from those flares had reached Earth, and the sky was ablaze with auroras—the northern (and southern) lights. In the Rocky Mountains, campers woke and started making breakfast at midnight; a man in New Orleans went hunting at 1 a.m. From North America to East Asia, Hawaii to Colombia, Brisbane to Cape Town, crowds stayed up all night to stare at the razzle-dazzle


In 1859, the global telegraph network had more than 200,000 kilometers of cables, mostly in North America and Europe. As the storm peaked, operators from San Francisco to Bombay found their cables and equipment overwhelmed by the “auroral current.” In New York City, one man was left stunned by an “arc of fire” that shot off a ground wire onto his forehead; an operator in Pittsburgh saw “streams of fire” pouring from his circuits as they nearly melted. Telegraph operators in Boston and Portland, Maine, disconnected their batteries but found the storm current was enough to power the line on its own, while across the world messages were blocked, their signals overwhelmed. Normal service only resumed after several days, as the flux faded and equipment was repaired. 

The Carrington Event happened before mass electrification. Today, the world is criss-crossed by billions of kilometers of cables


The most dangerous place for satellites to be during a storm is in low-Earth orbit, on the edge of the atmosphere where geomagnetic flux is high. Satellites from the likes of NASA are hardened against all but the worst disruptions, but the last few years have seen the rise of programs like SpaceX’s Starlink, with fleets of thousands of relatively cheap, unhardened, and seemingly unreliable micro-satellites


There’s tree ring evidence to suggest that bigger-than-1859 storms—possibly 20 times larger—occurred in both 774 CE and 5480 BCE, but such evidence is inconsistent.