by Fraser Cain
17 January, 2017

from UniverseToday Website








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 Wi-Fi 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

  • 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.























Seven Times...

Solar Storms have Affected Earth
by Matt Liddy
01 April 2015
from ABC.Au Website



Solar storms,

which scientists warn

could disrupt communications systems,

are recorded as causing chaos on Earth

as early as the mid-1800s,

when they sparked fires

and brought down telegraph systems.


What are solar storms?





Solar storms are weather events on the Sun that produce a huge release of energy, shooting heat, light and particles of plasma out into space.


In a large eruption, the Sun ejects,

  • a flash of heat and light (solar flares)

  • a huge ball of plasma (coronal mass ejections)

  • sub-atomic particles that can travel at up to 80 per cent of the speed of light (solar energetic particles)

These events can have widespread - and potentially devastating - effects on Earth.





1859 - Telegraph machines keep working when unplugged



Drawing of sunspots

by English astronomer Richard Carrington

from 1859 (Supplied)



A solar storm known as the 'Carrington event' disrupted telegraph systems around the world in 1859.


In Boston, telegraph operators reported they were still able to send messages even when they disconnected the machines' batteries, relying instead on the,

"celestial power induced in the telegraph lines by the magnetic disturbances".

The geomagnetic storms sparked fires at other telegraph offices.


A bright glow was visible in the night sky in many parts of the world:

Brisbane's Moreton Bay Courier reported that a southern aurora had,

"lit up the heavens with a gorgeous hue of red".




1882 - Telegraph, telephone systems disrupted



The NYT reports on the impact

of a solar storm in November 1882.

(NY Times)



A solar storm is blamed for widespread communications problems on November 17, 1882.


The New York Times reported telegraph wires were useless for several hours, resulting in,

"very much annoyance by reason of the delay in the transmission of business".

Telephones were affected too, with people reporting,

"a buzzing, ringing noise rather than any well-defined sound while attempting communication".

The South Australian Advertiser reported a "magnificent aurora australis" visible in Melbourne, which "at its best resembled a blood-red arch".





1989 - Astronauts report burning in their eyes



Space shuttle Atlantis

releases the Galileo spacecraft

during its October 1989 mission.




Astronauts aboard the space shuttle Atlantis were aloft during a solar storm in October 1989, and,

"reported burning in their eyes, a reaction of their retinas to the solar particles", according to the book Storms from The Sun.


"The crew was ordered to go to the 'storm shelter' in the farthest interior of the shuttle, the most shielded position. But even when hunkered down inside the spacecraft, some astronauts reported seeing flashes of light even with their eyes closed," the book notes,

...adding that if the astronauts had been on a deep-space mission or working on the Moon, there was a 10 per cent chance they would have died.




1989 - Solar storms shut down power grids



Artist's depiction of solar wind

colliding with Earth's magnetosphere.




In March 1989, space weather events caused transformers to fail, prompting a nine-hour blackout affecting more than 6 million people in Quebec, Canada.


Communications networks around the globe were affected, prompting speculation the Kremlin was jamming radio signals, while short-wave radio frequencies used by commercial pilots also suffered fadeouts.

"In space, some satellites actually tumbled out of control for several hours," NASA says.

Space weather researcher and electrical engineer David Boteler says the 1989 event,

"is the most significant space weather event for the power industry", and changed many minds about the potential impacts.


"Before 1989, believing in space weather effects on power systems was regarded by some as equivalent to believing in little green men from outer space," he said.



1989 - Canadian share trades halted



An excerpt from a NASA infographic

shows how space weather can

affect technological infrastructure.




The Toronto stock market in Canada halted trading after solar activity crashed a series of computer hard drives in August 1989.


Trading was stopped for three hours.

"I don't know what the gods were doing to us," said exchange vice-president John Kane.




2012 - Earth has close shave with 'extreme' solar storm







NASA says the Earth had a "perilous" close shave with an "extreme" solar storm in 2012.


The storm, believed to be the most powerful solar event in up to 150 years, missed the Earth by about a week.

"If it had hit, we would still be picking up the pieces," Daniel Baker of the University of Colorado said in a NASA statement two years after the event.

NASA scientists said that if Earth had been hit, the event could have knocked our technology back at least 150 years.





2014 - Scientists issue solar storm warning






Scientists warn two big explosions on the surface of the Sun will cause a moderate to strong geomagnetic storm on Earth, possibly disrupting radio and satellite communications.


The unusual storm is not likely to wreak havoc with personal electronics but may cause colorful auroras or displays of the Northern Lights across the northern United States.

"We don't expect any unmanageable impacts to national infrastructure from these solar events at this time but we are watching these events closely," said Thomas Berger, director of the Space Weather Prediction Centre at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.




Are solar storms really that big a threat?



A solar eruptive prominence

as seen in extreme UV light on March 30, 2010

with Earth superimposed into the image

to provide a sense of scale.




A storm similar to the one that missed Earth by a week in 2012 could have an economic impact of more than $2 trillion, according to a study by the US National Academy of Sciences.


NASA says that is 20 times greater than the costs of Hurricane Katrina, which devastated New Orleans in 2005.


In a February 2012 paper (On the Probability of Occurrence of Extreme Space Weather Events) published in Space Weather, physicist Pete Riley of Predictive Science analyzed records of solar storms going back more than 50 years and calculated the odds that a storm as big as 1859's huge 'Carrington event' would hit the Earth in the next 10 years.


He arrived at a likelihood of 12 per cent...