ON THIS DAY: Massive solar storm, ‘Carrington Event,’ caused widespread aurora in 1859

If a storm of this magnitude happened now, it would have a more drastic impact

A coronal mass ejection on the Sun (NASA)

ROANOKE, Va. – Solar flares are relatively common events, but the flare that set off the ‘Carrington Event’ on Sept. 1, 1859 was anything but common.

It was then that an English astronomer, Richard Carrington, noticed a bright spot on the sun.

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This particular flare was more impactful because it was joined by what’s called a coronal mass ejection or CME. This is when a large concentration of plasma shoots out and, in this case, it was in Earth’s direction.

When that interacts with the earth’s magnetic field, you get the aurora - an event most often seen at higher latitudes.

What you see depends on the strength of the geomagnetic storm and the height at which these molecules hit.

How the Aurora borealis forms

According to the Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory, the night of Sept. 1, 1859, was when a widespread aurora was seen.

It was “as far south as Cuba and southern lights as far north as Santiago (Chile).”

NOAA says, “People read newspapers by the light. Gold miners in the Rocky Mountains wake up and make coffee, bacon and eggs at 1:00 AM, thinking the Sun has risen on a cloudy morning.”

Could you imagine?

If something like this were to happen today, however, it wouldn’t just be a widespread display of the aurora. Technology is advanced nowadays, relying almost solely on wireless.

FNAL says that a solar storm of this magnitude would cause, “Continentwide electricity transmission grids could be damaged causing months-long blackouts.”

Storms of this magnitude happen every 500 years, according to NOAA. Now, we have satellites that can warn of any interactions between solar storms and Earth’s magnetic field.

You can see the measurements of Earth’s magnetic field on that day by clicking here.


About the Author

Meteorologist Chris Michaels is an American Meteorological Society (AMS) Certified Broadcaster, forecasting weather conditions in southwest Virginia on WSLS 10 News from 5 a.m. to 7 a.m. weekdays on Virginia Today.

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