The Great Solar Storm of 1859

On September 2, 1859, a massive solar storm composed of subatomic charged particles slammed into the earth’s protective magnetosphere. It ignited countless fires and caused sparks to spew from telegraph machines, shocking their operators. It also created a dramatic show of aurora borealis, or northern lights, as far south as the Caribbean. Solar storms occur when enormous bubbles of superheated plasma are periodically ejected from the sun. Scientists believe that if a similar solar storm were to happen today, it would cause catastrophic damage by crippling power grids, satellites, GPS, and communications systems. Such an event could leave North American without power for months or years and could carry an economic impact as high as $2 trillion.

While conducting observations from his private observatory outside of London on the morning of September 1, 1859, British amateur astronomer Richard Carrington noticed patches of intense white light erupt from the sun. The eruptions lasted about five minutes before dissipating. Little did Carrington know the flare he observed sent solar wind shock waves carrying supercharged plasma racing towards the earth. Hours later, those particles slammed into the earth’s magnetic shield, creating auroral flashes and clouds in vivid colors of red, violet, pink, and green. This single solar storm carried the energy equivalent of 10 billion atomic bombs and is known as the Carrington Event.

The Cahaba Gazette, Alabama: Sept. 9, 1859

The colorful auroras of the Carrington Event were so bright that even in the middle of the night, birds began to chirp and California Gold Rush miners woke up to prepare breakfast. People in Missouri could read without any light source after midnight, and some assumed a great fire was burning on the horizon. Telegraph lines across the country experienced “one of the most startling as well as singular electrical phenomena,” when “a superabundance of electricity in the air” allowed telegraph machines to work without the aid of batteries. The Washington Star reported, “A series of currents of electricity, entirely independent of batteries, seem to have taken possession of the wires, and to such an extent that the National Telegraph was actually enabled to send messages from New York to Pittsburg, (Penn.) correctly.”

Our sun operates on solar cycles that last an average of 11 years. The Carrington Event occurred during Solar Cycle 10, which lasted from December 1855 until March 1867. Solar Cycle 24 began in December 2008 and is just wrapping up. The current forecast predicts Solar Cycle 25 will be relatively weak.

Will a future solar cycle bring a repeat of the Carrington Event? Scientists say it’s not only possible but inevitable. According to a 2008 report from the National Academy of Sciences, a similar-sized solar storm would include, “disruption of the transportation, communication, banking and finance systems, and government services; the breakdown of distribution of potable water owing to pump failure, and the loss of perishable foods and medications because of the lack of refrigeration.” Researchers studying evidence of historic solar storms say a large solar storm “would be a threat to modern society.”

To read more personal accounts of the Carrington Event in 1859, and to learn more about solar storms, search Newspapers.com today.

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38 thoughts on “The Great Solar Storm of 1859

  1. The next solar event will, one hopes, rearrange the previous poster’s run-on sentences so we can decipher them before running out of breath.

    • Touché, Doug! As for Kyle, we got the gist of what you were saying in the first (substantially unpuncuated) paragraph of your first post (she said, at the risk of redundancy).
      Seriously though, solar cycles are a potentially frightening realism.

      • We just keep getting lucky. The flares keep missing us. But we could be here today and data deleted tomorrow. Or meltdowns tomorrow if the wrong part of the grid gets toasted.

    • I’m thinking maybe this poster is actually A.I. that they’re testing out to see how it responds to News articles. Only thing that makes sense (or nonsense) – it was an complete failure!

  2. Touché, Doug! As for Kyle, we got the gist of what you were saying in the first (substantially unpuncuated) paragraph of your first post (she said, at the risk of redundancy).
    Seriously though, solar cycles are a potentially frightening realism.

    • Oops. My apologies in regards of the double posting as I am still eluded (duh) by some aspects of technology.

  3. There was a silly TV show about when the lights went out but it is truly frightening to imagine. Farming would crawl to a stand still, food will run out, crime would become rampant and prices will be gouged, but of course these are the worst case scenarios. I know that scientists like to imagine it as worst case, but rarely does it happen. Remember the hysteria when I think it was Dallas that had an Ebola patient who passed it on to the nurse who cared for him? Everyone freaked out and for what? Nothing. Nothing else happened.

    The truth is that we cannot predict the future and the best thing is to simply be aware and live our lives, every single day, as though it were the last day on earth. Our number will come one way or another, so is it worth worrying about it?

    I grew up in the Cold War era and truly believed I’d be dead before I was 30. I was wrong. I’m now 52 and made it. I’m just grateful for my life.

  4. Some people like to see their weirdness in print…They are psuedo experts and show offs. To me. They’re Losers seeking suckers to read their egotistical rantings.

  5. Some people like to see their weirdness in print…They are psuedo experts and show offs. To me. They’re Losers seeking suckers to read their egotistical rantings. This is my only and first comment

  6. Some of the comments sound on the hateful side. Did you not want to progress any at all? You know you could have stayed living the way my grandparents or my parents. Growing up myself there were no stores that were anything like they are now. At least not where i lived. We bought stuff out of two catalogs available and the other clothes were made by my mother and my Aunt. People had gardens more so than stores to go to every day. A milk truck, a bread truck, a bakery truck and an ice truck came by each day. We had out houses and no indoor plumbing. only one vehicle when i grew up, but my grandparents had horse and buggy. Is that how you want it to be? No TV, No Computer, No internet, now that may not be a bad idea.

    • Also, there was no Air Conditioning in homes like they have now in more homes than not. Some of you might have to get use to a whole lot of ways you take for granted in today’s world of not having in the early 1900s.

      • No, it’s not the solar cycles. It’s all the air conditioning; cooling the insides and heating the outsides. AND the water is all stored up in bottles, water heaters, pools and reservoirs instead of flowing free as nature intended. Hydroelectric power is the best and most natural. Man does not have infinite wisdom, but infinite stupidity. Hey, let’s open up another brew pub. That;ll save us……LOL!

      • Actually, there are many scientific articles on the internet that say solar cycles most definitely cause “climate change”. Do an internet search and you will find many articles.

  7. Actually, as an atmospheric scientist, I believe strongly that the sun is responsible for our climate, and the changes that the climate undergoes. Human input to the climate system via greenhouse gases is negligible or non-existent, and much of the slight amount of climate change that has been non-natural is simply an artefact of Urban Heat Island effects (UHI). The slight and overall beneficial warming the world has undergone since the depths of the Little Ice Age in the 17th century has brought us to the Modern Warm Period, which is peaking in the early 2000s (2000-2150). This circa-800 year cycle nests within a longer period cycle, and a shorter 70 year cycle nests within the two longer ones. The sun, which affects oceanic currents an cycles, is ultimately responsible for the changes in climate. The next Carrington-level solar event will be a transformational world-changer, and will likely act as the “reset” mentioned by the first poster in many ways, some imaginable, others unforeseen.

  8. This would be the “perfect storm” for the anti-christ to make an appearance! Matthew 10:28 (KJV)
    28 And fear not them which kill the body, but are not able to kill the soul: but rather fear him which is able to destroy both soul and body in hell.

    • The fear of the LORD is the beginning of wisdom: and the knowledge of the holy is understanding.
      Proverbs 9:10

      And the second beast performed great signs to cause even fire from heaven to come down to earth in the presence of the people.
      Revelation 13:13

  9. The first responder has some valid comments before leaving the true subject behind. There were many good comments about being self sufficient in past and in todays society, but we are no longer in small communities that make everything we need to eat, cloth or keep us comfortable and safe. We have always been trading with others outside of our communities, states & nations. I am hoping we don’t see a disaster like that in my life time. We are not ready to deal with the panic or mobs it would create. We do need to slow down and unplug once in a while. Remember the old newspapers you are reading was the only way of communication over distances for a very long time. People had time to think before they said something they couldn’t take back or was going to be out there in some electronic storage forever to be seen by future family or business. I also feel we are far enough in our evolution to know science is a blessing in our lives and to have faith in it to find a solution to protect our electronic communication systems. We need to find those projects/solutions and help, not be a problem with negative thoughts and attitudes.

    • Thanks! We realized the spelling was incorrect but it was contained within a quote that was originally misspelled.

  10. First time on this site… Only went to further reading because I am enjoy observing the present day Northern Lights. I am quite disturbed that A-Lot of what I have read from comments related to this article…WREAK of Manifesto(s) written by Some Sociopathic Anti-Civilization Kazanski wanna-be.
    I believe the owners of this website should do a better job of filtering out comments that carry such a tone.

  11. There have been solar flares everyday. Some are worse than others. While I was in the service in the communication field. We Had solar flares that were bad enough to disrupt communications. Just saying, we will have a big one and life as we know it will be there no more. Period.

  12. This was so interesting because it brought back a memory of reading an article of birds falling from the sky in Santa Barbara and fisherman being blistered by the sun on a day in the 1800’s. The thermometer was said to reach 133 or so. I searched again for that and it occurred in 1859. However, the site that I found says June 22. I wonder if they have the date wrong and it was actually this event in September of that year. I’d love to hear more about it.

  13. 1. A half dozen years ago or so a large solar flare which at first was thought might hit us but it has to be almost directly aimed at us and safely miss us.
    2. There is evidence from tree rings of a Carrington Event several times larger in about the 11th century, so we have to prepare for something much larger.
    3. For the fatalists who say if it happens, it happens, it would take years to rebuild the grid, and until that time, most people would have no heating or air conditioning, and unless they lived in a very rural area, they would run out of food. A generator would be of little use, because there would be no power to operate gas pumps. Some main gas lines have pumps operated by burning gas bled off from the lines, but remote monitring of the lines might be a problem. In short much of the population of the US would be dead in a year. The engineers say there are things we can do, and they would also helpreduce damage causing normal blackouts, but no one wants to pay taxes until too late.
    The remaining question is whether home solar and wind systems would be affected.

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