By Philip R. Devlin
(August 18, 2022) —Books and movies appear in popular culture on a regular basis to remind us that the planet that we all live on exists in an interstellar shooting gallery. By my count, more than forty disaster movies involving massive asteroid or comet strikes upon the earth have been made. The first of these, “The End of the World,” was a Danish film from 1916—perhaps inspired by the recent passing of Halley’s Comet in 1909– depicting the disastrous collision between planet Earth and an errant comet. The 1990’s saw a spate of films of this genre with the production of popular films such as “Asteroid,” “Armageddon,” and “Deep Impact.” Some of these movies offer hope that it might be possible to know well enough in advance how to protect the planet from these deadly collisions. Some threats from outer space to the planet, however, may be immune from defensive action and may have disastrous consequences. One such incident, the “Carrington Event,” occurred 163 years ago this month in September of 1859 and deserves much more attention than it has received.
While making routine observations of the sun near London in September of 1859, British astronomer Richard Carrington saw intense white light erupting from the sun. Hours later the plasma generated by these solar flare-ups slammed into the Earth’s atmosphere, producing the most incredible auroral light show ever recorded; in fact, the plasma colliding with the earth is estimated to have carried the energy equivalent of 10 billion atomic bombs! Additionally, the collision ignited countless fires on the earth’s surface and caused sparks to fly on telegraph machines. Essentially, the collision caused an enormous electromagnetic pulse (EMP). Such a collision today would have far more dire consequences than it did in 1859, as it would likely cripple all power grids, computers, cellphones, GPS, and all other forms of communication. Scientists estimate that North America could lose power for many months or even years.
NOAA defines a geomagnetic storm as “a major disturbance of Earth’s magnetosphere that occurs when there is a very efficient exchange of energy from the solar wind into the space environment surrounding Earth.” These storms are rated on a scale of 1-5. The storm about to hit the Earth later this week is estimated to be a 3. The Carrington Event was a 5. One result of this geomagnetic storm will be a heightened display of the Northern Lights. Residents of southern New England may very well be treated to a display of the lights unlike any seen in decades on Thursday and/or Friday nights, depending on cloud cover. Disruption of satellite signals and GPS devices can be expected.
Geomagnetic storms historically increase as the solar maximum gets closer. The next solar maximum—the cycle of the sun when solar flares and sunspots are most active—arrives in 2025. The solar cycle takes about 11 years. The last solar maximum occurred in 2014 and was very weak. The next one will most likely be much stronger. The Carrington Event occurred just a few months before the solar maximum of 1860.