The Carrington Event of 1859 (A Once in 500 Year Solar Storm)
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The Carrington Event was a powerful solar storm that smashed into the earth in 1859. The solar flare was so intense that as it hit the earth’s magnetic field, it caused telegraph wires to spark and turned the night sky into day.
Carrington’s solar flare is but one large solar storm in a long line of potentially devastating space weather that has the potential to blast modern society back to 1859.
Should you be worried? Should you be prepared? This article covers the what, why, and how of Richard Carrington’s great geomagnetic storm and what it means for our future.
What Was the Carrington Event?
The date is September 1, 1859, and a 33-year-old brewery owner with an interest in astronomy is sketching sunspots in his notebook. The man’s name is Richard Carrington, and though he doesn’t know it yet, he’s about to make the history books.
At 11:18 that morning, Carrington is blinded by a massive blast of light that has just come from the sun. Confused, he wonders what on earth it is that he has just witnessed. But it’s not until the morrow that he will begin to realize the earthly consequences of what the sun has just done to his planet.
The vast solar storm of The Carrington Event was on its way.
Carrington’s Solar Storm Lights up the Sky
In the middle of that night, the sky lights up so bright that both man and fauna are tricked. In South Carolina, people begin to wake up to go to work before they realize that it is still the middle of the night. Songbirds start to greet the night with their melodies before they realize they’ve been duped. And even more ominously, some people throughout the planet wonder if this is the beginning of the end as colorful auroras fill the skies where northern lights have never appeared before.
The next day, telegraph operators worldwide reported an inability to transmit or receive messages. Spontaneous fires happen at these stations in multiple locations, and there are reports of numerous telegraph operators being electrocuted.
Though they do not know it, this generation has just lived through a historical event. They have lived through The Carrington Event, also known as the “Great Auroral Storm.” (Source)
Here Comes the Sun
Just like the earth, the sun has magnetic fields. The sun is also filled with massive amounts of energy, however. Anybody who has a passing interest in ham radio is likely familiar with the term “sun spots.” These dark regions on the sun’s surface are cool areas that result from magnetic instability.
Many people don’t realize, though, that sometimes these sunspots can become so volatile that they shoot electrified plasma energy out into space.
These sunspots are created when magnetic fields under the sun’s surface combine and get all twisted and tangled together, much like headphones that have been briefly placed inside your jeans pocket.
Unlike those headphones, these sunspots usually can “untangle” themselves, resulting in nothing happening. But sometimes, they can’t, and when this is the case, the sunspot “explodes,” shooting out a burst of energy from the sun’s surface.
What is the name of this explosion?
A coronal mass ejection.
An Infrequent Problem with Massive Consequences
Again, typically, this isn’t anything to worry about. Coronal ejections happen on the sun’s surface every day, and virtually all of them are either too little to cause any damage to mankind or aren’t aimed at Earth.
But The Carrington Event proved that sometimes the perfect solar storm is created, and it can cause some terrific problems.
When a geomagnetic storm is large enough to potentially hit the earth and cause damage, it is known as a coronal mass ejection, or CME. The Carrington Event was the largest one in recorded history. But here’s the problem: we know that this wasn’t a one-time event. It was no fluke. Another 1859 Carrington Event level solar storm is entirely possible.
Modern Society and The Carrington Event
The difference? Next time, it won’t just be telegraph stations in an 1800s world that a massive solar flare will impact. Next time, it will be a modern society that loses its electricity.
It’s currently estimated that a Carrington event-sized solar storm occurs once every 500 years. But what about the smaller storms that impact our planet? Well, they happen much more frequently.
Just a few decades after the Carrington Event, in May 1921, the Earth was once more hit by a CME. Once more, northern hemisphere telegraph stations were destroyed, but this time, train control arrays burst into flames as well. Then, in 1989, another CME hit the earth, plunging Quebec into darkness for hours.
It’s estimated that CMEs with half the power of the 1859 Carrington Event occur every 50 years. If that is the case, how long is it until we get hit with another similar event?
What’s the Problem?
The problem is that we now live in a world where mankind mainly depends on electricity. If the electricity went out in 1800s America, nobody would really suffer. But consider should the same happen in the modern day? What happens to the healthcare industry? How about agriculture? What happens to logistics, fuel, communications, and electricity-dependent nuclear reactors?
Transformers, the backbone of the electrical grid, would be fried. And should that happen, everything that depends on those transformers would be rendered inoperable.
Considering the 700+ people that died in the Texas power outage during the winter of 2020, it’s not difficult to see how this could result in wide-scale death on an exponentially larger scale. Unless one could live like an 1800s American, they would be in for a world of hurt.
Is the Clock Ticking?
In a sense, yes. We know that the sun’s polarity flips every 11 years. When this happens, the current theory is that magnetic bands are formed at each of the sun’s poles, migrating their way toward the sun’s equator. When they crash into each other, they typically are neutralized.
But if one of the magnetic bands happens to “live” longer than the other, and is then hit with yet another band with the appropriate polarity, a CME could very well be the result.
As of right now, 2025 is when we will see the next high point, often referred to as the Solar Maximum, in this cycle of the sun. We do have something of a game plan, however.
The Deep Space Climate Observatory
Floating amongst the heavens, this space weather observatory is supposed to give mankind an early warning should a CME be detected. The hope is that it will give us an hour’s notice when CME solar storms are on the way.
60-Minute Solar Storm Warning
Theoretically, this should give most of the passenger jets in the sky enough time to land and allow those on the ground to quickly take protective action for their electronics (e.g., throwing essential gear into faraday cages).
But then again, an hour is our best hope. We may only get 15 minutes worth of warning before the solar storm crashes into the earth’s magnetic field. It just depends upon the speed of the solar storm. And for that? Well, much about the study of space weather is still a guess.
Is It a Hopeless Case?
Nope. It’s not. There is virtually always something that you can do to minimize your risk of a negative consequence, even in the face of the biggest solar storm. In the case of solar storms? Make sure you have backups to your essential electronics and keep those backups stored in a faraday cage.
Know how to grow and preserve your own food. Find alternatives to your power needs. Build your resiliency.
In short, regularly become proficient in all of the “prepper things” that we advocate for here at Mind4Survival.
If you do that, you’ll have done everything you can and given yourself a massive step up over the rest of the world for when the next 1859 Carrington Event hits the planet. Because while the sun may turn out the lights, living a life of preparedness is still a bright idea.
Thank you for a very informative article. Thinking of how to use a Faraday cage to my best advantage is still on the front burner.
Thanks, Vikki! I appreciate your feedback. ~Brian
A great source for this and EMP info is Preston from Civil defense radio. Great info. Check him out.
Check out EMP Shield, you non EV cars and your home can be protected, simple to install. They also will protect against an man made intentional EMP explosion (think missile).
Just turn your stuff off and disconnect the power sources if you have some warning. I mean everything.