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Solar Storm of 1859
Geomagnetic solar storm
Sunspots of September 1, 1859, as sketched by Richard Carrington. A and B mark the initial positions of an intensely bright event, which moved over the course of five minutes to C and D before disappearing.
A solar storm of this magnitude occurring today would cause widespread electrical disruptions, blackouts and damage due to extended outages of the electrical grid. The solar storm of 2012 was of similar magnitude, but it passed Earth's orbit without striking the planet, missing by nine days.
The flare was associated with a major coronal mass ejection (CME) that travelled directly toward Earth, taking 17.6 hours to make the 150 million kilometer (93 million mile) journey. Typical CMEs take several days to arrive at Earth, but it is believed that the relatively high speed of this CME was made possible by a prior CME, perhaps the cause of the large aurora event on August 29 that "cleared the way" of ambient solar windplasma for the Carrington event.
Aurora during a geomagnetic storm that was most likely caused by a coronal mass ejection from the Sun on May 24, 2010, taken from the ISS
On September 1-2, 1859, one of the largest geomagnetic storms (as recorded by ground-based magnetometers) occurred. Auroras were seen around the world, those in the northern hemisphere as far south as the Caribbean; those over the Rocky Mountains in the U.S. were so bright that the glow woke gold miners, who began preparing breakfast because they thought it was morning. People in the northeastern United States could read a newspaper by the aurora's light. The aurora was visible from the poles to low latitude areas such as south-central Mexico,Queensland, Cuba, Hawaii, southern Japan and China, and even at lower latitudes very close to the equator, such as in Colombia. Estimates of the storm strength range from -800 nT to -1750 nT.
Telegraph systems all over Europe and North America failed, in some cases giving telegraph operators electric shocks. Telegraph pylons threw sparks. Some telegraph operators could continue to send and receive messages despite having disconnected their power supplies.
Those who happened to be out late on Thursday night had an opportunity of witnessing another magnificent display of the auroral lights. The phenomenon was very similar to the display on Sunday night, though at times the light was, if possible, more brilliant, and the prismatic hues more varied and gorgeous. The light appeared to cover the whole firmament, apparently like a luminous cloud, through which the stars of the larger magnitude indistinctly shone. The light was greater than that of the moon at its full, but had an indescribable softness and delicacy that seemed to envelop everything upon which it rested. Between 12 and 1 o'clock, when the display was at its full brilliancy, the quiet streets of the city resting under this strange light, presented a beautiful as well as singular appearance.
In 1909, an Australian gold miner C.F. Herbert retold his observations in a letter to The Daily News in Perth:
I was gold-digging at Rokewood, about four miles from Rokewood township (Victoria). Myself and two mates looking out of the tent saw a great reflection in the southern heavens at about 7 o'clock p.m., and in about half an hour, a scene of almost unspeakable beauty presented itself, lights of every imaginable color were issuing from the southern heavens, one color fading away only to give place to another if possible more beautiful than the last, the streams mounting to the zenith, but always becoming a rich purple when reaching there, and always curling round, leaving a clear strip of sky, which may be described as four fingers held at arm's length. The northern side from the zenith was also illuminated with beautiful colors, always curling round at the zenith, but were considered to be merely a reproduction of the southern display, as all colors south and north always corresponded. It was a sight never to be forgotten, and was considered at the time to be the greatest aurora recorded... The rationalist and pantheist saw nature in her most exquisite robes, recognising, the divine immanence, immutable law, cause, and effect. The superstitious and the fanatical had dire forebodings, and thought it a foreshadowing of Armageddon and final dissolution.
In June 2013, a joint venture from researchers at Lloyd's of London and Atmospheric and Environmental Research (AER) in the United States used data from the Carrington Event to estimate the cost of a similar event in the present to the U.S. alone at $0.6-2.6 trillion, which at the time equated to roughly 3.6% to 15.5% of annual GDP.
Other evidence and similar events
Ice cores containing thin nitrate-rich layers have been analysed to try to reconstruct a history of past solar storms predating reliable observations. This was based on the hypothesis that solar energetic particles would ionize nitrogen, leading to the production of NO and other oxidised nitrogen compounds, which would not be too diluted in the atmosphere before being deposited along with snow. Beginning in 1986, some researchers claimed that data from Greenland ice cores showed evidence of individual solar-proton events, including the Carrington event. More ice core work casts significant doubt on this interpretation, and shows that nitrate spikes are likely not a result of solar energetic particle events but can be due to terrestrial events such as forest fires, and also correlate with other chemical signatures of known forest fire plumes. Indeed, no consistency is found in cores from Greenland and Antarctica regarding the nitrate events, so that hypothesis is now in doubt. Other research has looked for signatures of large solar flares and CMEs in carbon-14 in tree rings and beryllium-10 in ice cores, finding such a signature of a large solar storm in 774 CE but finding that such events occur on average only once every several millennia.
^Committee on the Societal and Economic Impacts of Severe Space Weather Events: A Workshop, National Research Council (2008). Severe Space Weather Events--Understanding Societal and Economic Impacts: A Workshop Report. National Academies Press. p. 13. ISBN978-0-309-12769-1.
^McCracken, K. G.; Dreschhoff, G. A. M.; Zeller, E. J.; Smart, D. F.; Shea, M. A. (2001). "Solar cosmic ray events for the period 1561-1994 1. Identification in polar ice, 1561-1950". Journal of Geophysical Research. 106 (A10): 21, 585-21, 598. Bibcode:2001JGR...10621585M. doi:10.1029/2000JA000237.
Kappenman, J. (2006). "Great geomagnetic storms and extreme impulsive geomagnetic field disturbance events - An analysis of observational evidence including the great storm of May 1921". Advances in Space Research. 38 (2): 188-199. Bibcode:2006AdSpR..38..188K. doi:10.1016/j.asr.2005.08.055.
Ridley, A. J.; De Zeeuw, D. L.; Manchester, W. B.; Hansen, K. C. (2006). "The magnetospheric and ionospheric response to a very strong interplanetary shock and coronal mass ejection". Advances in Space Research. 38 (2): 263-272. Bibcode:2006AdSpR..38..263R. doi:10.1016/j.asr.2006.06.010.
Solar Storm 1859 at Solar Storms--Excerpts of Articles from Newspapers concerning the Carrington Event
Townsend, L. W.; Stephens, D. L.; Hoff, J. L.; Zapp, E. N.; Moussa, H. M.; Miller, T. M.; Campbell, C. E.; Nichols, T. F. (2006). "The Carrington event: Possible doses to crews in space from a comparable event". Advances in Space Research. 38 (2): 226-231. Bibcode:2006AdSpR..38..226T. doi:10.1016/j.asr.2005.01.111.