Our Dynamic Sun and the 1859 Carrington Event - Can It Happen Again?

Our Dynamic Sun and the 1859 Carrington Event  - Can It Happen Again?
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Our Dynamic Sun

Most of us are familiar with the effect of sunspots, which peak in number every eleven years. Telecommunications are affected—perhaps even disrupted. The power grid can also be influenced. This is because charged particles reach Earth’s magnetosphere and disrupt its normal behavior. This may be visually demonstrated by gorgeous auroral displays. Less often, something far more exciting—even frightening—may occur. That something is known as the 1859 Carrington Event.

What is a Sunspot?

Sunspots coincide with the area where the Sun’s magnetic field is particularly strong. The field slows heat convection, reduces the temperature, and thus lessens the radiance or brightness of the sunspot. At the same time, the edge of a sunspot exhibits increased energy. The slight increase in energy released produces a major impact on the functioning of electronics devices and telecommunications.

Sunspots - Credit National Solar Observatory

Who Was Richard Carrington?

Although being an accomplished astronomer at a noted British observatory, Richard C. Carrington quit the observatory with which he was associated in 1852, and constructed his own observatory at Redhill, Surrey. Here he made observations of the Sun, making a number of notable discoveries. One of these was fortuitous when he observed the first known white-light solar flare on September 1, 1859.

Just What Did Carrington See?

David Hathaway of NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center explains, “What Carrington saw was a white-light solar flare—a magnetic explosion on the Sun.” That event could only have been noted by an astronomical observer on that day, but on the next day, spectacular things occurred that define “a Carrington event.” Stunning auroras could be seen even in daylight, even in the tropics. In addition, telegraph systems went berserk. Telegraphers received electrical shocks; telegraph paper caught fire. Even when batteries were disconnected, devices remained electrified and were able to transmit messages.

Typical White Flare -vs- Carrington Event

Metal, when heated, becomes red-hot. Increasing its temperature causes it to become white hot. The temperature of our Sun is some 10,000 degrees Fahrenheit, or approximately 5,500 degrees Celsius. Imagine the heat it took to produce an obviously large white flare that rivaled the brightness of the Sun itself! By the third quarter of the Nineteenth Century, it was recognized that many white flare events occur. The question is, however: What might happen in today’s technological society if another Carrington event should occur? Auroras may be beautiful, but what if they serve as a harbinger for tragedy?

Although an event of this magnitude has not occurred since 1859, one very serious white flare did occur in March of 1989. At that time power lines and undersea cables were affected. Step up transformers experienced considerable damage. It has been admitted that this event was only at most one-half as bad as the 1859 Carrington event. In addition to the damage to electrical devices, lives could be destroyed as can be imagined. What if someone was working on a piece of high-voltage equipment or what if an astronaut happened to be walking in space and an event occurred? NASA and FEMA aren’t taking this possibility lightly.

White Flare Image by X-Ray Imager on NOAA’s GOES-13 Satellite

White Flare - Credit NOAA

A Disturbing Scenario

In addition to telegraph operations, power lines and underground cables could be severely affected by auroral induced currents. Cell phones, radar and GPS systems might be crippled by radio frequency noise. Satellites would experience severe disruption. Some feel such a day is close at hand. Could there be a cycle for Carrington events?

References and Resources

NASA Science: Science News – A Super Solar Flare

UC Berkeley: Center for Science Education: The Sun’s Magnetism

Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics: “Description of a Singular Appearance seen in the Sun on September 1, 1859”

U.S. News: Science: Observing and Modeling Space Weather

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