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The Carrington Event – Sky on Fire

Whether you love the sky or have a healthy mistrust of that unknowable ether, we can all agree that the sky holds few dangers. Most people only have to worry about falling out of the sky, or things falling from the sky. Rain, hail, and lightning are routine. Some people worry about drones and planes coming to murder them, too. What if I told you that something is coming that will kill all of those pesky flying machines?

In 1859, the sun unleashed a powerful Solar Storm which lit up our atmosphere like a candle. Luckily for humanity, our addiction to electronics was still in its infancy. The electromagnetic barrage the storm caused would put our modern civilization back in the Stone Age.

This is the Carrington Event.

Aurora Everywherelse

Most humans have seen pictures and videos of the multicolored light show that is the Aurora Borealis. Rivers of color dance in the sky near the North Pole. Similar lights happen near the South Pole (Aurora Australis), but very few people are around to see that, so we don't care about it.

If you don't know what an Aurora is, then let me educate you. The Sun, you know, the big light in the sky that hurts to look at, is constantly pouring out all kinds of things. Energy and particles are constantly escaping everyone's favorite fireball. Sometimes, the sun pops a solar pimple and way more energy and particles come at us. These particles interact with the gases in our atmosphere, and they light up in a similar process to a neon bulb.

We don't always get an Aurora. That's because we have a protective magnetic field that surrounds our planet. This Magnetosphere is tough enough to shrug off the most harmful of the sun's emissions, almost always.

Solar Storms are caused by CME's (Coronal Mass Ejections). These CME's are massive towers of solar fire that shoot out deep into our solar system. Luckily we are far enough away from the Sun to feel the heat. Unfortunately, the energy released by some of the bigger CME's could strip the Magnetosphere from our planet.

The average CME takes a couple of days to reach the Earth. There are some CME's that are so powerful that they can reach us in hours. While rare, we have been hit by it once before in recorded history. It lit up the whole planet in a massive Aurora, and some of that magical fire erupted on the ground.

The Event

Massive solar storm hits the earth, carrington event
Who ordered the Earth, extra spicy?

The Sun has seasons. Solar Maximum and Solar Minimum switch places every 11 years. During the Solar Minimum, the Sun is calm and docile. Solar Maximum is where the sun gets angsty. It felt extra spicy in 1860.

During August 1859, one year before the Solar Maximum, Astronomers were watching the Sun. Which is normal for them. They saw that the surface was marked by dark spots.

Richard Carrington, an amateur astronomer from Redhill, England, was watching the sun on 1 September. He was happily sketching the spots when a white flash temporarily blinded him. The flash lasted around 5 minutes.

That flash was a massive CME. It would cross 90 million miles (150 million km) in just under 18 hours. When it hit the Earth, it caused a Geomagnetic storm unlike any in human memory.

Humanity had been using telegraph technology for around 30 years at this point. Telegraph poles lined the streets of the developed nations' top cities. Compared to now, the tech of the day was exceptionally primitive.

The Carrington Event, named after Richard “Dick” Carrington, had arcs of electric fire leaping from the telegraph poles. Fires blazed, sparked by the embers from burning telegraph machines. Telegraph operators received electric shocks from their consoles.

Telegraph lines were inoperable for days following the Carrington Event. Operators were in some cases able to send messages from unpowered consoles, thanks to the latent charge in the atmosphere. Something that Nikola Tesla had wanted to do with his Wardenclyffe Tower.

Auroras danced all the way across the globe, giving people in the Tropics the show of a lifetime.

All told, humanity was very lucky.

Glad That's Over and Will Never Happen Again

Well, it most certainly will happen again. This time it will be much worse. Apocalyptic even.

You see, we rely more heavily than ever on electronics and radio technology. The wires and cables you are using to read this would act like those telegraph wires in 1859.

Electromagnetic waves of sufficient power would wipe your hard-drives or fry your electronics outright. That's if they, along with the wiring in your walls, don't catch fire outright. Rolling blackouts would spread around the world, and it would take years to rebuild.

Satellites could go offline and fall from the sky. Their smoky trails the harbinger of our backslide to a pre-electric past.

At least, that's what some researchers think. Others, like Hugh Hudson, a Solar Physicist from the University of Glasgow, think that it would cause only minor outages.