In 1972, a huge solar flare knocked out long-distance telephone communication across Illinois. Seventeen years later, another flare from the sun disrupted electric power transmission from the Hydro Quebec generating station in Canada, blacking out most of the province and causing 6 million people to lose power for nine hours. In 2006, a solar flare was so intense that it damaged the instrument taking a photo of it from a satellite more than 90 million miles away!
Today, X-ray telescopes in space and radio telescopes in space and on Earth can alert us that solar flares are on the way, but even that advance information probably won’t help us avoid disaster for our communications systems if a flare similar to the one that struck in 1859 comes calling.
Observed by Richard Carrington, one of England’s foremost solar astronomers, the 1859 flare manifested itself in a mammoth cloud of charged particles and detached magnetic loops that crashed into Earth’s magnetic field the next day, causing the global bubble of magnetism that surrounds our planet to shake and quiver. Turning skies all over Earth red, green and purple, it disrupted telegraph systems, shocked telegraph operators and set telegraph paper on fire.
Check out this article from NASA, “A Super Solar Flare.” detailing the history of recorded solar flares that have affected Earth and spells out the magnitude of the Carrington Event.
David Hathaway, solar physics team lead at NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center says that records indicate the Carrington Event was nearly twice as big as any other solar flare in at least the past 500 years. If anything even close to that event occurs in our modern society, hundreds of satellites in orbit will be at risk, not to mention power grids on Earth.
What if it happens again? A better question might be, when will it happen again and what can we do to prepare for it? Please weigh in with your thoughts about whether the U.S. government is doing enough to prepare for an inevitable event with so much potential for disaster.