Late August 1859: the telegraphs stopped working, the northern lights were visible as far as the Caribbean and Rome. What caused all this? A very intense solar storm , known as the Carrington Event , named after the astronomer who first observed the formation of strange sunspots on the surface of the sun.
Solar storms are geomagnetic storms caused by the activity of our star and causing matter to escape from its corona. The resulting solar wind impacts against the earth’s magentic field causing alterations.
Solar storms can arise at any time, but are more likely when solar activity is at its highest . The sun goes through cycles of more or less intense activity, lasting about eleven years. During periods of more intense activity (periods of solar maximum) the frequency and number of sunspots increases, while in periods of solar minimum, spots may not appear even for many weeks in a row. We are currently in a minimum period.
The storm of 1859 was the most intense of the last two centuries but not the only one . Another famous storm was that of 18 and 19 September 1941 , when, in the middle of the Second World War, telephone communications and power lines suffered many disruptions, with blackouts and frequency jumps.
Most recently, a strong solar storm hit Quebec, Canada in March 1989 , causing extensive power blackouts.
In 2012 , NASA warned of a possible massive solar storm coming. There was a storm, but luckily it didn’t hit Earth . Subsequent analyzes in fact indicated this event as similar to that of 1859.
Minor storms have occurred often, statistically one can occur every few years. But it is the most intense storms that are frightening. What would happen, in a hyper-technological society like ours, if the Earth were hit by an event like that of 1859?
The storm would begin with an explosion, a solar flare , which at the speed of light would send extreme X-rays and UV radiation to earth, destabilizing the ionosphere. The first effects would be felt on radio waves and GPS .
Then it would be the turn of energetic particles, electrons and protons, capable of damaging the satellites . The next day would be the turn of clouds of magnetized plasma , capable of causing widespread electrical blackouts . You would not be able to do almost anything anymore, even the water supply would cease as it uses electric pumps.
Blackouts could last a very long time, because power plants would be damaged , and it could take years to get them back up and running. In summary, an event similar to that of 1859 would be devastating today . And in 2012, fortunately, he only touched us.
In 2014, physicist Pete Riley calculated the probability that a similar storm could hit the earth within 10 years (i.e. by 2024) as 12% . This is a far from modest probability.
We don’t know exactly when, but what is certain is that sooner or later an event similar to Carrington’s will happen again, and it will be better to be prepared.