The Carrington Event

The Carrington Event

The question is not if, but when. A solar storm like the one in 1859 will destroy technology as we know it today in the blink of an eye and bring our entire technological world to a crashing halt. Paying attention to this risk and planning for defensive measures, are critical to the long-term resilience of our energy and data networks and to the survival of modern civilization.

Shortly before noon on September 1, 1859, Richard Carrington went to the small observatory he had set up at Redhill in south London. Astronomy was one of the hobbies of the English aristocrats who did so much good for science in the 19th century. In his case, he collected 5,290 observations of the sun in seven and a half years…. but something strange happened that day.

For several days, more and more black spots had been visible on the sun. Carrington was mapping them to document them in detail when suddenly, before his eyes, a white whip of fire erupted from the surface of the sun.

Seventeen hours later, the auroras, which could be observed even in Cuba and Honolulu, lit up the night sky. The southern lights were still spotted far to the north in Santiago de Chile. “The flares were so energetic that people in the northeastern U.S. could read their newspaper by the light of the aurora,” said Daniel Baker of the University of Colorado’s Laboratory for Atmospheric and Space Physics at a geophysics meeting last December.

Thousands of people were impressed by the auroral spectacle. The “Baltimore American and Commercial Advertiser” as well as countless newspapers, board journals or local chronicles of that time also reported about it: “Those who were there on Thursday night had the opportunity to witness another magnificent spectacle of the aurora borealis. The phenomenon was very similar to that of Sunday night, although at times the light was brighter and the hues more varied and magnificent”.

In some places it must have been overwhelming. A report in the South Carolina Mercury Charleston said, “The sea reflected the phenomenon, and no one could look at it without thinking of the Bible passage that says, ‘The sea became blood.’ The shells on the beach reflecting the light looked like embers in a bonfire.”

But after the show came trouble. That night, the telegraphs failed. Sparks flew from the machines and power lines. In Pittsburgh, a telegraph operator noticed that the current in the wires was so strong that they threatened to melt.

It was not the first time that solar storms “interacted” with telegraphs, but nothing like this had ever been seen before. When telegraph operators arrived at their workstations on September 2, it was impossible to send or receive messages. Oddly enough, in less affected locations, the power transmitted over the wires was so high that messages could be sent without using the batteries.

Solar storms

9200 years ago, the Earth was hit by a powerful solar storm. This discovery by a team of researchers led by Lund University (Sweden) worries scientists. If such a storm were to occur in our time, we would be completely unprepared.

The researchers analyzed ice cores from Greenland and Antarctica and found evidence of an extreme solar storm that occurred about 9,200 years ago. In particular, they found peak levels of the radioactive isotopes beryllium-10 and chlorine-36, which are normally produced by high-energy cosmic particles reaching Earth and can persist in ice and sediments.

A solar storm is a temporary disturbance of Earth’s magnetosphere due to strong emissions from the Sun’s corona that “ejects” matter, which in turn creates a strong solar wind.

The emitted particles, which are usually of high energy, disturb the Earth’s magnetic field 24 to 36 hours after the coronal mass ejection. While beautiful northern lights can be admired at high latitudes due to these events, sometimes this wind can even alter the electrical currents in the ionosphere, causing power outages and communication disruptions.

According to the data collected and analyzed by the researchers, the ancient storm occurred during one of the calmer phases of the Sun, when our planet is generally believed to be less exposed to such events. This in itself is puzzling, and the scientists were not a little surprised when they discovered these spikes, which point to a previously unknown giant solar storm associated with low solar activity.

Predicting solar storms is indeed difficult. Currently, it is thought that such events are more likely to occur during an active phase of the Sun, the solar maximum, during the so-called sunspot cycle. However, this study shows that this is not always the case, especially for very strong storms.

More importantly, if such a solar storm were to occur today, it could have devastating consequences. In addition to power outages and radiation damage to satellites, it could also pose a threat to air traffic and astronauts and lead to the breakdown of various communications systems. And the fact that it cannot be predicted leads to a certain degree of uncertainty.

These powerful storms are currently not adequately addressed in risk assessments, and it is of utmost importance to analyze what these events could mean for today’s technology and how we can protect ourselves from them. There is a well-known saying that you don’t close the fence until the horse has bolted.

The world is not yet ready for a solar superstorm

According to a new study, a “solar tsunami” could hit our planet within 10 years and cause a blackout of Internet communications. A scenario that, although apocalyptic, doesn’t seem so unlikely. The hypothesis was formulated by Sangeetha Abdu Jyothi, a researcher at the University of California.

According to the expert, humanity should prepare its Internet infrastructure for future solar storms, otherwise there is a real risk of a crippling disruption to global communications. An unexpected solar event could cripple the global Internet with incalculable cost and impact, which is called the Internet apocalypse.

Our star follows a natural activity cycle of 11 years, measured from activity minimum to activity maximum (with sunspots, flares, and storms). The 25th solar cycle began in December 2019, so we are moving toward the time of solar maximum, expected around 2025. At its peak, the intensity of these events – coronal mass ejections that accelerate charged particles in the solar atmosphere to very high velocities – may be noticeable on our planet.

The July event teaches us that even in a theoretically quieter period of the solar cycle, the unexpected can happen, i.e., “unexpected lightning.” In particular, the recent event was classified as a Class X flare, the most powerful type. In addition, official predictions of a weak cycle with few sunspots and solar storms have now been contradicted by a team of researchers who predict the exact opposite: According to their data, this solar cycle could even become one of the strongest ever.

It could happen within a decade

Abdu Jyothi focused on coronal mass ejections (CMEs), better known as solar storms, and calculated the likely consequences of a direct hit. To do this, he examined the distribution of Internet infrastructure, population data, and the resilience of the infrastructure itself, and estimated which areas would likely be most affected and how connectivity problems between continents would occur.

However, determining the probability and actual impact of these solar storms is quite complicated, as no CME has ever hit the Earth while the Internet infrastructure was active (although there was a risk of such an event in July 2012). And since solar storms are very directional, the event would have to hit the Earth head-on.

The first recorded solar storm to hit the United States in 1859 was the Carrington event and caused widespread problems. If an event on the scale of a Carrington event were to hit the U.S. today, it is estimated that 20 to 40 million people would be without power for two years, at a cost of up to $2.6 trillion, not including the possible loss of the Internet.

That geology plays an important role in solar storm damage has been known to scientists for some time. But Love’s study, published in December in the journal Space Weather, goes a significant step further by identifying exactly how geologic conditions affect the potential for damage in specific areas of the northeastern United States. And although this study focused on only one part of the country, it has global implications.

Strong solar storms should not be taken lightly. When the sun sends a strong discharge toward the earth, the electromagnetic energy hits the globe at the speed of light. This bumps particles in the upper atmosphere, causing interference with radio signals. If the eruption is strong enough, radio communications from airlines and satellite-based navigation networks are disrupted or fail altogether.

About 30 minutes later, a huge charge flood of electrons and protons arrives, traveling near the speed of light. This storm damages the electronic circuits of satellites, and all astronauts outside the Earth’s magnetic dome could receive a potentially life-threatening amount of radiation.

However, the real disaster hits us 18 hours to several days after the event begins, when the huge plasma cloud, called a coronal mass ejection, slams into the Earth’s magnetic bubble at a speed of 1,900 miles per second. These processes are capable of causing large disturbances in the Earth’s magnetic field called geomagnetic storms.

If strong enough, such storms can induce strong electrical currents in power grids, causing severe and permanent damage. This would result in widespread power outages; a geomagnetic storm in 1989 caused lights to go out throughout Quebec. Extreme space weather caused sea mines to explode off the coast of Vietnam during the Vietnam War.

Serious effects

The Carrington event was the largest solar storm ever recorded, or at least the largest to hit the Earth’s magnetosphere in the electronic age. We don’t remember one of the most chaotic events in history because we became slaves to electricity only 200 years ago and the telegraph, the so-called “Victorian Internet,” was just taking its first steps when the Carrington Event hit our Earth.

This would no longer be the case today. In 2008, the U.S. National Academy of Sciences decided to study what would happen if a new event of this kind hit the earth. The conclusions were clear: A storm similar to the one in 1859 would severely disrupt the world’s social and economic metabolism. Power grids, electronic equipment and satellites (communications, GPS, etc.) would be severely affected and, depending on the impact and strength, could be destroyed by overload.

The damage is estimated at two trillion euros at best. But the social problems of the “big blackout” could not be more shocking in today’s context, as all our logistics, energy and information networks are critically dependent on the Internet.

The first impact of a global Internet outage that we will feel is the loss of all communication capabilities. Not only instant messages will be sent over the net, but text messages and calls will be handled by your phone provider over the Internet. Even the good old landline will let us down. No emergency calls can be made for weeks.

The entire financial system will come to a standstill within a few moments. All the stock exchanges in the world as well as the banks are dependent on the Internet.

Many traditional companies also have parts of their data stored on the Internet and depend on it. These will suffer a severe loss, which may even cost smaller companies their lives.

Supermarkets and pharmacies will also no longer be able to operate because they order their goods over the Net. So our health and our food supply are at stake.

With the loss of electricity and the Internet, the situation comes to a head dramatically: food can no longer be produced, ordered, delivered and refrigerated, fuel can no longer be delivered, supplies become scarce and then run out altogether. At the same time, hospitals can no longer treat patients, and waterworks are also no longer functioning. Thus, basic services are collapsing piece by piece: Food becomes scarce, drinking water becomes scarce, people can no longer wash themselves, and catastrophic hygienic conditions ensue.

Attention to this threat and planning for defensive measures, are critical to the long-term resilience of the energy and data network and thus to the survival of modern civilization.

Total blackout for weeks in many areas

There is not much time to prepare, but if we act now, we can avoid the incalculable socioeconomic catastrophe and enjoy in peace the northern and southern lights that can be expected even at low latitudes.

The usual strategies of arrogant ignorance, hoping for the best, burying our heads in the sand or simply wanting to pass the ball to future generations will not work here. We have to be prepared. This also and especially applies to the public.

Thanks for your attention

Jack Kabey

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