What Was The Carrington Event?

The Carrington Event is often referenced as a harbinger when the threat of space weather is being addressed. So I thought it'd be helpful to write a post explaining just what it was.

 

A filiment eruption from the sun. Courtesy of NASA.

 

The Carrington Event is named after the English astronomer Richard Carrington who was first person to witness a coronal mass ejection (CME). A CME is a large release of plasma during strong, long-duration solar flares and filament eruptions.

Sunspots sketched by Richard Carrington on 1 September 1859.

Sunspots sketched by Richard Carrington on 1 September 1859.

At 11:18 on Thursday morning, 1 September 1859, Carrington was drawing the enormous group of sunspots he had been observing when two brilliant beads of blinding light appeared on the surface of the sun. Such an event was unprecedented. 

Carrington wrote, "being somewhat flurried by the surprise, I hastily ran to call someone to witness the exhibition with me. On returning within 60 seconds, I was mortified to find that it was already much changed and enfeebled."

Within five minutes, the white spots contracted to pinpoints and disappeared.

Just before dawn the next day, civilization experienced something new. Skies all over planet erupted in red, green, and purple auroras. This light show was so intense that people could read by it at night. Stunning auroras pulsated as far south as the Caribbean, El Salvador and Hawaii.

Probability would indicate that humans had witnessed such intense auroras before (some speculate about every 500 years or so). What was new in 1859 was that the charged particles in the auroras interacted with the electrical infrastructure of the day. Telegraph systems worldwide went haywire. Spark discharges shocked telegraph operators and set the telegraph paper on fire. In an attempt to salvage the situation, the telegraphers disconnected the batteries powering the lines. However, aurora-induced electric currents still allowed for the transmission of messages.

Richard Carrington soon realized that the surge of visible light he witnessed on the surface of the sun was related to the geomagnetic storm that took place on Earth. We now understand that Carrington witnessed a CME (a cloud of charged particles ejected from the sun's corona) which is what hit Earth, taking down the telegraph system and causing the auroras.

Prior to 1859 space weather events didn't disrupt human technology because that technology was not yet electrified. The Carrington Event was the harbinger of one of the greatest threats that face modern civilization.

We now know that solar flares happen frequently, especially during solar sunspot maximums. However, a CME the size of the Carrington Event is fairly rare, that is on a human timeline. When Earth is hit by a CME, it leaves a record in the ice. From what we understand, the Carrington Event is the biggest CME in the last 500 years. But on a timeline as long as the sun's, such events are routine. 

Here's why it matters: as electronic technologies have become more sophisticated and more ubiquitous, they have also become more vulnerable to space weather. Such an event today would devastate Earth's satellites. Meaning, all systems that depend on the satellite network would go down.

Such an event could also devastate power grids all over the world. In a worst-case-scenario, grids would go down and not come back up again, which, in short, would end modern civilization.

How could a CME end modern civilization?

First of all, it could destroy the critical hardware of the power grid. For example, there are about 2,100 large transformers in America. They are about the size of a single-car garage. An event like this would overload those transformers. Meaning, they would catch on fire and explode, which would look something like the explosion at the end of the video below.

 
 

What's worse, there are only a handful of craftsmen in the world who know how to build these transformers, and it take 1-2 years to fulfill an order for a single transformer when the electric grid is working perfectly. Moreover, very few of these craftsmen would report to work if their families were being threatened by the starvation and social chaos we expect to accompany such catastrophe.

Because we have unwittingly evolved to become absolutely dependent on a vulnerable grid, experts believe that a very large CME would render the situation in most industrialized countries unrecoverable.

Let's get into a little bit of why that is.

It was reliable, widely-available electrical power that allowed us, over the course of the last 100 years, to increase Earth's carrying capacity from about 2 billion to about 7.5 billion people. In other words, we could not sustain the technologies that allow us to support 7.5 billion people without the grid. Those technologies include: fertilizers, pesticides, mechanical irrigation, refined fuels for farm machinery and transportation, infrastructure for clean drinking water, infrastructure for sanitation, advanced medical care, etc.

Imagine, if you will, a large urban center without food, clean water, transportation, sanitation, or hospitals. No heat. No air conditioning. No phones. Everything on the list above after "food" was superfluous. A food shortage is enough to turn the population against itself, as people will compete desperately for calories.

If a CME were to take down the grid for an extended period of time, most of us would starve, contract water-born illnesses, succumb to exposure, die from diseases long since vanquished by sanitation, or be killed in a violent struggle for the remaining resources.

Yes. We are talking about the apocalypse.

If this is interesting to you, you can learn more at my Discussion Guide.

Benjamin Dancer

Benjamin is the author of the literary thriller Patriarch Run, the first book in a series that will include Fidelityand The Story of the Boy. He also writes about parenting, education, sustainability and national security.

Benjamin works as an Advisor at a Colorado high school where he has made a career out of mentoring young people as they come of age. His work with adolescents has informed his stories, which are typically themed around fatherhood and coming-of-age.

You can connect with Benjamin by signing up for his newsletter below and by participating in the conversation at his blog.