The Carrington Event was the biggest geomagnetic storm on record. (Well, there could well have been bigger ones, but any bigger ones were not recorded.) In 1859, just before noon in England, astronomer Richard Carrington was counting sunspots when he saw a brilliant white flare — the first flare observed, and the only one ever recorded that was powerful enough to be seen in white light. 17.6 hours later, a coronal mass ejection impacted the Earth’s magnetosphere. This was much faster than what would later be determined to be the usual transit time for a CME — 3-4 days. Upon impact, it had significant effects. The magnetometer at the Kew Observatory recorded a geomagnetic storm. Aurorae were seen in the Caribbean, and miners in the Rockies were awakened by the light, while people in New York reported they could read by the glow. And in North America, telegraph operators were shocked, equipment gave off sparks, and in some cases operators discovered they could disconnect their batteries and still send and receive messages. The aurorae continued for several days, and scientists realized for the first time the Sun’s role in geomagnetic storms.
Today, our systems are far more vulnerable than they were in 1859. Our power grid is very fragile, and its extensive reach makes it a very effective antenna for capturing the power of a CME. A lesser event in 1989 caused a major blackout across Quebec, but was much smaller. It has been estimated that a Carrington level event could take two years to completely recover from and would cost the world economy the equivalent of over two trillion dollars. Scientists working with ice cores from Greenland have estimated that a Carrington level event only occurs about twice a millenium . . . so maybe that means we’re not due yet?
A study just released revealed that we almost experienced another Carrington event, just two years ago. A double-CME, similar to the one believed to have caused the Carrington Event, crossed the Earth’s orbit on July 22, 2012. Earth would reach that exact spot in space just nine days later. Watch the actual CME here, as seen by one of the STEREO spacecraft in solar orbit:
Phew. So the lesson is, we need to get our grid hardened up, and we need to do it *fast*. There are lots of reasons we need to do it (it’s vulnerable to knowledgable vandals taking out substations, to overloading from unaccounted-for solar cells and windmills, to rolling blackouts following storms); this is just one more reason. And it’s time to get it fixed. So write your congressman, MP, or whatever politician represents you, and ask that they make this a priority. It’s really only a matter of time, and our number could come up at any time.