Sensational Power Surge - Daylight Aurora (2012?)
A Super Solar Flare
| 05.06.2008 |
May 6, 2008: At 11:18 AM on the cloudless morning of Thursday, September 1, 1859, 33-year-old Richard Carrington—widely acknowledged to be one of England's foremost solar astronomers—was in his well-appointed private observatory. Just as usual on every sunny day, his telescope was projecting an 11-inch-wide image of the sun on a screen, and Carrington skillfully drew the sunspots he saw.
On that morning, he was capturing the likeness of an enormous group of sunspots. Suddenly, before his eyes, two brilliant beads of blinding white light appeared over the sunspots, intensified rapidly, and became kidney-shaped. Realizing that he was witnessing something unprecedented and "being somewhat flurried by the surprise," Carrington later wrote, "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." He and his witness watched the white spots contract to mere pinpoints and disappear.
It was 11:23 AM. Only five minutes had passed.
Just before dawn the next day, skies all over planet Earth erupted in red, green, and purple auroras so brilliant that newspapers could be read as easily as in daylight. Indeed, stunning auroras pulsated even at near tropical latitudes over Cuba, the Bahamas, Jamaica, El Salvador, and Hawaii.Even more disconcerting, telegraph systems worldwide went haywire. Spark discharges shocked telegraph operators and set the telegraph paper on fire. Even when telegraphers disconnected the batteries powering the lines, aurora-induced electric currents in the wires still allowed messages to be transmitted.
"What Carrington saw was a white-light solar flare—a magnetic explosion on the sun," explains David Hathaway, solar physics team lead at NASA's Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Alabama.
Now we know that solar flares happen frequently, especially during solar sunspot maximum. Most betray their existence by releasing X-rays (recorded by X-ray telescopes in space) and radio noise (recorded by radio telescopes in space and on Earth). In Carrington's day, however, there were no X-ray satellites or radio telescopes. No one knew flares existed until that September morning when one super-flare produced enough light to rival the brightness of the sun itself.
"It's rare that one can actually see the brightening of the solar surface," says Hathaway. "It takes a lot of energy to heat up the surface of the sun!"
Above: A modern solar flare recorded Dec. 5, 2006, by the X-ray Imager onboard NOAA's GOES-13 satellite. The flare was so intense, it actually damaged the instrument that took the picture. Researchers believe Carrington's flare was much more energetic than this one.
The explosion produced not only a surge of visible light but also a mammoth cloud of charged particles and detached magnetic loops—a "CME"—and hurled that cloud directly toward Earth. The next morning when the CME arrived, it crashed into Earth's magnetic field, causing the global bubble of magnetism that surrounds our planet to shake and quiver. Researchers call this a "geomagnetic storm." Rapidly moving fields induced enormous electric currents that surged through telegraph lines and disrupted communications.
"More than 35 years ago, I began drawing the attention of the space physics community to the 1859 flare and its impact on telecommunications," says Louis J. Lanzerotti, retired Distinguished Member of Technical Staff at Bell Laboratories and current editor of the journal Space Weather. He became aware of the effects of solar geomagnetic storms on terrestrial communications when a huge solar flare on August 4, 1972, knocked out long-distance telephone communication across Illinois. That event, in fact, caused AT&T to redesign its power system for transatlantic cables. A similar flare on March 13, 1989, provoked geomagnetic storms that disrupted electric power transmission from the Hydro Québec generating station in Canada, blacking out most of the province and plunging 6 million people into darkness for 9 hours; aurora-induced power surges even melted power transformers in New Jersey. In December 2005, X-rays from another solar storm disrupted satellite-to-ground communications and Global Positioning System (GPS) navigation signals for about 10 minutes. That may not sound like much, but as Lanzerotti noted, "I would not have wanted to be on a commercial airplane being guided in for a landing by GPS or on a ship being docked by GPS during that 10 minutes."
Another Carrington-class flare would dwarf these events. Fortunately, says Hathaway, they appear to be rare:
"In the 160-year record of geomagnetic storms, the Carrington event is the biggest." It's possible to delve back even farther in time by examining arctic ice. "Energetic particles leave a record in nitrates in ice cores," he explains. "Here again the Carrington event sticks out as the biggest in 500 years and nearly twice as big as the runner-up."
These statistics suggest that Carrington flares are once in a half-millennium events. The statistics are far from solid, however, and Hathaway cautions that we don't understand flares well enough to rule out a repeat in our lifetime.
And what then?
Lanzerotti points out that as electronic technologies have become more sophisticated and more embedded into everyday life, they have also become more vulnerable to solar activity. On Earth, power lines and long-distance telephone cables might be affected by auroral currents, as happened in 1989. Radar, cell phone communications, and GPS receivers could be disrupted by solar radio noise. Experts who have studied the question say there is little to be done to protect satellites from a Carrington-class flare. In fact, a recent paper estimates potential damage to the 900-plus satellites currently in orbit could cost between $30 billion and $70 billion. The best solution, they say: have a pipeline of comsats ready for launch.
Humans in space would be in peril, too. Spacewalking astronauts might have only minutes after the first flash of light to find shelter from energetic solar particles following close on the heels of those initial photons. Their spacecraft would probably have adequate shielding; the key would be getting inside in time.
No wonder NASA and other space agencies around the world have made the study and prediction of flares a priority. Right now a fleet of spacecraft is monitoring the sun, gathering data on flares big and small that may eventually reveal what triggers the explosions. SOHO, Hinode, STEREO, ACE and others are already in orbit while new spacecraft such as the Solar Dynamics Observatory are readying for launch.
Research won't prevent another Carrington flare, but it may make the "flurry of surprise" a thing of the past.
The Largest Magnetic Storm on Record
The 'Carrington Event' of August 27th to September 7th, 1859
Recorded at Kew Observatory, London
Declination, or compass direction, (D) is the lower trace on each image and the horizontal force (H) is the upper trace. Universal Time is the time recorded here (astronomical) plus 12 hours and measured D precedes H by approximately 12 hours. For reference the marked ‘solar flare effect’, beginning at 23:15 recorded time on August 31st, is at 11:15 Universal Time on September 1st. It has been measured as 110 nT in H and 0.283 degrees in D.
Please note that these timings are approximate and should not be regarded as definitive. Also note, the size and scale of each image is only approximately similar, day-to-day. Some data have also been lost, either due to ink and paper degradation, or because the variations were so large they were off-scale.
You can also download all 12 full-size images as a poster (file size 23MB).
This is one example of the historical data contained in the British Geological Survey geomagnetic archives. We are currently re-examining our data holdings of old magnetograms and yearbooks in the hope of allowing greater access to these records in the future.
The March 1989 geomagnetic storm was a a severe geomagnetic storm that caused the collapse of the Hydro-Québec power grid.
The geomagnetic storm causing this event was itself the result of a Coronal Mass Ejection, ejected from the Sun on March 9, 1989. 3.5 Days later, at 2:44 am on March 13, 1989, a severe geomagnetic storm, due to a coronal mass ejection from the Sun, struck Earth. The storm began on Earth with extremely intense auroras at the poles, able to be seen as far south as Texas. As this occurred during the cold war, many worried that a nuclear first-strike might be in progress. Others considered the intense auroras to be associated with the Space Shuttle mission STS-29, which had been launched on March 13 at 9:57:00 AM. The burst caused short-wave radio interference, including the jamming of radio signals from Radio Free Europe into Russia. It was thought that the signals had been jammed by the Kremlin.
As midnight came and went, invisible electromagnetic forces were staging their own pitched battle in a vast arena bounded by the sky above and the rocky subterranean reaches of the Earth. A river of charged particles and electrons in the ionosphere flowed from west to east, inducing powerful electrical currents in the ground that surged into many natural nooks and crannies.
Some satellites in polar orbits lost control for several hours. GOES weather satellite communications were interrupted causing weather images to be lost. NASA's TDRS-1 communication satellite recorded over 250 anomalies caused by the increased particles flows into its sensitive electronics. The Space Shuttle Discovery was having its own mysterious problems. A sensor on one of the tanks supplying hydrogen to a fuel cell was showing unusually high pressure readings on March 13. The problem went away just as mysteriously after the solar storm subsided.
 Blackout in Quebec
Fluctuations within the magnetic field of the storm caused geomagnetically induced currents (GICs) to flow through Quebec's power lines, which are direct current, instead of the alternating current carried by the power lines. The insulating nature of the Canadian Shield igneous rock directed the GICs to the power lines. The conductors then forwarded this current to sensitive electrical transformers, which require a certain voltage amplitude and frequency to function properly. Although most GICs are relatively feeble, the nature of those currents destabilized the voltage of the power grid and current spikes erupted everywhere.
Accordingly, protective measures were taken in response. To save the transformers and other electrical equipment, the power grid was taken out of commission, as circuit breakers tripped all over Quebec and shut off the power. Within less than 90 seconds, this wave of breaking circuits left the entire transmission grid out of service. The collapsed power grid left six million people and the rest of Quebec without electricity for hours on a very cold night. Even though the blackout lasted around nine hours for most places, some locations were in the dark for days. This geomagnetic storm caused about C$10 million in damage to Hydro-Québec and tens of millions to the customers of the utility.
In August 1989, another storm affected microchips, leading to a halt of all trading on Toronto's stock market.
Since 1989, power companies in North America, the UK, Northern Europe and elsewhere evaluated the risks of geomagnetically induced currents (GIC) and developed mitigation strategies.
Since 1995, geomagnetic storms and solar flares have been monitored from the Solar and Heliospheric Observatory (SOHO) joint-NASA-European Space Agency satellite.
The solar storm of 1859, also known as the Solar Superstorm, or the Carrington Event, is the most powerful solar storm in recorded history.
From August 28 until September 2, numerous sunspots and solar flares were observed on the sun. Just before noon on September 1, the British astronomer, Richard Carrington, observed the largest flare, which caused a massive coronal mass ejection (CME), to travel directly toward Earth, taking eighteen hours. This is remarkable because such a journey normally takes three to four days. It moved so quickly because an earlier CME had cleared its way.
From the 1st to the 2nd, the largest recorded geomagnetic storm occurred, causing the failure of telegraph systems all over Europe and North America. Auroras were seen all over the world, most notably over the Caribbean; also noteworthy were those over the Rocky Mountains that were so bright, the glow awoke gold miners, who began preparing breakfast because they thought it was morning.
Ice cores show evidence that events of similar intensity has a reoccurs rate of 500 years. Since 1869, less severe storms have occurred in 1921 and 1960, when widespread radio disruption was reported. Stumble It!