After a long lull, our Salt is finally entering a new cycle of activity. In recent weeks, there has been an increase in recorded eruptions and an intense magnetic storm hit the earth. But nothing like the great solar storm of 1859, also known as the Carrington Event.

Intense polar auroras caused by the latest solar storms and recorded from the International Space Station
Intense polar auroras caused by the latest solar storms and recorded from the International Space Station. Credits: ESA/Thomas Pesquet

Imagine waking up at dawn, with the sky illuminated by polar auroras so intense, that it would be possible to read a newspaper in that light. That's what happened on September 2, 1859, during one of the biggest solar storms on record. Many unsuspecting people got up and went to prepare breakfast, thinking it was already dawn. But the impacts of that storm went far beyond the dawns and momentary confusion.

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It all started a few days earlier. Since August 28, several sunspots have been observed on the Sun. Sunspots are large areas of reduced temperature on the surface of the Sun. Salt. They form in regions of intense magnetic activity and, therefore, are the harbinger of large solar eruptions, which can release huge amounts of gases and energized particles into space.

Filament ejected in a solar flare
Filament ejected in a solar flare. Credits: NASA

When approaching our planet, these particles are deflected by the Earth's magnetic field and end up reaching the atmosphere in the polar regions, forming auroras. But the impact of these particles compress and distort our magnetic field. This usually doesn't have major implications, but during the most intense storms it can get us into big trouble.

When the first streams of particles hit Earth that August 29, 1859, they generated beautiful polar auroras, but they also deformed our magnetic field, leaving our planet virtually defenseless. Then, on September 1st, Richard Christopher Carrington and Richard Hodgson independently observed for the first time in history a large solar eruption.

Sunspots recorded in 1859 by Richard Carrington
Sunspots recorded September 1, 1859 by Richard Carrington. According to his account, the “A” and “B” marks indicate the starting positions of an intensely bright event, which moved in 5 minutes to “C” and “D” before disappearing. Credits: Richard Carrington

That eruption threw a colossal amount of ionized particles into space, traveling at a staggering 8,5 million kilometers per hour and heading straight our way. Less than 18 hours later, that cloud of ionized particles hit the unprotected Earth, generating one of the biggest geomagnetic storms on record.

In addition to being intense, the auroras were seen all over the planet, even in tropical regions such as Hawaii and the Caribbean. The few electrical systems existing at that time failed. Poles randomly sparking, telegraphs crazed across Europe and North America. Telegraphers being shocked and devices functioning even after being turned off.

“Aurora Borealis”, painting by Frederic Edwin Church probably inspired by the Great Solar Storm of 1859
“Aurora Borealis”, painting by Frederic Edwin Church probably inspired by the Great Solar Storm of 1859

Fortunately, at that time electrical systems were few and far between and this greatly reduced the damage. Now imagine what could happen if something like that happened today.

A solar storm of the same size would have the ability to damage many of our satellites, including GPS and communications satellites, which carry TV and the Internet around the world. Here on Earth, electrical and communication systems fail. Home appliances and cell phones failing, giving shock and even exploding.

It is estimated that if a storm such as the Carrington Event were to occur today, the damage would be more than $2 trillion and its effects would take years to overcome. For a time, we would be deprived of much of our technology and we would go back to the Carrington days, where the best thing to do would be to watch the auroras.

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