On the morning of September 1, 1859, amateur astrologer Richard Carrington ascended into the private observatory attached to his country estate outside of London. He started, as usual, to sketch a cluster of enormous dark spots that freckles the sun’s surface through his brass telescope. Suddenly Carrington spotted what he described as “two patches of intensely bright and white light” erupting from the sunspots. Five minutes later the fireballs vanished, but within hours their impact would be felt across the globe.
That night, telegraph wires, the high-tech stuff of that time, around the world began to fail. There were reports of sparks showering from telegraph machines, shocking operators and setting papers ablaze. The cause of this was a massive solar flare spewed electrified gas and subatomic particles toward Earth, and the resulting geomagnetic storm – dubbed the “Carrington Event” – was the largest on record to have struck the planet. Colorful aurora, normally visible only in polar region, were seen as far south as Cuba and Hawaii.
If a solar storm that severe occurred today, it can disrupt radio communications, compromise electrical power systems, damage sensitive satellite electronics, and degrade their orbits, and cause navigational equipment to make mistakes. It could cause up to $2 trillion in initial damages crippling communications on Earth and fueling chaos among residents and even governments in a scenario that would require four to 10 years for recovery, according to a report by the U.S. National Academy of Sciences.
The cause of all this in 1859 was an extraordinary solar flare witnessed by Richard Carrington. His sighting marked the discovery of solar flare and foreshadowed a new field of study “space weather”. With the help of sun-watching spacecraft, astronomers have now the ability to forecast solar storms to give advance warnings.
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