Editor’s Note: This article was originally published on August 1, 2012. The original text has not been altered in any way. Common Sense Conspiracy was already on top of this as a possibility. Now, in light of a prediction that is making the conspiracy circles that the Carrington Event may be repeated in just a couple of weeks, we felt it prudent to bring this article back to the front page as more people might be looking for the suddenly more pertinent information.
Common Sense Conspiracy has repeatedly touched on solar storms and the solar cycle in our articles, especially with more interest in it of late because the current solar cycle is nearing its most active point. Our point was always that these solar cycles run in periods of around eleven years, are a known phenomenon, and repeat themselves for as long as anyone has paid attention. What happens is that there is just enough time between this part of the cycle and the last one for people to forget about it. In conspiracy circles, this can lead to people being drawn into a fear mongering campaign as some websites (not this one) present these perfectly normal situations as international calamities.
While the solar cycle runs predictably and many functions on Earth actually have learned to use it to their advantage (i.e. amateur radio operators), not all solar storms are the same. Much like earthquakes, hurricanes, and tornadoes, the phenomenon of the solar storm can occur at any time during the solar cycle, but every once in a while, we have one that goes beyond the norm. NASA is now predicting that the current solar cycle is showing enough activity that it could produce a solar storm that could rival the last one recognized in history. That was the Solar Storm of 1859. That’s right, 153 years ago was the last truly major solar storm that had obvious and disturbing effects on the Earth. And most people are blissfully unaware that it ever happened.
That’s the thing about disasters like this. It’s a mathematical certainty that they will happen eventually, but they come so few and far between that their existence can leave generations of social consciousness. Another example is the cataclysmic earthquake in 1812 along the New Madrid fault. This area of the country is known for almost never experiencing damaging earthquakes. And yet one of the worst ever in recorded history occurred there in 1812. Once again, it’s a mathematical certainty that the plates along the fault will move and New Madrid will come to life again, but most people living in that region would never count it as a worry in their mind. Yet, seismologists have already signaled that the New Madrid fault is already about a hundred years overdue a big one. In any case, these disasters are ever-present threats, but most people won’t know anything about it until it happens. NASA’s revelations that we could see a solar storm that rivals the one in 1859 next year is not something that only should matter to astronomers or scientists. Let’s take a look back at what happened 153 years ago so we can get an idea of what we might be in for this time next year.
The Solar Storm of 1859 produced the largest solar flare ever observed. Richard C. Carrington was the one to observe it, so sometimes the solar storm is named after him. From August 28 of that year to September 2, observers noticed sunspots and flares all over the sun’s surface, much more than normal. Around noon on September 1, Carrington observed the big one that caused a coronal mass ejection to take place. Put simply, this is when a solar flare erupts outward and travels out into space. It happens all the time, believe it or not, and they often have enough power to reach Earth. The average solar flare takes three or four days to reach the Earth after the ejection. Carrington’s ejection reached Earth in 17 hours. That should give you a pretty good idea of how much more powerful this particular solar flare was than the average that take place all the time. This ejection also benefited from all of the increased activity going on. The sun’s materials that normally help deflect ejections were already burnt up by previous, smaller ejections, paving the way for Carrington’s to rush toward the Earth at a tremendous rate of speed.
Carrington’s flare was not solely responsible for what happened next. It was the culmination of all of the increased activity over the past week that lead to the largest geomagnetic storm ever recorded by observers. Once again, this was not like a solar eclipse where everyone goes outside to view a rare event. This was obvious to everyone. Aurorae developed all over the world. In the Caribbean region it was particularly pronounced. In the Rocky Mountains in the United States, gold miners actually thought it was morning because the sky so bright in the middle of the night.
The storm knocked out telegraph systems all over the world, mostly at once. Some operators were even shocked. The telegraphs actually caught fire in some places. In an even stranger effect, some systems continued to function without power. Apparently enough of a surge occurred due to the solar storm that it had enough power inside to continue functioning despite having no actual power source. The unbelievable light over the Earth through the night was chronicled in many newspapers of the time and can still be found in some cases if you’re interested in how the event was reported.
Now, flash forward to our current time. The world is completely different than it was in 1859. Electronic devices are everywhere. Satellites orbit the Earth and provide us with a wide variety of services. If a solar storm of that magnitude does indeed hit next year, it will be an unbelievable event that will be much more damaging than it was in 1859. Communications will be instantly returned to the stone age. Power grids will fail and huge blackouts will occur. Many of our modern conveniences, like cell phones, television, Internet, and global navigation will be out of commission in a matter of seconds. And then, there are a lot of effects that simply cannot be predicted. Much like the telegraph machines shocking operators or continuing to operate without power, there is no way to know how our world in 2013 would receive another unprecedented solar surge.
On the positive side, technology would probably allow us to know that it was coming way before the aurorae stretch across the globe. However, there is little that can be done to prepare, even with fair warning. The satellites will be left defenseless, and it isn’t like they can simply bring them down temporarily to avoid the disaster. The time it may take to replace failing devices is an issue as well. This would not be a quick fix. Launching satellites into orbit happens regularly, but we have never had a situation where thousands needed to be launched in a short time span to return services. Then, there’s the problem of all of the dead satellites up there, trashing Earth’s orbit with space junk. Some believe that it may be possible to minimize damage by turning the satellites off while the storm is going on, but this would cause all of the same problems as an actual loss of their services.
The economic impact could be a lot scarier than any physical damage. We all have experienced how delicate the stock market and economy can be with disasters of Earthly origin. Something like this would bring everything to a screeching halt and no doubt plunge the stock market into a state of chaos. Industries all over the globe would not be able to carry on their day-to-day operations without these services, from power to satellites, and prices would be bound to rise as creating and distributing products becomes a challenge in an age where we all are used to getting whatever we need whenever we need it.
This article is not designed to inspire fear, but to educate people. Whether the NASA predictions ring true or not, people at least need to be aware that such a disaster is possible and has happened before. And whether 2013 is the magical year or not, there is a 100% chance it will happen again. The only question is when.