“The superstitious and the fanatical had dire forebodings, and thought it a foreshadowing of Armageddon and final dissolution…”
~C.F. Herbert, on public response to the 1859 storm
If the Solar Storm of 1859, also called the Carrington Event, happened today, there’s no doubt the effects would be significantly worse than in 1859, but “worse” is not synonymous with the “end of human civilization.” It’s easy and lazy to list the horrific consequences of such an event and then offering no backdoor of hope: readers read it, ads get clicked, we get paid, and you get nightmares. The truth is we know fairly well what the results of such an event would be on humanity, and we know how to prepare for it.
Before we can understand what would happen to Earth today, we need to understand what happened to Earth yesterday.
The Carrington Event
Assuming we’re not all schooled in astronomy, I am going to paint with some pretty broad strokes here. The 1859 solar storm started with sunspots, which are dark areas on the Sun’s surface indicating an interruption of uniform heat transfer, or convection. Imagine you threw a solid ice cube into a boiling pot of water. That cube will bob on the surface for a few seconds, significantly cooler than the boiling surface, and the melting cube will cool the water immediately surrounding it. That’s a sunspot. In that illustration, YOU would be electromagnetism.
Sunspots make regular appearances on the Sun’s surface and are hardly news. An inexpensive telescope with a proper solar filter can easily track sunspots, and some of these phenomena are large enough to view with the naked eye (again, with a proper solar filter). Sunspots generally appear in pairs (like any magnet, or even the Earth’s magnetic field, there’s a positive charge and negative charge).
In September of 1859, two independent English astronomers sketched and reported a collection of sunspots so numerous they seemed to scar the surface of the sun. The most famous of these reports was by renowned astronomer Richard Carrington, hence the formal name “The Carrington Event.”
1859 Solar Storm’s Cause…
It’s important to remember that in 1859, there was no instant method of communication across the world or in the United States. The Pony Express was still the fastest way of getting messages from New York to San Fransisco, and America’s intercontinental telegraph line wouldn’t be complete until 1861. The world, our country, or even most states didn’t talk in real-time yet. The cause and effects of the Carrington Event took months or years to piece together, but when the full picture came into focus, it was very clear something extraordinary—and a little scary—had happened.
That group of sunspots Richard Carrington had recorded was accompanied by a coronal mass ejection, or a giant ribbon of plasma and magnetically-charged particles. Those aren’t that usual, but this was an unusually strong coronal mass ejection, and it hit Mother Earth square in her protective magnetic field.
The effects on Earth in early September, 1859, were equivalent to splicing a car battery to a lightbulb: dramatic and short-lived. The population reported brilliant aurora all across the United States and Northern Hemisphere, with some reports coming from as far south as the Caribbean Sea. Observers reported lights so bright they woke up from a dead sleep, and some insisted they could read a newspaper by it. A Baltimore reporter stated, “The light was greater than that of the moon at its full, but had an indescribable softness and delicacy that seemed to envelop everything upon which it rested.”
The primitive telegraph systems in Europe and the United States experienced the storm’s most interesting—and foreboding—effects. In a world that had not yet established a working electrical grid, the telegraph system received the full brunt of the solar storm. To a population unfamiliar with the novelty and peculiarities of electricity, we can imagine many turned to supernatural causes.