What if the Solar Storm of 1859 Happened Today?

“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.

…and Effects

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.

Entire telegraph systems across on continents failed, with miles of wires and mounting pylons erupting in showers of sparks then falling silent. Telegraph operators were thrown from their seats to the floor from electric shocks, although none reported serious injury. Strangest of all, some operators continued sending and receiving messages through the lines, although the power supply was disconnected or destroyed. Science is wonderful.

What if the Carrington Event Happened Today?

In 2013, Lloyd’s of London, England’s primary insurance underwriter, and the Atmospheric and Environmental Research agency analyzed the 1859 solar storm. Using that data, they estimated the effects on the North American’s modern power grid. The study isn’t perfect by any means, but it gives a rough picture of the effects such an event would have today.

The study stresses two known elements: that the occurrence of a similar “solar storm” is inevitable, and the danger it imposes increases every year, since our dependence on a power grid also increases: a solar storm isn’t science fiction. Although predicting fatalities is almost impossible, the study concluded that roughly 20-40 million Americans would be at-risk from a collapsed or crippled power grid, and this increased risk would last from a few weeks to two years, depending on the speed at which destroyed components (most likely transformers) can be replaced.


Limiting Disaster

Efficient and accurate monitoring of solar storms, on ground and via satellite, would give operators time to prepare the power grid for the dramatically increased load, allowing them to make the necessary adjustments to withstand the electromagnetic bombardment. Even a few minutes notice could be enough to save hundreds of square miles of the power grid, even more significant in densely-populated areas. The study also recommends hardening systems deemed to be significantly aged or in cities, using technology similar to that used by military forces to protect electronics during a nuclear attack.

Should I Worry?

Every article in every media source, regardless of political affiliation, seems to pile on yet another nightmare to keep the population awake at night. There are currently four satellites monitoring the Sun and analysts are constantly looking for signs of this very phenomena. Although the satellites are aging, they are well-positioned to provide the advanced notice needed to protect the majority of the US infrastructure.

Power grid operators are trained and drilled for this exact scenario as well. When (not if) a similar solar storm occurs, as almost happened in 2012, the consequences will likely not be as dire as the Lloyd’s/AER study predicted, but they have the potential to be severe. As with most matters of national or global concern, the best prevention is simply public awareness and understanding.

Want to Know More? 

Glance through the entire 2013 Lloyd’s of George/AER study “Solar Storm Risk to the North American Electric Grid.” 

Learn more about solar flares and their potentially destructive effects in this NASA article “A Super Solar Flare.”