Carrington Event

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Carrington Event
A black and white sketch of a large cluster of sunspots on the surface of the sun.
Sunspots of 1 September 1859, as sketched by Richard Carrington. A and B mark the initial positions of an intensely bright event, which moved over the course of five minutes to C and D before disappearing.
TypeGeomagnetic storm
Formed1 September 1859 (1859-09-01)
Dissipated2 September 1859 (1859-09-02)
DamageSevere damage to telegraph stations
Areas affectedWorldwide

The Carrington Event was the most intense geomagnetic storm in recorded history, peaking from 1–2 September 1859 during solar cycle 10. It created strong auroral displays that were reported globally[1] and caused sparking and even fires in multiple telegraph stations. The geomagnetic storm was most likely the result of a coronal mass ejection (CME) from the Sun colliding with Earth's magnetosphere.[2]

The geomagnetic storm was associated with a very bright solar flare on 1 September 1859. It was observed and recorded independently by British astronomers Richard Christopher Carrington and Richard Hodgson—the first records of a solar flare.

A geomagnetic storm of this magnitude occurring today would cause widespread electrical disruptions, blackouts, and damage due to extended outages of the electrical power grid.[3][4][5]


Geomagnetic storm[edit]

The July 2012 solar storm, as photographed by STEREO, was a CME of comparable strength to the one which is thought to have struck the Earth during the 1859 Carrington Event.

On 1 and 2 September 1859, one of the largest geomagnetic storms (as recorded by ground-based magnetometers) occurred.[6] Estimates of the storm strength (Dst) range from −0.80 to −1.75 µT.[7]

The geomagnetic storm is thought to have been initiated by a major CME that traveled directly toward Earth, taking 17.6 hours to make the 150-million-kilometre (93-million-mile) journey. Typical CMEs take several days to arrive at Earth, but it is believed that the relatively high speed of this CME was made possible by a prior CME, perhaps the cause of the large aurora event on 29 August that "cleared the way" of ambient solar wind plasma for the Carrington Event.[8]

Associated solar flare[edit]

Just before noon on 1 September 1859, the English amateur astronomers Richard Christopher Carrington and Richard Hodgson independently recorded the earliest observations of a solar flare.[8] Carrington and Hodgson compiled independent reports which were published side by side in Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society and exhibited their drawings of the event at the November 1859 meeting of the Royal Astronomical Society.[9][10]

Because of a geomagnetic solar flare effect (a "magnetic crochet")[11] observed in the Kew Observatory magnetometer record by Scottish physicist Balfour Stewart, and a geomagnetic storm observed the following day, Carrington suspected a solar-terrestrial connection.[12] Worldwide reports of the effects of the geomagnetic storm of 1859 were compiled and published by American mathematician Elias Loomis, which support the observations of Carrington and Stewart.[13]



Aurora during a geomagnetic storm that was most likely caused by a coronal mass ejection from the Sun on 24 May 2010, taken from the International Space Station

Auroras were seen around the world in both northern and southern hemispheres. The aurora over the Rocky Mountains in the United States was so bright that the glow woke gold miners, who began preparing breakfast because they thought it was morning.[8] People in the northeastern United States could read a newspaper by the aurora's light.[14] The aurora was visible from the poles to low latitude areas such as south-central Mexico,[15][16] Cuba, Hawaii, Queensland,[17] southern Japan and China,[18] and even at lower latitudes very close to the equator, such as in Colombia.[19]

On Saturday 3 September 1859, the Baltimore American and Commercial Advertiser reported:

Those who happened to be out late on Thursday night had an opportunity of witnessing another magnificent display of the auroral lights. The phenomenon was very similar to the display on Sunday night, though at times the light was, if possible, more brilliant, and the prismatic hues more varied and gorgeous. The light appeared to cover the whole firmament, apparently like a luminous cloud, through which the stars of the larger magnitude indistinctly shone. 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. Between 12 and 1 o'clock, when the display was at its full brilliancy, the quiet streets of the city resting under this strange light, presented a beautiful as well as singular appearance.[20]

In 1909, an Australian gold miner named C F Herbert retold his observations in a letter to the Daily News in Perth:

I was gold-digging at Rokewood, about four miles [6 km] from Rokewood township (Victoria). Myself and two mates looking out of the tent saw a great reflection in the southern heavens at about 7 o'clock p.m., and in about half an hour, a scene of almost unspeakable beauty presented itself:

Lights of every imaginable color were issuing from the southern heavens, one color fading away only to give place to another if possible more beautiful than the last, the streams mounting to the zenith, but always becoming a rich purple when reaching there, and always curling round, leaving a clear strip of sky, which may be described as four fingers held at arm's length.

The northern side from the zenith was also illuminated with beautiful colors, always curling round at the zenith, but were considered to be merely a reproduction of the southern display, as all colors south and north always corresponded.

It was a sight never to be forgotten, and was considered at the time to be the greatest aurora recorded [...]. The rationalist and pantheist saw nature in her most exquisite robes, recognising, the divine immanence, immutable law, cause, and effect. The superstitious and the fanatical had dire forebodings, and thought it a foreshadowing of Armageddon and final dissolution.[21]


Because of the geomagnetically induced current from the electromagnetic field, telegraph systems all over Europe and North America failed, in some cases giving their operators electric shocks.[22] Telegraph pylons threw sparks.[23] Some operators were able to continue to send and receive messages despite having disconnected their power supplies.[24][25] The following conversation occurred between two operators of the American telegraph line between Boston, Massachusetts, and Portland, Maine, on the night of 2 September 1859 and reported in the Boston Evening Traveler:

Boston operator (to Portland operator): "Please cut off your battery [power source] entirely for fifteen minutes."

Portland operator: "Will do so. It is now disconnected."

Boston: "Mine is disconnected, and we are working with the auroral current. How do you receive my writing?"

Portland: "Better than with our batteries on. – Current comes and goes gradually."

Boston: "My current is very strong at times, and we can work better without the batteries, as the aurora seems to neutralize and augment our batteries alternately, making current too strong at times for our relay magnets. Suppose we work without batteries while we are affected by this trouble."

Portland: "Very well. Shall I go ahead with business?"

Boston: "Yes. Go ahead."

The conversation was carried on for around two hours using no battery power at all and working solely with the current induced by the aurora, the first time on record that more than a word or two was transmitted in such manner.[26]

Similar events[edit]

Another strong solar storm occurred in February 1872.[27] Less severe storms also occurred in 1921 (this was comparable by some measures), when widespread radio disruption was reported. The March 1989 geomagnetic storm knocked out power across large sections of Quebec. On 23 July 2012, a "Carrington-class" solar superstorm (solar flare, CME, solar electromagnetic pulse) was observed, but its trajectory narrowly missed Earth.[5][28]

In June 2013, a joint venture from researchers at Lloyd's of London and Atmospheric and Environmental Research (AER) in the US used data from the Carrington Event to estimate the cost of a similar event in the present to the US alone at US$600 billion to $2.6 trillion (equivalent to $774 billion to $3.35 trillion in 2023[29]),[3] which, at the time, equated to roughly 3.6 to 15.5 percent of annual GDP.

Other research has looked for signatures of large solar flares and CMEs in carbon-14 in tree rings and beryllium-10 (among other isotopes) in ice cores. The signature of a large solar storm has been found for the years 774–775 and 993–994.[30][31] Carbon-14 levels stored in 775 suggest an event about 20 times the normal variation of the sun's activity, and 10 or more times the size of the Carrington Event.[32] An event in 7176 BCE may have exceeded even the 774–775 event based on this proxy data.[33]

Whether the physics of solar flares is similar to that of even larger superflares is still unclear. The sun may differ in important ways such as size and speed of rotation from the types of stars that are known to produce superflares.[31]

Other evidence[edit]

Ice cores containing thin nitrate-rich layers have been analysed to reconstruct a history of past solar storms predating reliable observations. This was based on the hypothesis that solar energetic particles would ionize nitrogen, leading to the production of nitric oxide and other oxidised nitrogen compounds, which would not be too diluted in the atmosphere before being deposited along with snow.[34]

Beginning in 1986, some researchers claimed that data from Greenland ice cores showed evidence of individual solar particle events, including the Carrington Event.[35] More recent ice core work, however, casts significant doubt on this interpretation and shows that nitrate spikes are likely not a result of solar energetic particle events but can be due to terrestrial events such as forest fires, and correlate with other chemical signatures of known forest fire plumes. Nitrate events in cores from Greenland and Antarctica do not align, so the hypothesis that they reflect proton events is now in significant doubt.[34][36][37]

A 2024 study analysed digitized magnetogram readings from magnetic observatories at Kew and Greenwich. "Initial analysis suggests the rates of change of the field of over 700 nT/min exceeded the 1-in-100 years extreme value of 350–400 nT/min at this latitude based on digital-era records,"[38] indicating a far greater change rate than modern digital measurements.[39]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Kimball, D. S. (April 1960). "A Study of the Aurora of 1859" (PDF). Geophysical Institute at the University of Alaska. Retrieved 28 November 2021.
  2. ^ Tsurutani, B. T. (2003). "The extreme magnetic storm of 1–2 September 1859". Journal of Geophysical Research. 108 (A7): 1268. Bibcode:2003JGRA..108.1268T. doi:10.1029/2002JA009504. Retrieved 28 November 2021.
  3. ^ a b Solar Storm Risk to the North American Electric Grid (PDF). Lloyd's of London and Atmospheric and Environmental Research, Inc. 2013. Retrieved 17 February 2022.
  4. ^ Baker, D.N.; et al. (2008). Severe Space Weather Events – Understanding Societal and Economic Impacts. Washington, D.C.: The National Academy Press. doi:10.17226/12507. ISBN 978-0-309-12769-1.
  5. ^ a b Phillips, Dr. Tony (23 July 2014). "Near miss: The solar superstorm of July 2012". NASA. Retrieved 26 July 2014.
  6. ^ Cliver, E.W.; Svalgaard, L. (2005). "The 1859 solar-terrestrial disturbance and the current limits on extreme space weather activity" (PDF). Solar Physics. 224 (1–2): 407–422. Bibcode:2004SoPh..224..407C. doi:10.1007/s11207-005-4980-z. S2CID 120093108.
  7. ^ "Near miss: The Solar superstorm of July 2012". NASA Science ( Retrieved 14 September 2016.
  8. ^ a b c Odenwald, Sten F.; Green, James L. (28 July 2008). "Bracing the satellite infrastructure for a Solar superstorm". Scientific American. 299 (2): 80–87. doi:10.1038/scientificamerican0808-80. PMID 18666683. Retrieved 16 February 2011.
  9. ^ Carrington, R.C. (1859). "Description of a singular appearance seen in the Sun on September 1, 1859". Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society. 20: 13–15. Bibcode:1859MNRAS..20...13C. doi:10.1093/mnras/20.1.13.
  10. ^ Hodgson, R. (1859). "On a curious appearance seen in the Sun". Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society. 20: 15–16. Bibcode:1859MNRAS..20...15H. doi:10.1093/mnras/20.1.15.
  11. ^ Thompson, Richard (24 September 2015). "A solar flare effect". Space Weather Services. Australian Government. Archived from the original on 24 September 2015. Retrieved 2 September 2015.
  12. ^ Clark, Stuart (2007). The Sun Kings: The unexpected tragedy of Richard Carrington and the tale of how modern astronomy began. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press. ISBN 978-0-691-12660-9.[page needed]
  13. ^ The 9 articles by E. Loomis published from November 1859 – July 1862 in the American Journal of Science regarding "The great auroral exhibition", 28 – 4 August September 1859:
  14. ^ Lovett, R.A. (2 March 2011). "What if the biggest solar storm on record happened today?". National Geographic News. Archived from the original on 5 March 2011. Retrieved 5 September 2011.
  15. ^ Hayakawa, H. (2018). "Low-latitude aurorae during the extreme space weather events in 1859". The Astrophysical Journal. 869 (1): 57. arXiv:1811.02786. Bibcode:2018ApJ...869...57H. doi:10.3847/1538-4357/aae47c. S2CID 119386459.
  16. ^ González‐Esparza, J.A.; Cuevas‐Cardona, M.C. (2018). "Observations of Low Latitude Red Aurora in Mexico During the 1859 Carrington Geomagnetic Storm". Space Weather. 16 (6): 593. Bibcode:2018SpWea..16..593G. doi:10.1029/2017SW001789.
  17. ^ Green, J. (2006). "Duration and extent of the great auroral storm of 1859". Advances in Space Research. 38 (2): 130–135. Bibcode:2006AdSpR..38..130G. doi:10.1016/j.asr.2005.08.054. PMC 5215858. PMID 28066122.
  18. ^ Hayakawa, H. (2016). "East Asian observations of low-latitude aurora during the Carrington magnetic storm". Publications of the Astronomical Society of Japan. 68 (6): 99. arXiv:1608.07702. Bibcode:2016PASJ...68...99H. doi:10.1093/pasj/psw097. S2CID 119268875.
  19. ^ Moreno Cárdenas, Freddy; Cristancho Sánchez, Sergio; Vargas Domínguez, Santiago; Hayakawa, Satoshi; Kumar, Sandeep; Mukherjee, Shyamoli; Veenadhari, B. (2016). "The grand aurorae borealis seen in Colombia in 1859". Advances in Space Research. 57 (1): 257–267. arXiv:1508.06365. Bibcode:2016AdSpR..57..257M. doi:10.1016/j.asr.2015.08.026. S2CID 119183512.
  20. ^ "The Aurora Borealis". Baltimore American and Commercial Advertiser. 3 September 1859. p. 2, column 2. Retrieved 16 February 2011.
  21. ^ Herbert, Count Frank (8 October 1909). "The Great Aurora of 1859". The Daily News. Perth, WA, AU. p. 9. Retrieved 1 April 2018.
  22. ^ Severe Space Weather Events – Understanding Societal and Economic Impacts: A Workshop Report. Committee on the Societal and Economic Impacts of Severe Space Weather Events: A Workshop, National Research Council (Report). National Academies Press. 2008. p. 13. ISBN 978-0-309-12769-1.
  23. ^ Odenwald, Sten F. (2002). The 23rd Cycle. Columbia University Press. p. 28. ISBN 978-0-231-12079-1 – via
  24. ^ Carlowicz, Michael J.; Lopez, Ramon E. (2002). Storms from the Sun: The emerging science of space weather. National Academies Press. p. 58. ISBN 978-0-309-07642-5.
  25. ^ (Various authors) (1859). "The great auroral exhibition of August 28th to September 4th, 1859". American Journal of Science. 2nd series. 28 (84): 385–408. From p. 385: " […] in more than one case the north and south [telegraph] lines were worked during the daytime of September 3d solely by the atmospheric influence!"
  26. ^ Green, James L.; Boardsen, Scott; Odenwald, Sten; Humble, John; Pazamickas, Katherine A. (1 January 2006). "Eyewitness reports of the great auroral storm of 1859". Advances in Space Research. The Great Historical Geomagnetic Storm of 1859: A Modern Look. 38 (2): 145–154. Bibcode:2006AdSpR..38..145G. doi:10.1016/j.asr.2005.12.021. hdl:2060/20050210157. ISSN 0273-1177.
  27. ^ Hayakawa, Hisashi; et al. (2023). "The extreme space weather event of 1872 February: sunspots, magnetic disturbance, and auroral displays". The Astrophysical Journal. 959 (23): 23. Bibcode:2023ApJ...959...23H. doi:10.3847/1538-4357/acc6cc.
  28. ^ Carrington-class coronal mass ejection narrowly misses Earth (video). NASA. 28 April 2014. Event occurs at 04:03. Retrieved 26 July 2014 – via YouTube.
  29. ^ Johnston, Louis; Williamson, Samuel H. (2023). "What Was the U.S. GDP Then?". MeasuringWorth. Retrieved 30 November 2023. United States Gross Domestic Product deflator figures follow the MeasuringWorth series.
  30. ^ Hudson, Hugh S. (2021). "Carrington Events". Annual Review of Astronomy and Astrophysics. 59: 445–477. Bibcode:2021ARA&A..59..445H. doi:10.1146/annurev-astro-112420-023324. ISSN 0066-4146. S2CID 241040835. Retrieved 30 September 2021.
  31. ^ a b Battersby, Stephen (19 November 2019). "Core concept: What are the chances of a hazardous solar superflare?". Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. 116 (47): 23368–23370. Bibcode:2019PNAS..11623368B. doi:10.1073/pnas.1917356116. ISSN 0027-8424. PMC 6876210. PMID 31744927.
  32. ^ Crockett, Christopher (17 September 2021). "Are we ready? Understanding just how big solar flares can get". Knowable Magazine. doi:10.1146/knowable-091721-1. S2CID 239204944. Retrieved 30 September 2021.
  33. ^ Paleari, Chiara I.; F. Mekhaldi; F. Adolphi; M. Christl; C. Vockenhuber; P. Gautschi; J. Beer; N. Brehm; T. Erhardt; H.-A. Synal; L. Wacker; F. Wilhelms; R. Muscheler (2022). "Cosmogenic radionuclides reveal an extreme solar particle storm near a solar minimum 9125 years BP". Nat. Commun. 13 (214): 214. Bibcode:2022NatCo..13..214P. doi:10.1038/s41467-021-27891-4. PMC 8752676. PMID 35017519.
  34. ^ a b Wolff, E.W.; Bigler, M.; Curran, M.A.J.; Dibb, J.; Frey, M.M.; Legrand, M. (2012). "The Carrington event not observed in most ice core nitrate records". Geophysical Research Letters. 39 (8): 21, 585, 598. Bibcode:2012GeoRL..39.8503W. doi:10.1029/2012GL051603.Closed access icon
  35. ^ McCracken, K.G.; Dreschhoff, G.A.M.; Zeller, E.J.; Smart, D.F.; Shea, M.A. (2001). "Solar cosmic ray events for the period 1561–1994 – 1. Identification in polar-ice, 1561–1950". Journal of Geophysical Research. 106 (A10): 21, 585, 598. Bibcode:2001JGR...10621585M. doi:10.1029/2000JA000237. Closed access icon
  36. ^ Duderstadt, K.A.; et al. (2014). "Nitrate deposition to surface snow at Summit, Greenland, following the 9 November 2000 solar proton event". Journal of Geophysical Research: Atmospheres. 119 (11): 6938–6957. Bibcode:2014JGRD..119.6938D. doi:10.1002/2013JD021389.
  37. ^ Mekhaldi, F.; McConnell, J.R.; Adolphi, F.; Arienzo, M.M.; Chellman, N.J.; Maselli, O.J.; et al. (November 2017). "No coincident nitrate enhancement events in polar ice cores following the largest known Solar storms" (PDF). Journal of Geophysical Research: Atmospheres. 122 (21): 11, 900–911, 913. Bibcode:2017JGRD..12211900M. doi:10.1002/2017JD027325.
  38. ^ Beggan, C. D.; Clarke, E.; Lawrence, E.; Eaton, E.; Williamson, J.; Matsumoto, K.; Hayakawa, H. (29 February 2024). "Digitized Continuous Magnetic Recordings for the August/September 1859 Storms From London, UK". Space Weather. 22 (3). doi:10.1029/2023SW003807. ISSN 1542-7390.
  39. ^ Luntz, Stephen (25 March 2024). "History's Biggest Solar Storm, The Carrington Event, Was Even Bigger Than We Realized". IFLScience. Retrieved 26 March 2024.

Further reading[edit]

  • Kappenman, J. (2006). "Great geomagnetic storms and extreme impulsive geomagnetic field disturbance events – An analysis of observational evidence including the great storm of May 1921". Advances in Space Research. 38 (2): 188–199. Bibcode:2006AdSpR..38..188K. doi:10.1016/j.asr.2005.08.055.
  • Ridley, A.J.; de Zeeuw, D.L.; Manchester, W.B.; Hansen, K.C. (2006). "The magnetospheric and ionospheric response to a very strong interplanetary shock and coronal mass ejection". Advances in Space Research. 38 (2): 263–272. Bibcode:2006AdSpR..38..263R. doi:10.1016/j.asr.2006.06.010.
  • Townsend, L.W.; Stephens, D.L.; Hoff, J.L.; Zapp, E.N.; Moussa, H.M.; Miller, T.M.; Campbell, C.E.; Nichols, T.F. (2006). "The Carrington event: Possible doses to crews in space from a comparable event". Advances in Space Research. 38 (2): 226–231. Bibcode:2006AdSpR..38..226T. doi:10.1016/j.asr.2005.01.111.

External links[edit]