A reminder to us flyspecks on an elephant's butt

This article from NASA’s Science portal is a sobering reminder of the power of our nearest star. Given that we are in a deep solar minimum now, I thought I’d remind everyone of the kinds of things that can happen when solar max and a cantankerous CME erupts.

The vanity held by many of us puny humans tends to bolster a belief that we control our own destiny within the universe, or are even masters of our own climate control. Recent events such as the PDO shift remind us that the slow but powerful forces of nature remain in control.

If this solar event in 1859 happened today, it would probably be known as “the day the silicon died”. Given how dependent we are on technology now, and given how much wiring we all have to act as antennas, one CME like this one could spell worldwide disaster.

May 6, 2008: At 11:18 AM on the cloudless morning of Thursday, September 1, 1859, 33-year-old Richard Carrington—widely acknowledged to be one of England’s foremost solar astronomers—was in his well-appointed private observatory. Just as usual on every sunny day, his telescope was projecting an 11-inch-wide image of the sun on a screen, and Carrington skillfully drew the sunspots he saw.

Right: Sunspots sketched by Richard Carrington on Sept. 1, 1859. Copyright: Royal Astronomical Society: more.

On that morning, he was capturing the likeness of an enormous group of sunspots. Suddenly, before his eyes, two brilliant beads of blinding white light appeared over the sunspots, intensified rapidly, and became kidney-shaped. Realizing that he was witnessing something unprecedented and “being somewhat flurried by the surprise,” Carrington later wrote, “I hastily ran to call someone to witness the exhibition with me. On returning within 60 seconds, I was mortified to find that it was already much changed and enfeebled.” He and his witness watched the white spots contract to mere pinpoints and disappear.

It was 11:23 AM. Only five minutes had passed.

Just before dawn the next day, skies all over planet Earth erupted in red, green, and purple auroras so brilliant that newspapers could be read as easily as in daylight. Indeed, stunning auroras pulsated even at near tropical latitudes over Cuba, the Bahamas, Jamaica, El Salvador, and Hawaii.


Even more disconcerting, telegraph systems worldwide went haywire. Spark discharges shocked telegraph operators and set the telegraph paper on fire. Even when telegraphers disconnected the batteries powering the lines, aurora-induced electric currents in the wires still allowed messages to be transmitted.

“What Carrington saw was a white-light solar flare—a magnetic explosion on the sun,” explains David Hathaway, solar physics team lead at NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Alabama.

Now we know that solar flares happen frequently, especially during solar sunspot maximum. Most betray their existence by releasing X-rays (recorded by X-ray telescopes in space) and radio noise (recorded by radio telescopes in space and on Earth). In Carrington’s day, however, there were no X-ray satellites or radio telescopes. No one knew flares existed until that September morning when one super-flare produced enough light to rival the brightness of the sun itself.

“It’s rare that one can actually see the brightening of the solar surface,” says Hathaway. “It takes a lot of energy to heat up the surface of the sun!”

Above: A modern solar flare recorded Dec. 5, 2006, by the X-ray Imager onboard NOAA’s GOES-13 satellite. The flare was so intense, it actually damaged the instrument that took the picture. Researchers believe Carrington’s flare was much more energetic than this one.

The explosion produced not only a surge of visible light but also a mammoth cloud of charged particles and detached magnetic loops—a “CME”—and hurled that cloud directly toward Earth. The next morning when the CME arrived, it crashed into Earth’s magnetic field, causing the global bubble of magnetism that surrounds our planet to shake and quiver. Researchers call this a “geomagnetic storm.” Rapidly moving fields induced enormous electric currents that surged through telegraph lines and disrupted communications.

“More than 35 years ago, I began drawing the attention of the space physics community to the 1859 flare and its impact on telecommunications,” says Louis J. Lanzerotti, retired Distinguished Member of Technical Staff at Bell Laboratories and current editor of the journal Space Weather. He became aware of the effects of solar geomagnetic storms on terrestrial communications when a huge solar flare on August 4, 1972, knocked out long-distance telephone communication across Illinois. That event, in fact, caused AT&T to redesign its power system for transatlantic cables. A similar flare on March 13, 1989, provoked geomagnetic storms that disrupted electric power transmission from the Hydro Québec generating station in Canada, blacking out most of the province and plunging 6 million people into darkness for 9 hours; aurora-induced power surges even melted power transformers in New Jersey. In December 2005, X-rays from another solar storm disrupted satellite-to-ground communications and Global Positioning System (GPS) navigation signals for about 10 minutes. That may not sound like much, but as Lanzerotti noted, “I would not have wanted to be on a commercial airplane being guided in for a landing by GPS or on a ship being docked by GPS during that 10 minutes.”

Right: Power transformers damaged by the March 13, 1989, geomagnetic storm: more.

Another Carrington-class flare would dwarf these events. Fortunately, says Hathaway, they appear to be rare:

“In the 160-year record of geomagnetic storms, the Carrington event is the biggest.” It’s possible to delve back even farther in time by examining arctic ice. “Energetic particles leave a record in nitrates in ice cores,” he explains. “Here again the Carrington event sticks out as the biggest in 500 years and nearly twice as big as the runner-up.”

These statistics suggest that Carrington flares are once in a half-millennium events. The statistics are far from solid, however, and Hathaway cautions that we don’t understand flares well enough to rule out a repeat in our lifetime.

And what then?

Lanzerotti points out that as electronic technologies have become more sophisticated and more embedded into everyday life, they have also become more vulnerable to solar activity. On Earth, power lines and long-distance telephone cables might be affected by auroral currents, as happened in 1989. Radar, cell phone communications, and GPS receivers could be disrupted by solar radio noise. Experts who have studied the question say there is little to be done to protect satellites from a Carrington-class flare. In fact, a recent paper estimates potential damage to the 900-plus satellites currently in orbit could cost between $30 billion and $70 billion. The best solution, they say: have a pipeline of comsats ready for launch.

Humans in space would be in peril, too. Spacewalking astronauts might have only minutes after the first flash of light to find shelter from energetic solar particles following close on the heels of those initial photons. Their spacecraft would probably have adequate shielding; the key would be getting inside in time.

No wonder NASA and other space agencies around the world have made the study and prediction of flares a priority. Right now a fleet of spacecraft is monitoring the sun, gathering data on flares big and small that may eventually reveal what triggers the explosions. SOHO, Hinode, STEREO, ACE and others are already in orbit while new spacecraft such as the Solar Dynamics Observatory are readying for launch.

Research won’t prevent another Carrington flare, but it may make the “flurry of surprise” a thing of the past.


24 thoughts on “A reminder to us flyspecks on an elephant's butt

  1. Great post Anthony, I remember the auroras after the March ’89 flare; living in the far western suburbs of Milwaukee, the green (O2) and pink (N2) waves extended from the north to directly overhead. Kind of like a lava lamp.
    This energy input, among others, is not in any TSI calculation.

  2. Although David Hathaway suggests these Carrington flares might be happening twice every millennium, I’m just thinking: what are the odds that a stupendous flare like that occurs just when an astronomer happens to be observing the sun, and when telescopes have become powerful enough to capture the event? I’m no astronomer or statistician, but it seems to be a striking coincidence. Could these giant flares be more frequent than the ice records appear to show?
    Just a thought…

  3. Good article of the true power of the sun when it wants to be feisty, but the good news is much of the internet’s “wires” are being replace by fiber optic cable with should be impervious to the effects of large solar flares.

  4. History provides lessons and warnings to those with curious minds. We can be thankful that the CEOs of Intel and other semiconductor firms don’t know how to induce a Coronal Mass Ejection and subsequently benefit from massive new sales of semiconductor replacements. 🙂

  5. I remember very well the power outage of 1989 here in Quebec. OTOH, it only lasted for a few hours. There was much damage to the equipment, but not to the people. Much more damage was caused by the ice storm of 1998, which destroyed many of our main transmission lines, and plunged half a million people in the dark for more than a month in the middle of winter.
    But we learn from these events. Following 1998, Hydro Quebec rethought their network, and, for example, shielded it from our neighbors in the US and Ontario. This was meant to protect them from whatever happened on our side, but it turned out that when the Northeastern US had its major outage a few years ago (was it not a squirrel that was responsible?), we were ourselves protected!

  6. If there were another flare of that size pointed at Earth, the crew of the ISS would probably need to return to Earth immediately. One of the reasons there is a return capsule docked to the station at all times.

  7. “Could these giant flares be more frequent than the ice records appear to show?”
    My guess would be that flares of that size are probably more frequent but we have one that is pointed directly at Earth only a few times every 1000 years. Considering that the location of such a flare is random and Earth is a moving target that changes location around the Sun, it seems reasonable that direct hits would be less frequent than the actual number of flares the Sun produces. Ice records would record only the direct hits.

  8. Interestingly, the flare happened near the maximum of the 10th solar cycle, which had a cycle maximum of only 98,5, and thus was only a “moderate” cycle.
    So, even if SC24 turns out to be a weak or moderate cycle, this kind of superflares can still occur! All you need is a complex and preferably compact sunspotgroup about halfway the solar disc. This kind of groups can occur also well past solar cycle maximum, as e.g. the Halloween-groups (2003) and NOAA 0930 (December 2006) have shown.
    My website (http://users.telenet.be/j.janssens/Engwelcome.html) contains overviews and details on the white light flares and also on the most energetic flares since satellite measurements (1976).

  9. What is most interesting about the activity that occured in Dec 06…
    is that Global Temps spiked immediately thereafter in late Dec 06 and Jan 07.
    Interestingly also 1998, otherwise known as the “hottest year on record” to everyboy except James Hansen, was a very active solar flare year.w

  10. As demand for power gets closer to, or exceeds, generating capacity, the system becomes more vulnerable. Even a small event can have major impact. (a squirrel? Really?) Fibre optic is great for telecom, but not much good if you have no primary power source. How much of our commerce depends on direct communication? Mother Nature can swat us any time she feels like it.
    Fortunately, beer is not affected by CME’s or EMI. The cellar is cool enough to keep it fresh even if the fridge goes out.

  11. I remember in the mid 80’s,(forget the exact year) I was walking in town in N.MN and I looked up and the sky(2/3’s of it N. to S.) was a purple, wavy haze. And directly above was a perfect circle of clear sky. Just like the eye of a hurricane. You could see the stars. The waves just went around it. Very eerie feeling. Never seen anything like it before or since.
    And, NO, I wasn’t on anything.( for those thinking of Jimmy Hendrix’s song “Purple Haze”) LOL

  12. William Derham of Upminster, England also observed a white light flare on the sun in 1705. He described it as lightning on the sun in a letter to the Royal Astronomer Flamsteed. The original letter is now in the Flamsteed collection at the Cambridge University Library. Evidence for the flare also exists in ice cores where it shows up as a spike in the nitrate concentration.
    Derham was an active observer of sunspots from 1703 to 1715. He recorded sunspot observations on 1613 days. The sunspot peak in 1705 was very weak and there was never a case during that sunspot cycle where more than one sunspot group was on the sun on any day.

  13. Is it possible to provide a link to that article at NASA? I can’t seem to find it in the article, and I’m very interested in browsing the Science Portal.
    FWIW, you guys (plus Ponder the Maunder) have converted me from someone who wanted Al Gore to run for President to someone who is looking forward to wearing wool socks in Texas. 😉 Thanks!
    REPLY: Here is the link to the NASA article and Science Portal:
    Glad to be of help – Anthony

  14. Perhaps Jimi Hendrix say some purple Haze, was there one in the begiining of the sixties. Could explain a few things people saw or perhaps not.

  15. Just discovered this site recently and have to say it is an excellent resource in the battle against the cult of man-made global warming. While I have no qualms with being “environmentally minded” the lengths the environmental movement has gone to control our every thought and movement is staggering to me.
    I’ve suspected for some time that the sun has a great deal of impact on our climate and and the title of this post reminded me that most people really have no concept how large the sun actually is. We see it as a rather small globe in the sky, but how big is it really? On one hand we have an object that encompasses roughly 98% of the total mass in our solar system, on the other we have a compound that roughly composes 0.03 to 0.06 percent of the Earth’s atmosphere.
    The sun is the proverbial 800 lb gorilla that nobody seems to want to talk about! Thanks for bringing it the attention it deserves.

  16. The sun seems to spend around 25% of its time in a major minimum phase. (Just add up the last 5 and divide.) So it is a primary driver with big swing effects.
    As for the more proximate issues, I tend to look more towards the sea. Ocean and ocean/atmospheric cycles seem to drive the climate in terms of multidecadal trends.

  17. NASA are well into Space weather. It is in their interests to be. From the first space flights they have been discovering information about solar activity that affects their own activity in space.
    Sun spot solar flares were a factor in bringing down Spacelab back in 1979.
    Photo Voltaic cells (Solar cell panels) were originally thought by NASA to have an indefinite life in Space. Solar flare activity reduces the life back to 4 or 5 years or in case of a direct hit by a large incident degrades the life to 2 or 3 days.
    An unprotected Astronaut space walking or walking on the moon would certainly face dire consequences if hit by a solar incident.
    A study has been made of the worst case scenario if the Earth received a direct hit by a super solar flare as per the NASA article. Makes sober reading.
    One of many studies commissioned by NASA.

  18. So, let me see if I have this straight…
    YOU guys are saying that a gigantic fusion reactor several thousand times the size of our planet, which is continually emitting vast quantities of energy in all directions and occasionally spits a little extra here and there, and is already known to be the difference between almost absolute zero and the relative comfort we have now, could possibly be responsible for any slight warming or cooling we observe?
    That sounds, quite frankly, absurd. In fact, I can hold out my hand and completely block the sun, therefore it can’t be very important to us here on earth. I mean really, it’s 93 million miles away, therefore any effect has to be minor.
    Okay – done with my sarcasm…
    It’s too bad so many people in this world are confusing Science with this AGW crap. Science is fascinating: it’s the reason I do what I do in life, and discoveries in Science benefit everyone directly. If the general public was aware that the sun could hiccup and take out our global communications and power, they might JUST start to accept that it could also be responsible for our long term climate… and for that matter, our short term climate.
    Pioneers such as Carrington should have inspired generations of people fascinated with his discoveries, and genuinely attempting to understand what happened that day, and how to avoid being affected when it happens again. Instead we have kids in school learning about Polar Bears dying from daddy’s SUV. It’s so incredibly pathetic to watch.

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