The term “coronal mass ejection” sounds like something best avoided, even if one has no idea what it means. It’s true — they’re particularly troublesome and, in some contexts, rather dangerous. That’s because, as Wikipedia notes, coronal mass ejections — CMEs, for short — release “huge quantities of matter and electromagnetic radiation into space” when they occur. And they happen pretty often. Depending on the time of year, we could see as many as three CMEs daily. Unfortunately, we can’t avoid them. Thankfully, CMEs occur on the Sun, and it’s rare that they have much of an effect on Earth.
But they can — and have.
On August 28, 1859, a British astronomer named Richard Carrington was observing and tracking sunspots, like he typically did. But that was hardly a typical day. Carrington noticed a pair of solar flares — NASA describes them as “two brilliant beads of blinding white light” — which shrunk only a few minutes after. The oddity, though, wasn’t lost on Carrington, who grabbed a witness. The two, together, watched the white lights disappear quickly thereafter.
Less than 18 hours later, even stranger things started to occur, and one didn’t need a telescope to witness it. The skies changed color — red, green, and purple, per NASA — and were glowing so brightly that even at night, people could see as if it were daytime. According to Scientific American, miners in the United States, awoken by the lights, began preparing breakfast at 1 A.M., assuming morning had arrived.
But these were mere trivialities compared to what happened to telegraph services in both North America and Europe. Many of them began malfunctioning. These malfunctions were stranger than anyone had ever seen, too. Some telegraphs began shocking their operators, while others ended up lighting telegraph paper on fire. Some, even when disconnected from their power sources, still were somehow able to operate.
The coronal mass ejection, of course, was to blame. The CME created a geomagnetic solar storm — a “temporary disturbance of the Earth’s magnetosphere caused by a solar wind shock wave” per Wikipedia. The storm, now called the Carrington event or the Solar Storm of 1859, was the largest of its kind, causing the interference described above.
A similar such event could occur in modern times — we haven’t figured out how to control explosions emanating from the Sun — and the damages could be extraordinary. Astronauts above the International Space Station would be left unprotected, and while tragic, that wouldn’t be anywhere near the worst of it. Almost all of the communications satellites in orbit — hundreds of them — could be rendered worthless by such a storm. National Geographic estimates that the economic cost of another Carrington Event could be as much as $2 trillion, a cost echoed by the Telegraph. The best solution may be, as relayed by NASA, to have “a pipeline of comsats ready for launch.”
From the Archives: Painting in Dots and Dashes: The unexpected history of the invention of the telegraph.
Related: “The Sun Kings: The Unexpected Tragedy of Richard Carrington and the Tale of How Modern Astronomy Began” by Stuart Clark. 4.7 stars on 22 reviews.