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The greatest solar storms in history

Updated on January 27, 2014

History of solar storms

As we go even deeper into 2013 with each passing day, solar storms are becoming a hot topic. We are becoming more aware of how dangerous for our technology or even health solar weather can be. Should we be afraid of geomagnetic storms? A quick look at the history of solar disturbances recorded on Earth shows that if not afraid, we certainly should be aware and prepared for solar storms of the future. Read on to find out more.

Photo source

magnetosphere public domain by nasa
magnetosphere public domain by nasa

Solar storms - what are they?

In layman's terms - a solar storm happens when an exceptionally strong stream of solar wind arrives on Earth and messes with our planet's magnetic field.

Solar wind 'blows' all the time. It is simply a stream of charged particles constantly being ejected into space from the Sun's atmosphere. Earth's magnetic field is strong enough to protect us from most of ill effects of this 'bombardment' but during particularly intense assaults (caused, for example, by solar flares) it becomes disturbed, first compressing under stress, then snapping back with force to its original shape.

Ok, but what does all that mean to us here on Earth?

It could mean black outs. Geomagnetically induced currents present during solar storms can overheat power lines and equipment, in extreme cases 'frying' it.

It could mean havoc in navigation. Solar storms confuse GPS navigation systems so that they produce incorrect data. It's ok when you're missing your turn when driving, but what if an airplane crew relied on their GPS and believed they are a few miles higher than they actually are?

Solar storms are also confirmed to cause damage to satellites and disturb some radio frequencies. They also pose a radiation hazard to human beings not protected by the magnetic field (which in most cases means astronauts but very rarely can also mean commercial flyers). Some claim that geomagnetic storms have also direct impact on our health here on Earth (see the big link below).

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Are you afraid of solar storms?

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Solar flares can be dangerous

Solar flares can be dangerous
Solar flares can be dangerous

The greatest solar storms

power lines public domain
power lines public domain

Carrington Event

The inglorious title of the greatest solar storm in recorded history belongs to the Carrington Event, also known as Solar Superstorm or simply - solar storm of 1859. It followed a large solar flare, observed by Richard Christopher Carrigton (hence the name), which erupted on September 1st 1859. The Coronal Mass Ejection (CME) produced during the eruption reached the Earth in exceptionally short time - 17 hours - and caused strange things to happen on our planet during the first and second day of this memorable September.

Telegraphs all around the globe were the main 'victim' of the Carrington Event. Messages appeared to be running through the wires even when they were unplugged from power supply. Telegraph paper went on fire. Telegraphic machinery delivered some nasty shocks to its operators. Sparks were flying.

Northern lights (which are one more 'symptom' of a geomagnetic storm) appeared as fas south as the Caribbean. Imagine that - Aurora borealis on Cuba! Usually this phenomenon is restricted to polar areas of the world...

If a solar storm of this magnitude happened today, finantial losses incurred would probably run into billions.

Photo source

northern lights, public domain by nasa
northern lights, public domain by nasa

The Transit of Venus Storm

November 17, 1882

Once again telegraphs went wild. The geomagnetically induced electric current was strong enough to light up electric lights. Aurorae borealis were seen all over Europe and Northern America.

The event was widely described in the contemporary press, so if you feel like digging through the archives, you're bound to find plenty of additional information there.

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March 13, 1989 storm

This particular storm got its fame for frying up power grid of the Hydro-Quebec power station, which resulted in a black out lasting 9 hours and affecting 6 million people.

Satellites reported multiple anomalies, radio signals were blocked and Northern lights appeared as far south as Texas.

earth from space public domain by nasa
earth from space public domain by nasa

Bastille Day event

Here's one of more recent solar storms. According to the name, it all started on July 14, 2000, when the Sun produced a huge (X5) flare. It was the biggest solar event since the Quebec Blackout flare of 1989 and it caused a significant radiation storm here on Earth (airplane passengers got a radiation dose equal to one chest X-ray). A geomagnetic storm followed on July 15-17.

Public domain image by NASA

Dr. Michio Kaku on solar storms

fire public domain
fire public domain

Solar storms and apocalyptic scares

We are nearing one of the greatest apocalyptic frenzy periods of our times - 2012 is upon us. I've lost count of Armageddon promises made so far (by, among others, Mayas, Hollywood film makers and rather doubtful 'scientists'). Solar superstorm that would destroy all electronics on Earth, thus launching a period of chaos and destruction, is one of the favourite scenarios, especially that we are approaching the peak of solar activity in the current solar cycle.

What is the likelihood of this dark picture becoming reality?

If you ask me - not too serious. Sure, we might get 'flared'. Sure, a solar storm of magnitude similar to the Carrington event would cause significant damage to power grids and bank accounts of energy supplying corporations (or insurance companies). Sure, it would be big and it would be messy. But apocalyptic? I don't think so.

Feel free to disagree (and express it in the duel module that follows) :)

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Solar storm battle

Are we threatened by a solar storm of apocalyptic proportions?

Yes, and no one can avert the danger

Yes, and no one can avert the danger

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    No comments yet.

    'Apocalyptic' is such a big (and abused!) word...

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      • physics-boy lm 5 years ago

        You've read my lens, I'm sure you know my view! As a Physicist, I believe Solar Storms are a cause for concern considering our dependance on electronics, but I also think new advances in shielding techniques for power grids would protect us from anything severe.

      • Ellen Brundige 5 years ago from California

        If and when we get hit with another CME of the same magnitude as the Carrington Flare of 1859, it could cause serious havoc if we're not prepared for it. We now have NASA warning utilities companies and satellite operators when a large flare happens, and I assume that they are taking precautions by powering down, which should mitigate damage. But they may not be -- you can't just switch off the grid every time there's a massive solar flare, since most of them do NOT fry the grid. The trouble is...the really, really big ones can.

        That concerns me. Worst-case scenario is that we get a big chunk of the power grid and communications knocked out. That would be pretty bad for cities, which only have a few days' supply of food and depend on communication and logistics to replenish. It would also be rough on hospitals, since they only have a few days' backup on generators.

        It wouldn't be an apocalypse, but it could put us back almost as badly as having a war or large natural disaster on our soil. Also, it could impact a big chunk of the developed world, which makes it a greater problem than a localized disaster like Katrina.

        Hopefully we will not get hit by one of that magnitude for a while, and hopefully we'll be ready for it by the time another one happens. It's a little like the possibility of a 9+ earthquake in Oregon: there's a fault line there which can do it, but the question is...when...? And as with earthquakes, there are steps we can take to minimize, although not eliminate, the damage.

      sun public domain
      sun public domain

      Solar storm prediction centre

      If you want to find out more about geomagnetic storms - and to always know if there's one in the offing! - check out the best space weather website out there (see the big link below). I have it on my favourites list and visit it pretty much every day. It provides:

      - reliable space weather forecasts

      - detailed info on intensity and character of solar storms when they happen

      - tips for sky gazers (i.e. when there is something worth seeing in the sky, like a meteor shower or an eclipse)

      - beautiful pictures of Northern lights and other astronomical phenomena

      Photo source

      Whichever it is, don't leave without saying 'hi' :)

      Are you worried by solar storms?

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        • CruiseReady profile image

          CruiseReady 5 years ago from East Central Florida

          They happen. Sometimes, there are noticable effects. Just be prepared.

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          anilsaini 5 years ago

          scary part

        • profile image

          crstnblue 5 years ago

          Very good lens on chosen topic.

          Not really afraid of solar storms but certainly they do have impact on us on a larger or smaller scale, even if we are aware about or not.

        • profile image

          JZinoBodyArt 5 years ago

          Great lens!