September 1, 1852, British astronomer Richard Carrington was sketching the pattern of sunspots being projected from his telescope onto a white panel. Suddenly, a rare white-light solar flare outshone the rest of the image. Trouble was on its way!
The revolving molten core of our Earth generates a magnetic field – the magnetosphere – that not only orients our compasses but protects us from the sun’s lethal radiation. Intense charged particles from the sun are magnetically bent around the earth. Some follow magnetic lines into the poles and light up the arctic and antarctic skies as aurorae. Periodically, during times of intense surface disturbance, giant flares of energy can burst out of the sun: CMEs, coronal mass ejections. They’re directional and they seldom hit earth. When they do, the most powerful can punch through our magnetosphere.
On September 2, 1852, Carrington’s flare energy reached the earth and danced along the copper wires of our (then) new telegraph system. Hundreds of miles of wire burst into flames. Telegraph offices burned down, operators at their keys were knocked back by severe shocks, instruments and switches melted. For two days the telegraph system that wasn’t destroyed sent nonsense. Then spectacular aurorae that lit up the skies, they, finally, proved that the sun’s energy was the aurora’s source. Aurorae were seen all over the world, even near the equator. After two days the effects ceased.
Could it happen again? It has. In 1882, a flare melted telegraph equipment in Chicago. In 1902, solar energy disrupted the Atlantic telegraph cable and shut down Swiss electric trollies. In 1940, hundreds of miles of American telegraph and telephone lines were destroyed. A solar flare in 1989 almost forced the Space Shuttle Discovery to return to earth early and knocked out Quebec’s electricity; only quick action in New Jersey, where a major transformer melted, saved the United States’ east coast from a long blackout. In 2003, a powerful flare destroyed or disabled many satellites, damaged instruments on our Mars orbiter, and sent the crew of the International Space Station into its flare-shielded module. In 2005, our GPS navigation satellite constellation was knocked out for 10 minutes.
All the life and energy we have comes from the sun. But that energy, itself, is dangerous. We’re partially protected by our magnetosphere. Hope for the best and reach for the sunscreen.
Adkins new book is about the first drive in an automobile. The wife of the inventor took her kids to see their grandparents.
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