On this day in 1859, a geomagnetic storm blew over the North Pole, causing the Aurora Borealis to shine so bright it was seen clearly over parts of the United States, Europe, and Japan. The event produced a massive solar flare with the energy of 10 billion atomic bombs—the largest on record to have struck the planet.
Starting on 28 August 1859 and continuing until 2 September, observers began noticing numerous sunspots and solar flares on the Sun. Among them was British amateur astronomer Richard Carrington, who was sketching a cluster of these sunspots as seen through his private observatory when “two patches of intensely bright and white light” erupted from the sunspots. The fireballs vanished minutes later in a massive burst of solar wind into the space known as a coronal mass ejection. The superheated, high-energy fireballs were en route to Earth. On 1 and 2 September 1859, the effects of the solar flare were felt on Earth in the form of a massive geomagnetic storm. The magnetic forces caused the Aurora Borealis, or northern lights, to burn so brightly, it was seen around the world, as far south as the Caribbean and as far west as Japan. At this point, telegraph communication began to fail and the sky shone a bright crimson; some thought the world was going to end.
But Carrington understood the true cause of the magnificent event—a massive solar flare that spewed electrified gas and subatomic particles toward Earth, producing a spectacular geomagnetic storm. It became known as the “Carrington Event.” Newspapers around the world, from France to Australia, were filled with vivid accounts of the spectacular celestial light show. The Charleston Mercury newspaper ran this eyewitness account from a woman on Sullivan’s Island in South Carolina: “The eastern sky appeared of a blood red color. It seemed brightest exactly in the east, as though the full moon, or rather the sun, were about to rise. It extended almost to the zenith. The whole island was illuminated. The sea reflected the phenomenon, and no one could look at it without thinking of the passage in the Bible which says, ‘the sea was turned to blood.’ The shells on the beach, reflecting light, resembled coals of fire.”
Aurorae were so bright over Colorado that gold miners in the Rocky Mountains thought it was morning and began working in the middle of the night. Those in the northeastern US reported reading newspapers by the aurora’s bright light. The event caused mayhem for telegraph systems across Europe and North America, however. The intensely magnetized atmosphere meant it was impossible for telegraph operators to transmit or receive dispatches—although some clever operators learned they could unplug their batteries and still transmit messages to Portland, Maine, using only auroral current.
The storm lasted until about 2 September. Ice core samples have determined that it was twice as big as any other solar storm in the last 500 years.
Credit: © Jim Henderson / Alamy
Caption: During the Carrington Event, the Aurora Borealis was seen clearly over parts of the United States, Europe, and Japan.