The Carrington Event

The Carrington Event
by Paul McLellan on 08-05-2014 at 7:01 am

 Back in the pre-SemiWiki days when I had the EdaGrafitti blog I wrote about the Carrington event. This was a solar storm in 1859 that lasted for several days. On September 1st there was a coronal mass ejection (CME) traveling directly towards earth. Normally such an event would take several days to reach earth but an earlier ejection had cleaned out all the ions in space and it took less than a day to get here. It was the biggest electrical storm in recorded history. People got up thinking it was daylight. Aurora Borealis (Northern Lights) were seen as far south as the Caribbean and Hawaii. Telegraph systems failed, in some cases shocking their operators and in other cases having enough power to continue functioning even though they were turned off.

Of course we didn’t have electronics in those days. So what would happen today? In fact the reason I’m writing this now is that we had a near miss a few weeks ago. An event like this has the potential to knock out satellites, kill the power grid, and maybe kill anything connected to it. There was a huge CME but luckily not pointed towards earth. If it had happened a week later we would have been in the cross-wires pointed straight towards us. Carrington II.

Solar flares go in an 11-year cycle, aka the sunspot cycle. The peak of the current cycle is pretty much now. This cycle is unusual for its low number of sunspots and there are predictions that we could be in for an extended period of low activity like the Maunder minimum from 1645-1715 (the little ice age when the Thames froze every winter) or the Dalton minimum from 1790-1830 (where the world was also a couple of degrees colder than normal). This might (or might not) be connected to why there has been no global warming for 17 years despite the huge increase in carbon dioxide. But for electronics, the important thing is the effect of CME which seems to cause solar flares (although the connection isn’t completely understood). Obviously the most vulnerable objects are satellites since they lack protection from the earth’s magnetic field but power grids are also especially vulnerable because their long wires are perfect for concentrating the electrical pulse. There seems to be an event like this about every 150 years which means we are overdue.

In 1859 telegraph systems were down for a couple of days and people got to watch some interesting stuff in the sky. But from a NASA conference a couple of years ago in Washington looking at what would happen if another Carrington Event occured:The situation would be more serious. An avalanche of blackouts carried across continents by long-distance power lines could last for weeks to months as engineers struggle to repair damaged transformers. Planes and ships couldn’t trust GPS units for navigation. Banking and financial networks might go offline, disrupting commerce in a way unique to the Information Age. According to a 2008 report from the National Academy of Sciences, a century-class solar storm could have the economic impact of 20 hurricane Katrinas.

Actually it sounds worse to me. This is the result of a much smaller event:In March of 1989, a severe solar storm induced powerful electric currents in grid wiring that fried a main power transformer in the HydroQuebec system, causing a cascading grid failure that knocked out power to 6 million customers for nine hours while also damaging similar transformers in New Jersey and the United Kingdom.

Wow. Doesn’t sound good, does it? Imagine that scaled up an order of magnitude. Lloyds (the London insurers) reckon the cost for a similar event could be $2.6T.

Here is a video from the University of Bristol (in England) about the cover story on Physics World, which covers solar super-storms.


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