Awesome Details About the Carrington Event, Most Powerful Solar Storm in History

Solar winds of hot plasma are continuing to whip past the Earth after scientists issued a geomagnetic storm prediction warning over the weekend.

As of late Tuesday morning UTC the solar storm was classed as moderate in strength by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA)—meaning it could potentially set off voltage alarms in power systems based at high latitudes, cause satellites to become confused, and possibly produce northern hemisphere auroras as low as New York and Washington.

The storm has gained much attention over the past day or so, and while it does have the potential to cause some disruption this solar event is not actually a significantly strong one compared to some documented cases.

The solar storm strength scale, known as the K-index, measures disturbances in the Earth's magnetic field and goes from zero to nine. Today's space weather index has peaked at six.

To learn about what a really significant solar storm can do, look no further than the Carrington Event of 1859.

The Carrington Event

The Carrington Event is named after British astronomer Richard Carrington, who was particularly interested in observing the sun, and dark areas on its surface known as sunspots.

On September 1, 1859, Carrington was peering at the sun through a telescope fitted with protective dark filters. Suddenly, he saw a flash of white light from a sunspot.

Within a day, strange things started to happen all over the world. The night sky was suddenly lit up with brilliant colors and dancing lights appeared in the Northern Hemisphere as far south as Panama in Central America.

They were so bright that people were reportedly able to read newspapers by the light of the auroras alone, according to the NOAA.

A number of eyewitness reports were collected and published in a study led by NASA chief scientist James Green in 2006, titled Eyewitness reports of the great auroral storm of 1859.

According to one such U.S. report from the Rocky Mountain Gold Reporter newspaper on September 3, the light began at around 11 p.m.

The eyewitness continued: "About half past eleven it began to assume the appearance of day breaking and in an hour it was almost as light as day, the stars, which before [shone] brightly, being invisible.

"At one o'clock the light began to fade and in an hour the heavens had assumed their usual appearance and the stars [shone] out bright as ever."

Another, from the Washington Daily National Intelligencer on the same day, read: "Large print could no doubt have been easily read, for we can testify that the time on the face of a watch was easily legible."

Communications Breakdown

Elsewhere, the event was causing issues with communication. Telegraph operators were being left with lines that were suddenly useless for around 12 hours.

One newspaper account collected by Green's study claimed that operators in France saw strong sparks fly out when they interrupted a circuit of conducting wire.

Conversely, some people reported being able to talk with one another via telegraph even though batteries were not connected to the wires. People began to link the communication failures with the auroras.

We now know this link existed. The Carrington Event was caused by a massive solar storm, and one that would cause widespread disruption today, considering that fact that our reliance on electronic devices has grown even further.

According to the NOAA, a solar storm on the scale of the Carrington Event today could severely damage satellites, disable communications via telephone, radio and TV and cause electrical blackouts. It's thought such an event could occur once every 500 years or so.

Today, scientists operate satellites such as GOES-16 that have instruments capable of monitoring space weather and the sun in the hope that we can detect an incoming solar storm before it hits—and prepare accordingly.

The sun
A Solar and Heliospheric Observatory image shows the sun with a solar flare on the bottom left from November 2003. The sun sometimes shoots solar winds towards the Earth. NASA / Getty