In the late summer of 1859, the sky above Earth witnessed a mysterious cosmic drama that would, unbeknownst to observers of the time, foreshadow a modern-day threat of an ‘Internet Apocalypse’.
This celestial event, first spotted by astronomers like Richard Carrington, hinted at the sun’s unpredictable power and its potential to disrupt our technologically driven world in ways previously unimaginable.
The Flash that Changed Everything
On September 1st, 1859, as Carrington sketched the sunspots (ref), he was blinded by a sudden, intense flash of light. Initially believing his equipment had malfunctioned, he soon realized the bright spots remained.
This flash was the first sighting of a major coronal mass ejection (CME) – a massive burst of magnetized plasma from the sun’s corona.
Unbeknownst to Carrington, this colossal wave of energy was hurtling towards Earth at an unprecedented speed.
The Night the Sky Lit Up
Just 17.5 hours after the CME, the plasma collided with Earth, sparking the most severe geomagnetic storm in recorded history.
Auroras, typically confined to polar regions, were seen as far south as the Caribbean.
The skies over the Rocky Mountains glowed so brightly that gold miners awoke, mistaking the auroras for dawn.
But the beauty of these lights belied a more sinister effect: the storm wreaked havoc on the electrical systems of the time, causing telegraph pylons to spark and, in some cases, electrocute their operators.
The Carrington Event
This event, now known as the Carrington Event (ref), was a stark reminder of our vulnerability to the sun’s whims.
The energy released was estimated to be equivalent to 10 billion megatons of TNT. If a similar event occurred today, the consequences could be catastrophic, potentially inducing an “internet apocalypse” by damaging the undersea cables that carry much of the world’s internet traffic.
Researchers from Lloyd’s of London and the Atmospheric and Environmental Research Agency in the U.S. have estimated that a Carrington-class event today would result in between $0.6 and $2.6 trillion in damages to the U.S. alone (ref).
With our increasing reliance on technology, the impact would be felt globally, disrupting communications, navigation, and even essential services like power distribution.
As we approach the next solar maximum in 2025 (ref), understanding and preparing for such solar phenomena has never been more critical.
Understanding Solar Storms
To comprehend the potential impact of a future Carrington-like event, we must delve into the science of solar storms. These storms demonstrate Faraday’s law (ref) on a grand scale, showing how a changing magnetic field can induce a local electric field.
As the charged plasma of a solar storm distorts Earth’s magnetic field, it can induce large voltages in electrical systems, potentially short-circuiting or destroying electronics.
The most vulnerable infrastructure includes the undersea cables essential for global internet connectivity (ref).
A Solar Roulette
Studies indicate that the probability of a Carrington-like event occurring in the next decade is between 0.46% and 1.88% (ref), significantly lower than previously reported.
This estimation is based on a Weibull counting process (PDF), which diverges from the traditional homogeneous Poisson process assumption and provides a more nuanced understanding of solar storm frequencies.
Despite the seemingly low probability, the unpredictable nature of solar activity and the recent history of “once in a lifetime” events suggest we cannot afford complacency.
As we approach a period of increased solar activity, vigilance and preparedness for a significant solar storm remain paramount.
The Carrington Event is a powerful reminder of our planet’s fragility in the face of cosmic forces. Our understanding and preparedness for such solar phenomena must also advance as we advance technologically.
Martha A. Lavallie
Martha is a journalist with close to a decade of experience in uncovering and reporting on the most compelling stories of our time. Passionate about staying ahead of the curve, she specializes in shedding light on trending topics and captivating global narratives. Her insightful articles have garnered acclaim, making her a trusted voice in today's dynamic media landscape.