The Carrington Event And Its Effects On The UK

15th Aug 2022
The Carrington Event And Its Effects On The UK

On 1st September 1859, Richard Carrington recorded that he had seen “patches of intensely bright and white light”. It looked like they were coming from sun spots on the solar surface. Carrington was an amateur astronomer, quick to spot the event and document it as best as was possible in 1859. It wasn’t long before the rest of the world would start to see the impact of the solar flares.

Irregularities were recorded from 27th August to 7th September. Stunning magnetograms showing the force and unpredictability of these storms are available to view here. The solar flares made for a spectacular light show across the UK. It was reported in Suffolk and other counties further south, too.

In The Papers

The Belfast Evening News published a characterful review of the resulting Northern Lights. The were only the start to the strange events of the evening of 1st September:

“The interesting phenomenon commenced shortly after daylight had left the sky, when broad bands of light were observed to embrace the whole of the northern horizon, gradually accumulating, and, in a short time, darting sharp-pointed spires of trembling but bright light up towards the zenith. As the evening advanced, the appearance became more extended, and very beautiful, the whole of the northern heavens being illuminated by dancing masses of bright light in all cases shooting up towards the zenith.”

The Northern Lights were visible across the world that day, reported as visible in Cuba and Honolulu. The Southern Lights were visible in Santiago, Chile.

Electricity may have been in its relative infancy, but at the time, newspapers in particular relied largely on wired telegraphs for communication systems. These were a way to transport messages more quickly than physically sending them. Newspapers already relied on them as a way to spread breaking news. 

The London Stock Exchange recognized how difficult this made things. Their description of the “earth events” showed just how little was known about what was actually happening:

“Owing to the state of the atmosphere, and the prevalence of what are known as “earth currents,” the telegraphic wires were unable to work from an early hour this morning. We are necessarily curtailed of the greater portion of our ordinary supply of intelligence through this channel.”

Similar reports owing to the irregularities in the magnetic field were reported across the pond in America. For one, The New York Times reported that they could not receive messages from Washington using their telegraph system.

The Role of Amateurs

Fascinatingly, when we look back at this era, it foreshadows the scientific discoveries that followed. Some of the speculation about the causes of The Carrington Event now seem comical. People were blaming this on the effects of potential natural disasters such as volcano eruptions. Without the knowledge we have now, you can see how this may have been speculated upon.

Carrington himself watching the sun at the right time was partially luck. However, he had been recording his observations regarding spots on the face of the sun from 1853 onwards. A fellow astronomer by the name of Richard Hodgson had seen the flare that Carrington described. This was linked to the records of Balfour Stewart, a physicist working at the Kew Observatory. He had recorded a magnetic crochet, which is a phenomenon that causes a hook shape in the magnetic records.

It seemed that this was all one solar event, but it was virtually impossible to understand at the time. Fortunately, these scientists and amateur astronomers would play a big part in the understanding garnered on solar storms and flares.

That households and businesses were not relying on electricity and communications to the extent seen now limited the disruption. However, society currently relies far more on services that would be affected.

What if The Carrington Event Happened Today?

“The current government plan is completely hopeless. If that happens then we’re all going to be in a worse situation than Covid.”

These are the words of Dominic Cummings, speaking about the UK Government’s lack of preparedness regarding solar weather. He was presenting to a parliamentary session discussing the lack of pandemic planning in the UK, and perhaps his nervous disposition regarding a potential modern-day “Carrington Event” is justified.

In fact, the speculation regarding what a large solar flare would look like paints a “dystopian future” picture.

GPS systems would stop functioning. The effect of this is far more than just having to learn to read a map again. GPS drives shipping and even plane travel and could cause potential catastrophic events.

Satellites being out of action also means that communication signals would be routed back to things like terrestrial cables, and simply not be able to handle modern demands, but this is not just talking about whether or not you can watch Netflix. Card transactions, online banking, and more could completely fail along with servers for huge websites and communication platforms.

Though electricity was limited in 1859, the event led to electrical sparks flying, and saw the telegraph operators working without the need for any battery power. A surge on this level would blow any number of power stations. The world could go dark in virtually no time. Outages require a lot of time and effort to fix. By this time, who knows what sort of state the world could be in. Hospital equipment, fuel supplies…the whole world could be impacted.

How Likely is it That We Will See Another “Carrington” Event?

This isn’t unprecedented. In the grand scheme of space and time, the years passed since the Carrington Event is effectively the blink of an eye. Solar flares and space weather alerts are common, and while the strength and severity of the 1859 flare may have been extreme, it may not be too long until we see another of similar impact. 

One study, by Pete RIley, claimed that the odds of a solar flare of Carrington Event severity hitting the earth in the next 10 years was 12%. Those 10 years have now passed, but the odds of a Carrington Event over the next decade will no doubt be similar. 

The worst of the emissions from the solar storm could take almost a full day to reach us, according to Rodney Viereck from the Space Weather Prediction Center. This means that we would have some time to prepare, and spread the message about what was happening. Fears of societal breakdown may not be called for, but the impacts would inevitably be felt for decades.

It’s not light reading, but a deeper understanding means potential preparedness. It’s not time to count your tins of butter beans and prepare for end times, but as Dominic Cummings alluded to, it could be time for a better crisis plan to be put in place.

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