From time to time, we read or hear some sort of warning about how vulnerable today’s electronic infrastructure is to electromotive force (EMF). Sometimes, the warning entails some sort of enemy nuclear burst over North America. The ensuing high energy, high frequency energy will disable every electronic device on the continent. Our computers, phones, televisions, radios and many appliances would be useless. Worse, the electrical grids would be crippled along with most of the utilities we depend upon.
There is an old example of a similar problem happening 144 years ago. 33-year-old amateur astronomer, Richard Carrington of England. was performing his routine morning observations of the sun, on September 1, 1859. His solar telescope projected its eleven-inch diameter image onto a surface onto which Carrington sketched sunspots.
While he worked, Carrington saw two very bright spots of light within a large sunspot grouping. The brightness increased quickly in luminescence and size. It was at least twice as brilliant as the sun usually is. The huge flare peaked in intensity, then shrunk to simple pinpoints of light and disappeared. All of this happened within a duration of about five-minutes.
The amateur astronomer didn’t exactly know the importance of what he had just witnessed. His five years of experience with solar observations, though, taught him that what he saw was unprecedented. By the evening of September 1st and early morning of the 2nd, Carrington soon began to understand that something very important was happening.
He and the rest of the world saw the most brilliant auroras (northern and southern lights) that had ever been seen in recorded history. The New York Times reported that the sky was filled with abundant “clouds of color” that were of a beautiful shade of pink. Colors “shot across one another, intermingling and deepening until the sky was painfully lurid.” People who were awake could read books by the light of the auroras alone. The electromagnetic display was seen in such places as Hawai’i and Cuba.
At the same time, the fledgling communications network of telegraphy went haywire. Telegraph systems in North America and Europe failed. Sometimes the operators suffered severe shocks. The telegraph poles threw off sparks, in some places the sparks ignited fires.
All the operators could do was to disconnect the batteries from the circuits. Amazingly, they were able to send and receive messages by working with the atmospheric current alone.
Considering the sum of unprecedented events, September 2nd, 1859 was possibly the most peculiar day ever experienced in history. At the end of it all, nobody had much of a clue as to exactly what had happened. There were a scant few astronomers and engineers who had even a faint understanding that there is an intimate relationship between solar flares and the earth’s magnetic fields. That knowledge was only shared amongst a select few scientists of the day.
Today’s scientists have been able to piece together the how and why of that day’s weird events. David Hathaway, one of NASA’s solar astronomers, says that the magnetic explosion gave off the equivalent energy of about 10,000,000 atomic bombs within less than two hours.
In what has been named the “Carrington Flare”, an important realization was made. For the first time in history, astronomers had absolute evidence that forces other than gravity could communicate or manifest across many millions of miles of outer space. Carrington’s observation and subsequent analyses by him and his fellow astronomers mark the birth of modern astronomical science.
The old, standard hypothesis tendered by Lord Kelvin that the sun could never deliver such a level of energy to Earth was made obsolete that day. The establishment view went down in flames. Over the years continued observations shifted the understanding that the sun was responsible for geomagnetic disturbances and storms. The other lesson, that of damage to electrical and electronic equipment, was pushed back into obscurity.
The potential for electronic harm came to light on a Bell Telephone telephone line from San Francisco to Chicago. On August 4, 1972 that line was knocked out. Their investigations led Bell Lab scientists to auroral current and the Carrington Flare.
Within more recent memory, there are the Northeast United States and Southeast Canadian power blackouts. A significant blackout occured in 1965 and a more serious one happened in 2003. Both have been attributed to EMF from extreme solar activity.
At most severe risk these days is our interconnected network of Extra-High-Voltage (EHV) transformers. They run at 345,000 volts and more. There are several of these specialized transformers across the nation’s grid. If any of these EHV transformers were to get damaged, it would take years to get the system back up to speed. To replace even one of those units requires at least one year for delivery. If the entire grid melted down, it’s unknown what sort of delivery time from India and China would be. Due to the worldwide systems of grids, it’s unknown whether or not any grid could function on a primitive scale at all.
The United States and the rest of Western Civilization are not ready for another electromagnetic storm like that of September 2, 1859. If another one happens soon, the consequences would be dangerous and crippling. Can you imagine yourself without any electricity? Can you imagine the nation and world without the services of the electric grids?
It wouldn’t take very long to find out.
The Blue Jay of Happiness wishes there had been color photography in use in 1859.