The Solar Storm of 1859- The1859 Solar Superstorm-The Carrington Event
was a powerful solar storm in 1859 during solar cycle 10. It produced the largest known solar flare, which was observed and recorded by Richard C. Carrington.
What did Richard Carrington see in 1859?
Way back before we had the Internet and telephones and electrical wiring – more than 150 years ago – scientists learned how solar flares can play havoc with manmade technologies. They also connected solar flares to the fantastic displays of auroral light, usually seen only at far northern and southern latitudes. And this discovery was completely by accident.
Englishman Richard Carrington is credited with the key observation in 1859 that connected solar flares with communications disruptions as well as the aurora borealis. Carrington was a wealthy astronomer who dutifully recorded sunspots in his observatory at his estate in Redhill not far from London.
His father owned the Royal Brewery in a nearby town and had urged his son to attend seminary. Carrington, however, was more interested in math and astronomy. After completing his studies at Trinity College, he went to work at the University of Durham observatory. After three years there, he was frustrated with the university’s inability to purchase new instruments for the observatory. In 1852, he decided to resign and use his family’s wealth to build his own house with an attached observatory and state-of-the-art telescope.
He completed his observatory in 1854, employed an assistant, and worked on cataloging stars. One project, a catalog of circumpolar stars, earned him a gold medal from the Royal Astronomical Society in 1859. But he was also interested in the sun.
Astronomer Richard Carrington’s original hand drawing of the solar flare he observed on Sept. 1, 1859. Points A and B indicate where the flares broke out. Points C and D indicate where they faded out. The darkened areas show sunspots.
(Credit: Originally publisehd by the British Royal Astronomical Society; provided by the NASA Astrophysics Data System.)
The Carrington Event
Working away in his observatory on Sept. 1, 1859, Carrington was doing one of the most mundane things that scientists do – collecting data – when a massive solar flare exploded. He was lucky enough to be in the right place at the right time, and so this first human-observed solar flare is known as the Carrington Event.
Lacking anything like an X-ray telescope, which modern astronomers use to study the sun, he worked by projecting an image of the sun from his optical telescope onto a large white screen. Looking at the sun directly through the telescope could have damaged his eyes. The shadows of crossed wires on the screen allowed him to time the transit of sunspots across the surface of the sun.
We know now that sunspots are caused by intense magnetic activity, but in 1859, the nature of these darks spots on the bright surface of the sun was not well understood. Nonetheless, Carrington recorded the date and time that sunspot images intersected with the shadows of his wires. He also drew diagrams of the spots he observed.
On Sept. 1, Carrington “was engaged at the time in counting from a chronometer and recording the contacts of the spots with cross-wires used in the observation, when…two patches of intensely bright light broke out,” according to a paper he published later in the Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society. These patches of light quickly intensified.
Carrington’s first thought, he wrote, was that light had penetrated a hole in his screen. But, as the bright light moved with the sunspot image, he realized there was no hole in his screen.
“I thereupon noted down the time by the chronometer, and seeing the outburst to be very rapidly on the increase, and being somewhat flurried by the surprise, I hastily ran to call someone to witness the exhibition with me, and on returning within 60 seconds, was mortified to find that it was already much changed and enfeebled. Very shortly afterwards the last trace was gone,” he wrote in his journal article.
Accidental observation leads to discovery
Carrington’s careful observations and data collection are what enabled scientists to connect the solar flare to the surprising events that followed on its heels. Since 1859, scientists have observed thousands of solar flares, but none have matched the intensity of the Carrington Event. Carrington’s observations also opened many new questions for astronomers. Much of what we know now about how solar flares interact with the Earth’s atmosphere and magnetic field started with those questions.
Within 18 hours of
Carrington’s solar flare, Earth was engulfed in perhaps the largest
geomagnetic storm ever, which sent compass needles swinging erratically
and lit the skies with shimmering auroras.
Howard Singer, Ph.D., chief scientist in the NOAA Space Weather Prediction Center’s Space Weather Services Branch, explains that fast-moving energetic particles and slower-moving solar matter erupt from the sun’s atmosphere during a solar flare. The solar matter thrown into space is known as a coronal mass ejection, or CME.
“It’s like a blob of material exploding out into the solar wind and travelling as much as five or six times faster than the typical background solar wind,” Singer says.
When a CME hits the Earth’s magnetopause — the boundary between Earth’s magnetic field and the solar wind — interactions between solar matter and Earth’s own magnetic fields cause a geomagnetic storm. These storms can interfere with our power grids and communication and navigation systems. Interference can range from minor to extreme, depending on the intensity of the storm.
Telegraphs go down, skies light up
In 1859, there were no power grids, and our only telecommunication system was the telegraph. But the solar storm had its impacts even then. Telegraph operators were among the first to notice the effects of the massive solar flare and subsequent geomagnetic storm. Operators in North America and Europe were unable to send messages. Some received electric shocks from their equipment. In some cases, sparks set paper near the telegraph ablaze.
Singer has an historical
record of messages between two operators in Boston and Portland:
Boston (to Portland
operator) – “Please cut off your battery entirely from the line for
With solar matter crashing around the Earth’s magnetic field, like rough surf around a ship’s bow, the 1859 solar storm also pushed the visible range of the aurora borealis as far south as the Caribbean. Newspaper accounts captured what people saw in the night sky:
“Early in the evening from the east there came a faint light, like that preceding the rising moon, while in the west a delicate crimson seemed to be thrown upwards, as if from the sun, long since gone down,” reported the Cincinnati Daily Commercial on Sept. 1, 1859. “Later, these strange fires overran the entire heavens – now separating into streamers, gathered at the zenith, and forming a glorious canopy – then spreading evenly like a vapor, shedding on all things a soft radiance.”
The New Orleans Daily Picayune reported on Aug. 29, 1859, that crowds gathered on street corners to watch the aurora. Some feared that it was a warning of an impending disaster or epidemic. People in Boston assumed that their sky had reddened due to a fire until the red color changed to green spires of light, according to the Boston Transcript on Sept. 5, 1859.
August 28 - September 2,
1859 - The Storm of 1859 was the first event recorded by humans from a
truly global perspective, not to be repeated until the eruption of
Krakatoa in 1883 turned the sunsets red and crimson the world-over.
Newspapers such as the New York Times were active in running extensive
stories about the 1859 solar storm, and collecting reports from other
countries. The great geomagnetic storm of 1859 is really composed of two
closely spaced massive worldwide auroral events. The first event began on
August 28th and the second began on September 2nd. It is the storm on
September 2nd that results from the Carrington-Hodgson white light flare
that occurred on the sun September 1st.
"The Aurora Borealis"-From twilight until ten o'clock last night the whole heavens were lighted by the aurora borealis, more brilliant and beautiful than had been witnessed for years before….The light streaks shot upwards from the horizon and varied in width and length, and changed as long as the phenomenon was visible. It was a grand sight, and was witnessed by thousands of persons, many of whom never saw the like before. [The Baltimore Sun, , 1859, p.1 ]
A brilliant display of Northern lights was witnessed from 8 o'clock to half-past 9 last night. The glare in the northern sky, previous to defining itself into the well-known features of the Aurora Borealis was sufficiently vivid to call out some of the fire companies. [The Evening Star (Washington DC]
'The City' Change of Weather '…Towards half past eight o'clock a singular phenomenon took place. The horizon from north to north east became of a deep crimson hue, which expanding slowly, made the sky appear as if lighted by a Bengal fire…At first it was supposed that some great conflagration had taken place on the outskirts of the city, but it was soon recognized that no natural firs could produce this particular hue…Crowds of people gathered at the street corners, admiring and commenting upon the singular spectacle. Many took it to be the sign of some great disaster or important event, siting numerous instances when such warnings have been given. Several old women were nearly frightened to death, thinking it announced the end of the world, and immediately took to saying their prayers. A fat old citizen tremblingly stated that this was the avant courier of a dreadful epidemic like cholera of 1833, whilst a French gentleman pooh-poohed, and gravely assured us that this was the well known sign of a revolution in Paris, requesting us to make a note of the date. [New Orleans Daily Picayune, p.5]
"Aurora Borealis" - Early this morning, between twelve and one, a most brilliant display of the above phenomenon was observed extending from the western hemisphere to the north-west, north and north-east, and reaching to the zenith. The appearance in the west was that of a large fire, but in the north and north-east it was of a violet colour, and with great brilliancy. This beautiful display lasted for about an hour, and then gradually died away, leaving a serene and unclouded autumnal sky. [The London Daily News. P. 2, ]
"Aurora Borealis" - For the first time in several years we had last night a grand exhibition of the 'Northern Lights'. The first appearance was at five minutes past nine o'clock as told by the fire watchman on the roof of the City Hall. The greatest illumination was at about twenty minutes before ten o'clock, when the light was so brilliant that it shone on Telegraph Hill and the upper story and cupola of Wright's building like the reflection of an extensive conflagration. The light, or rather columns of light, were of a deep red hue, and at one time extended from the horizon almost to the zenith. It was a magnificent sight - quite superior to the Chinese fire exhibitions in the theater.[[San Francisco Daily National p. 2]
'Local Matters', The aurora borealis gave on Sunday night one of the most brilliant exhibitions ever observed in this latitude by the oldest inhabitants. The display commenced at soon after eight o'clock in the evening, and continued..till daylight….Altogether it was an unusually interesting specimin of a phenomenon as yet imperfectly understood. It left us a pleasant and bracing northwest wind and ushered in a beautiful day. [Washington Daily National Intelligencer, p.1]
Singular Effect of the Uarora Borealis on the Telegraph Wires. New York. August 29, The Superintendent of the Canadian Telegraph Company's line telegraphs as follows in relation to the effect of the Aurora Borealis last night: '…so completely were the wires under the influence of the Aurora Borealis, that it was found utterly impossible to communicate between the telegraph stations, and the line had to be closed.' The same difficulty prevailed as far South as Washington. [Chicago Tribune, p.4]
Aurora Borealis. Yesterday morning a most brilliant display of aurora borealis was visible from soon after twelve o'clock until daylight. Vivid streams of light shot up from the horizon in the north, extending from east and west, which were at times red, and presented the appearance of the reflection from a large fire. The atmosphere was so strongly illuminated that it appeared as if the moon were shining, and rays of light, resembling the rays from the sun as reflected upwards from the back of a cloud, continued to be brilliantly visible during the whole time. The sky was remarkable clear, and the stars shone with as brilliancy that is unusual even in winter. [The London Morning Post, p. 3.]
The Northern Light. Sunday
evening our citizens witnessed a beautiful Aurora Borealis. The whole
northern havens[sic] were illuminated with brilliant radiations of
different colored lights. The streets were lighted up quite bright by
them, and the spectacle was a splendid one. [Daily Morning News -
Davenport Iowa, p. 1]
'The Electrical Light' [exerpted from the New York Express] The light in the heavens on Sunday night is noted in all directions..The crown above, indeed, seemed like a thrown of silver, purple and crimson being and spread out with curtains or wings of dazzeling beauty. Never did the heavens seem to be more the work of the Creator, nor the sublimest work of art sink in comparison so far beneath the wondrous skill and power of the Architect of the Heavens. The tremulous motion of moving light, which the inhabitants of the Shetland Islands call the 'merry dancers' was less apparent than usual, but in place of it came those, full, bright, changing, but more steady streams of light, which gave the intense brilliancy to the whole heavens. [Washington Daily National Inteligencer, p.2??,]
Northern Lights. On Sunday
evening the 28th there was a beautiful and grand display of aurora
borealis which lighted up the northern hemisphere majestically and caused
many inquiries in the mind of those who witnessed the phenomenon as to the
cause which produced it. Much has been said and written on the subject by
men who consider themselves learned and wise, but no one unaided by the
light of eternal truth, has been or ever will be able to solve the
apparent mystery of these remarkable appearances in the heavens, which as
many believe, never occurred till after the Ten Tribes of Israel went into
the north countries. [The Deseret News, Salt Lake City, p.1]
The Aurora Borealis. Our
exchanges very generally speak of the Aurora Borealis which came off on
Sunday night last, and unanimously agree in opinion that it was superior
in extent and brilliancy to anything of the kind that has been seen in
this country for many years. The Superintendent of the Canadian Telegraph
Company's lines telegraphs as follows in reference to it: 'I never, in my
experience of fifteen years in the working of telegraph lines, witnessed
anything like the extraordinary effect of the Aurora Borealis between
Quebec and Farther Point last night..' [The Evening Star p. 3, ]
…At all events, we know of
no known cause that would produce such celerity of motion as these merry
dancers seemed to have, unless it be galvanism and not electricity…[Boston
Transcript, Monday, August 29, 1859].
…During the first display
the whole of the northern hemisphere was as light as though the sun had
set an hour before, and luminous waves rolled up in quick succession as
far as the zenith, some a brilliancy sufficient to cast a perceptible
shadow on the ground…[The Times London, September 6, 1859].
…"The auroral light
sometimes is composed of threads like the silken warp of a web; these
sometimes become broken, and fall to the earth…[Providence Daily Post,
Rode Island, September 3, 1859].
…On the night of [September 1] we were high up on the Rocky Mountains sleeping in the open air. A little after midnight we were awakened by the auroral light, so bright that one could easily read common print. Some of the party insisted that it was daylight and began the preparation of breakfast. The light continued until morning, varying in intensity in different parts of the heavens, and slowly changing position. We can best describe it as the sky being overcast with very light cirrus clouds, wafted before a gentle breeze, and lighted up by an immense conflagration. It had rained for fifty hours before, only ceasing about twelve hours before the auroral light' [Rocky Mountain News, September 17, 1859]
…It is an indisputable fact
that old topers, wholesale consumers of the alcoholic fluid, whose
capacious stomachs could retain an enormous quantity of the "creature"
without their heads or legs being in the least affected by it, have fallen
dead drunk last night and last Sunday night, before they had imbibed their
regular allowance, and through no other cause than the mysterious
influence upon their system of the unexplained electrical phenomenon,
shining overhead…[New Orleans Daily Picayune, September 3, 1859].
…The telegraph operators
throughout the east report a very brilliant display of auroral light,
which though very fine to look at, has as usual greatly hindered the
transmission of messages over the wires…[Philadelphia North American &
United States Gazette, Monday Morning, Aug. 29, 1859].
…Who now will dispute the
theory that the Aurora Borealis is caused by electricity…[Washington
Evening Star News, September 2, 1859].
…Friday morning last, the morning of the last auroral borealis, the operators of the National Telegraph office in Washington City found, on going to their business, a series of electrical currents, entirely independent of the batteries, in possession of the wires. These currents seem to have been manageable, for the operators actually went to work and send messages from New York to Pittsburg, PA., correctly without the use of a particle of galvanic battery, using this independent electricity of the air in the place of that supplied by the ordinary batteries…[New Orleans Daily Picayune, September 9, 1859].
In addition to the
technological issues posed by these 'earth currents' entering the
telegraph lines, was the very real potential for direct human injury. The
most spectacular, and now legendary, story is told by Frederick Royce: a
telegraph operator working in Washington DC. at his station between 8 and
10 PM. " I did not know that the Aurora had made its appearance until 8 or
81/2 o'clock. I had been working 'combination' to Richmond, and had great
difficulty from the changing of the current. It seemed as if there was a
storm at 'Richmond'. Concluding that this was the case, I abandoned that
wire and tried to work the Northern wire, but met with the same
difficulty. For five or ten minutes I would have no trouble, then the
current would change and become so weak that it could hardly be felt. It
would then gradually change to a 'ground' so strong that I could not lift
the magnet. While the Aurora lasted the same phenomena were observable.
There was no rattling or cracking of the magnet, as is the case in a
thunder storm. I looked at the paper between the arrestors, but found no
holes. Philadelphia divided the circuit at the request of New York, and we
succeeded in getting off what business we had. The Aurora disappeared a
little after 10 o'clock - after which we had no difficulty, and we worked
through to New York. During the display I was calling Richmond, and had
one hand on the iron plate. Happening to lean towards the sounder, which
is against the wall, my forehead grazed a ground-wire which runs down the
wall near the sounder. Immediately, I received a very severe electric
shock, which stunned me for an instant. An old man who was sitting facing
me, and but a few feet distant, said that he saw a spark of fire jump from
my forehead to the sounder. The Morse line experienced the same difficulty
in working." [New York Times, Sept. 5, 1859]
…Crowds of people gathered
at the street corners, admiring and commenting upon the singular
spectacle. Many took it to be a sign of some great disaster or important
event, citing numerous instances when such warnings have been given…[New
Orleans Daily Picayune, Monday, August 29, 1859].
…O ye wonderful shapes
The Columbus, Ohio Statesman newspaper had run a short article about a sixteen year old girl ' of considerable intelligence and prepossessing appearance', who had been taken into custody by the Sheriff of Ottawa County. Her agitated state necessitated that she be moved to the lunatic asylum. The conclusion drawn from this, and no doubt her utterances, implied that she had become deranged from viewing the aurora borealis a short time ago. She was convinced that all of this spectacular auroral activity meant that the world was soon to come to an end. [Harpers Weekly, October 8, 1859]
…The influence of the Aurora Borealis has been felt in the Garden District. We see in the police reports, this morning, that several denizens of that delightful spot have been found drunk --- many under a strange delusion, having taken the gutter for their own comfortable beds…[The New Orleans Daily Picayune, Wednesday, September 7, 1859].
Richard Carrington’s paper in the Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society
Credit: NOAA, NASA Trudy E. Bell & Dr. Tony Phillips,Royal Astronomical Society