A Carrington Event(ually) Will Happen

My absence caused me to miss an anniversary at the start of September: the Carrington Event of 1859 (CE, for short), when a coronal mass ejection or solar flare hit the Earth.

Sunspots are a cyclical event on the sun, with a period of seven to eleven years.  The more there are, the higher rate of plasma emissions which affects our atmosphere.  Over longer periods, the sun emits a large solar flare of ionizing radation, one of which began on August 28, 1859.

I once lived 800km of the Arctic Circle (1991) and saw the Aurora Borealis (*) during the Autumn Equinox.  Of all the human-made light shows and fireworks display that I have witnessed, none of them has yet to match what I saw over several nights in complete silence.  The night skies were bright enough to read books, and the displays went on for hours over the course of a few nights.  And yet by the descriptions of the Carrington Event, what I saw was barely a fraction of what people witnessed around the world for almost a week, both night time and day.

(* That video is the only one I could find that had natural sounds and wasn’t ruined by background music.)

In 1859, the only commonplace and major use for electricity was telegraph operation.  When the CE hit, telegraph operators reported burns to their fingers from their equipment.  After removing the batteries, they were able to transmit messages for several days without any human-built source of energy to power them.  It was the only effect then on industrial revolution machinery.

Imagine what would happen to our modern electrical systems if another CE or larger solar storm hit us and we didn’t prepare or shut down our electrical grids in time.  They might all break down, burn, or explode and take years to repair.  Our modern way of life would come to a complete standstill.  Imagine the Northeast blackout of 1965 or the North American Ice Storm of 1998 carrying on for years.

History.com: A Perfect Solar Superstorm: The 1859 Carrington Event

National Geographic: What If the Biggest Solar Storm on Record Happened Today?

Earthsky.org: How likely is another Carrington Event?

Scientific American: New Studies Warn of Cataclysmic Solar Superstorms

The video below (made in March 2021) tells the story well, but misses a key detail.  (“Fascinating Horror” channel’s stories are generally well researched and told, and are never gratuitous when discussing people’s deaths, even in small numbers.)  The narrator tells how solar flares on the scale of the CE happen approximately every 150 years, and says that “we are overdue”.

He apparently missed or didn’t include the solar flare of 2012 (nor the 1972 event or others) which passed through our orbit but missed the Earth by nine days.  That makes it 152 years between such events, which means we should be safe for a while.  Or maybe not.



Interestingly, the Carrington Event came ten years from midway between the Mount Tambora eruption of 1815 (the “Year Without a Summer”) and the Krakatoa eruption of 1883.  Many millions of people worldwide likely witnessed two of those events, a few perhaps lived through all three.  It’s strange how those almost seem the defining natural disasters of the 19th century (before the majority of people lived in cities), while the 20th and 21st centuries are defined by meteor strikes (the Tunguska Event and Chelyabinsk Meteor) and by major earthquakes and tsunamis around the world.




  1. GerrardOfTitanServer says

    My understanding is that the critical component is certain very large transformers. Those would be toast, and we don’t have enough in reserve, and we don’t have enough manufacturing capacity to replace them quickly. We should have a much larger reserve of these things.

  2. Callinectes says

    Would such an event affect all unshielded electronic equipment (and metal generally) by generating charge like an aerial, or only stuff connected to the grid at the time? A stockpile of spare transformers wouldn’t help if the spares all blow at the same time.

  3. lorn says

    As with EMPs the effect is highly variable by location and almost completely unknown. Yes, it could be, potentially, catastrophic. That said there are already a lot of protections in place. MOVs, Schottky diodes, spark gaps and chokes work pretty well limiting damage from lightning strikes. Shielding on communications cables, unknown in the 1800s, is fairly robust.

    Claims of widespread damage to vehicles by an EMP have been shown to be largely false. The military has testing facilities and cars inadvertently exposed to intense pulses had no problems starting or running. And, of course, fiber optic lines will likely be immune.

    Fact is we just don’t know. Some things lend hope, like the move away from CMOS chips, and incorporation of protective features on most boards. Generally unless a lighting bolt interacts directly with a circuit the device tends to survive. As an electrician I sometimes deal with damage done by lightning strikes. Most cell towers are pretty well protected from them. I’ve seen MOVs the size of bricks partially vaporized by massive direct hits on the tower. The protective array of quick acting fuses, MOVs and Schottky diodes was destroyed, the heavy steel case contained the explosions, but once replaced everything worked. They even had a spare on hand.

    Is any of this applicable to a Carrington event? Some engineers and physicists think it might not be so bad. A lot depends on exactly how intense and enduring the CE is. Others are thinking in terms of TEOTWAWKI.

    Personally, I’m thinking moderate damage. People too quickly forget that a hurricane that stayed offshore caused damage up the east coast that kept some people in the dark for a month. It may indeed take a few months to restore some lines, power and communications. But most people will be back on in under a week. Most networks will have to be reset but most will work well enough after being reset.

    That said batteries, solar panels, even generators, stored unconnected and shielded and shorted with resistors, according to people who I trust, should remain operable after a CE as long as they are only hooked up after the event has passed.

    A few KW of generation and solar power, just enough for a few essentials might be a great advantage.

    This is essentially my recommended backup for most locations. It is intended to get you through most natural disasters. Hurricanes, tornadoes, blizzards, etcetera. I’ll add CE to the list.

  4. GerrardOfTitanServer says

    My understanding is that the worst sort of effects are strongest on long lines of wire. So, if you kept a bunch of transformers in reserve, unconnected to any long wires, then they will be fine.

    No idea on micro-circuitry.