The Carrington Event

by David W. Letcher

The Carrington Event AKA The Solar Storm of 1859

I became aware of the Carrington Event while watching National Geographic’s TV program entitled “Mission To The Sun” which I recorded on November 26, 2018 and watched a few days later. The program’s theme states: “A tiny spacecraft the size of a small car hurtles closer to the sun than any man-made object has ever been, at a speed faster than any man-made object has ever traveled, defying the almost unimaginable heat and deadly radiation of our closest star”.

This spacecraft, initially named the “Solar Probe Plus”, was renamed the “Parker Solar Probe” in honor of astrophysicist Eugene Parker, who, in 1958, published research predicting the existence of the solar wind. At the time he was a professor at the University of Chicago’s Enrico Fermi Institute. Two years later his theory of the solar wind was confirmed by satellite observations.

The main goals of the Solar Probe are to determine the structure and dynamics of the sun’s magnetic field, trace the flow of energy that heats the corona and accelerates the solar wind, and explore dusty plasma near the sun and its influence on solar wind and energetic particle formation. This mission will also help us learn more about the Sun-Earth relationship. (1)

After some introductory comments about the sun itself, the “Mission to the Sun” program briefly turned its attention to the observations and recordings of the British amateur astronomer Richard C. Carrington (26 May 1826 – 27 November 1875). This segment really captured my interest and spurred me on to write this article for AAAP. Much has been written about Richard Carrington in many books, journals and magazines, etc. so this article is not meant to bring about any new information about him but rather to bring awareness of his work to readers of this AAAP newsletter.

A few facts about Carrington are of historical and scientific interest. (2, 3)

Carrington entered Trinity College, Cambridge in 1844 initially to study for church service, but, influenced by lectures by Professor Challis, a professor of astronomy and experimental philosophy, he switched to science with an emphasis in astronomy. Upon graduation he began his career as Observer at the University of Durham in 1849, but soon left due to his disappointment in their narrow scope of studies and poor supply of adequate instrumentation. He resigned his position in 1852, but during his two years there, he published studies of his observations of comets and minor planets. He was even admitted as a member in the Royal Astronomical Society in 1851, based upon recognition of his observing skills!

One more accomplishment by Carrington must be mentioned before I get to the main purpose of this essay. Carrington decided to build his house and observatory in Redhill, Surrey in 1852, and his astronomical studies resumed in 1853 resulting in the 1857 publication of “A Catalogue of 3,735 Circumpolar Stars observed at Redhill in the years 1854, 1855, and 1856, and reduced to Mean Positions for 1855”, a work for which he was awarded the Gold Medal of the Royal Astronomical Society!

I’ll turn my attention now to Carrington’s seven and one-half years study of sunspots that resulted in his 1863 publication entitled “Observations of the Spots on the Sun from November 9, 1853, to March 24, 1861, made at Redhill”. A total of 5,290 observations of 954 groups of sunspots were made, many of which were drawn by hand and can be seen by downloading this publication. (6)

Well, on September 1, 1859 Carrington was fortunate enough to observe a very significant event on the sun. Here are some of his very words that he published in (7):

“While engaged in the forenoon of Thursday, Sept. 1, in taking my customary observation of the forms and positions of the solar spots, an appearance was witnessed which I believe to be exceedingly rare. The image of the sun’s disk was, as usual for me, projected on to a plate of glass coated with distemper of a pale straw color, and at a distance and under a power which presented a picture of about 11 inches diameter. I had secured diagrams of all the groups and detached spots and was engaged at the time in counting from a chronometer and recording the contacts of the spots with the cross-wires use in the observation, when within the area of the great north group (the size of which had previously excited general remark), two patches of intensely bright and white light broke out, in the positions indicated in the appended diagram (see below) by the letters A and B, and of the forms of the spaces left white. My first impression was that by some chance a ray of light had penetrated a hole in the screen attached to the object-glass, by which the general image is thrown into shade, for the brilliancy was fully equal to that of direct sun-light; but by at once interrupting the current observation, and causing the image to move by turning the R.A. handle, I saw I was an unprepared witness of a very different affair.”

Figure 1.

Carrington’s drawing of the sunspots

Carrington’s article is quite lengthy so I won’t include it here in its entirety here but will note an interesting number he calculated. After the flurry of surprise he sought out a witness, but by the time they returned to the telescope about 60 seconds later the bright spots of light had diminished considerably and after a few more moments the bright spots had disappeared.

The last traces of light were at spots C and D. Based upon this 5-minute movement Carrington calculated the distance the bright patches traveled to be about 35,000 miles at 420,000 mph! Furthermore, the appearance and structure of the sunspot group did not seem to change at all before, during and after the occurrence of the bright spots leading Carrington to surmise that the disturbance took place above the sun’s surface and above the sunspot group itself. (7)

Another witness, Carrington’s friend and amateur solar astronomer, Mr. Richard Hodson of Highgate observed the same bright patches of light that Carrington saw. Soon after both men presented the results of their observations to the November 11, 1859 meeting of the Royal Astronomical Society, which convinced those in attendance that something unprecedented had occurred on the sun. (8)

Carrington knew that additional witnesses would bolster his case, so he sought out his friend Warren de la Rue who was photographing the sun on clear days from the Kew Observatory. Regretfully, the sun was not photographed on the day of the bright spots and no one there had seen the spots either. But tracings from magnetic instruments at Kew showed disturbances at the same time that Carrington saw the bright spots on the sun indicating that the sun was able to influence the earth through magnetism 93 million miles away!

So what happened here on earth?

Evidently the Carrington Event occurred soon after a previous coronal mass ejection that occurred just a few days earlier. Fiery red and blood red auroras filled nighttime skies in both hemispheres to unusually low latitudes on August 28 and August 29 and again during the nights of September 1 and 2 of 1859. It is just the second episode that is named the Carrington Event. The first episode is named the Stewart Super Flare named after Balfour Stewart, a Scottish physicist and meteorologist. (3)

Enter Elias Loomis, an American mathematician who was a professor at Western Reserve College, the University of the City of New York, and finally at Yale University. After experiencing these auroras in late August and early September, Loomis wrote an appeal for eyewitness accounts of observations of the aurora, magnetic storms and effects of such storms on telegraph lines. He synthesized these many accounts into a picture of what happened as a result of the two storms. (4) and (8, Chapter 6)

Loomis published his many findings and conclusions in nine publications in the American Journal of Science between 1859 and 1862. I will only summarize herein what very many eyewitnesses from virtually all around the world provided to Professor Loomis.

Findings for telegraph Lines:

  • Telegraph lines stopped working. Giant sparks crackled from telegraphy equipment. Communication between many telegraph offices along telegraph lines stopped for the night.
  • “Streams of fire” leaped from telegraph lines.
  • Operator stunned by a large arc of electricity.

Findings for auroras:

  • Auroras outshining sunsets.
  • Skies flooded with white light.
  • Auroras in Key West, Florida and in Henry County, IN
  • Auroras so bright the stars were dimmed.
  • Blood red and fiery red auroras.

Findings for magnetic observations:

  • Magnetometers, especially at Kew Observatory, showed vacillating movements.

Loomis’ conclusions:

  • The base of the auroras are found at about 50 miles above the surface.
  • They can be as high as 500 miles.
  • Southern auroras always accompany northern auroras.
  • Both occur in belts encircling their respective polar regions.
  • The further away you are from these belts, the less likely you are to see one.
  • Northern hemisphere auroras span areas that include Hudson Bay, much of Canada, Alaska, and the Bering Strait then through the Russian Empire (sic) and then to the Atlantic, Iceland and Greenland.
  • As for Southern Auroras, the sources I consulted did not indicate which specific southern hemisphere regions experience auroras.
  • Auroras are linked to telegraphic disruption.
  • Auroras are produced by the flow of electricity through the atmosphere.

Final Comments about the Carrington Event.

When Carrington observed and recorded the bright spots on his screen, he realized the sun emitted the white light but, as X-rays had yet to be discovered by physicist Wilhelm Conrad Rontgen in 1895, he didn’t know that these rays were also being received. It was these X-rays that electrified the particles in the upper atmosphere and caused the erratic behavior in the magnetic needles at the Kew observatory. Since both white light and X-rays travel at the speed of light, Carrington’s spots of light and the magnetic needle behavior at Kew coincided in time with each other. But, a coronal mass ejection soon followed which, traveling 1,500 miles per second, reached Earth about 17.5 hours later which resulted in the brilliant red auroras, magnetic storms and damage to telegraph systems.

It has been suggested (5, 8) that if another Carrington Event were to occur today, we Earthlings would experience disruptions to radio and telephone communications including cell phone communications, melting of transformers, blackouts in cities and putting many people at risk. Satellites in orbit would experience damage to their circuitry, decreased solar panel power and endangerment to our GPS system.

Not a pretty picture!

Sources:

  1. UNIVERSE TODAY. Space and Astronomy News.
  2. Richard C. Carrington. Wikipedia.
  3. Solar Storm of 1859. Wikipedia.
  4. Elias Loomis. Wikipedia.
  5. Origin of Life and Evolution of the Biosphere (2014) 44:185–195 DOI 10.1007/s11084-014-9368-3
  6. Carrington, Richard Christopher, Observations of the spots of the Sun from 1853 to 1861 (1863) Williams and Norgate
  7. Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society, Volume 20, Issue 1, 11 November 1859, Pages 13–15. This article can also be found at: https://doi.org/10.1093/mnras/20.1.13
  8. Clark, Stewart. (2007) The Sun Kings. Princeton. Princeton University Press.
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