Thursday 1 September 2016

The Carrington Event

Quiz Time: which of the following are books by Robert Ludlum ?
The others are Blobs and the last one is now. Well not exactly now, more like 157 years ago this week. The 1859 event took several days to unfold, so it's hard to give it a single birthday.  It started about the 28th August, when amateur astronomers (there were hardly any professionals back then) noted an unusual spike in the number of sunspots on the solar disk. Don't look directly at the sun, kids, even if you borrow your Dad's welding mask, even if the Sun is in total eclipse.
On 1st September, Brits Richard Carrington and Richard Hodgson independently observed a bright white light associated with a cluster of sun-spots. Their observations [L showing positions A,B,C,D of the bright flare in the midst of the sunspot to the right] were the captured evidence for a coronal mass ejection CME of plasma from the interior of the sun. Plasma is what's left when you strip electrons from matter (or indeed add them) so you have a highly-charged unstable whoOOF of energy. This sun-barf took an astonishing 17.5 hours to arrive on Earth 150 million km away. You do the maths: that's a lot faster than my Toyota Yaris.  It's slower than the speed of light, of course, which takes only 8 minutes to cover the distance. The event is named for Carrington, not only because of the drawing but because of his long-standing rep as the expert on sunspots, solar flares and their relationship with terrestrial magnetic storms and the aurora borealis.

Two things happened when this storm of plasma and magnetic flux struck the Earth and its atmosphere.
  1. for the next couple of days the aurora was exceptionally bright and extensive, being visible well South of the Tropic of Cancer and bright enough to read a newspaper by. Apparently watchless gold-miners in the Rockies thought it was time to get up and started making breakfast. Something similar happened to me on the Camino de Santiago. After a long tiring day walking, I fell into bed at about 9pm zzzzzzz. I started awake feeling totally refreshed and, noting the orange glow on the horizon, started to make coffee and bun to start the day. I saw two lads smoking at the door of the hostel and went to ask them the time. "Once y media" [=2330] they replied. It took me two gulps, a furrowed brow, and 30 seconds to twig that I'd had 2.5 hours sleep and should go back to bed.
  2. the electromagnetic world, slight as that was in 1859, was fritzed. Telegraph wires shot sparks into the air, operators received shocks and the whole system went live [prev] and then died.
We now live in a very different world. If a Carrington II was to occur now, there would be surge in workplace productivity because nobody would be able to update Friendface, share hilarious kitten videos, or tweet the world that they'd just eaten another croissant. Gadgets without surge-protectors [including dishwashers, garage doors, and TVs] might blow their logic boards and give up the ghost. Blimey, maybe even my teched up Toyota Yaris would open all its windows and die.  Not sure what the effect would be on all those GPS and telecoms satellites Up There. Certainly it will be hard to get a truck from the Electricity Supply Board ESB out to the International Space Station ISS. The one ray of hope is the 17.5 hour lag time - a bit like those Tsunami detectors that got installed around the impoverished Indian Ocean after the 2004 Tsunami. There might be time for people to switch off and unplug or somehow isolate the World's servers. Don't forget that 10% of the world's electricity goes to serve the monster server arrays of Friendface, Warble, HowsSheCuttin?, LikeMe and Twiggr . . . that's a lot of stuff to unplug in a hurry. Breathless reportage about Carrington from Slightly more sciencey from National Geographic.

As it happens, the Sun experienced a Son of Carrington event in 2012 although the CME was not pointing directly at the Earth but was about 9 days ahead of our orbit - so Miss! One known satellite in the direct path of the ejecta seems to have come through the storm unscathed. I guess we should treat this like Y2K, but rein in the hysteria and crank up the information.

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