September 02, 2009
150th Anniversary Of Solar Carrington Event

Named after English astronomer Richard Carrington, the solar eruption (coronal mass ejection) of September 2, 1859 caused such an intense geomagnetic event that telegraph lines operated from currents induced by geomagnetism. Such an event today would melt key stations of our electric grids and throw us into an unelectrified society for months or years. Massive famine would result.

On Sept. 2, 1859, at the telegraph office at No. 31 State Street in Boston at 9:30 a.m., the operators’ lines were overflowing with current, so they unplugged the batteries connected to their machines, and kept working using just the electricity coursing through the air.

In the wee hours of that night, the most brilliant auroras ever recorded had broken out across the skies of the Earth. People in Havana and Florida reported seeing them. The New York Times ran a 3,000 word feature recording the colorful event in purple prose.

For far less than the cost of a Middle Eastern war or far less than the cost of an economic stimulus against a recession we could protect ourselves from the worst of another Carrington event.

See my post Solar Carrington Event Repeat Today Would Collapse Civilization.

Update: Some skeptical readers doubt that we are vulnerable to a coronal mass ejection (CME). A NASA web page about CMEs summarizes a US National Academy of Sciences report about our vulnerabilities to severe space weather events.

According to the report, power grids may be more vulnerable than ever. The problem is interconnectedness. In recent years, utilities have joined grids together to allow long-distance transmission of low-cost power to areas of sudden demand. On a hot summer day in California, for instance, people in Los Angeles might be running their air conditioners on power routed from Oregon. It makes economic sense—but not necessarily geomagnetic sense. Interconnectedness makes the system susceptible to wide-ranging "cascade failures."

To estimate the scale of such a failure, report co-author John Kappenmann of the Metatech Corporation looked at the great geomagnetic storm of May 1921, which produced ground currents as much as ten times stronger than the 1989 Quebec storm, and modeled its effect on the modern power grid. He found more than 350 transformers at risk of permanent damage and 130 million people without power. The loss of electricity would ripple across the social infrastructure with "water distribution affected within several hours; perishable foods and medications lost in 12-24 hours; loss of heating/air conditioning, sewage disposal, phone service, fuel re-supply and so on."

"The concept of interdependency," the report notes, "is evident in the unavailability of water due to long-term outage of electric power--and the inability to restart an electric generator without water on site."

You can read this report: Severe Space Weather Events--Understanding Societal and Economic Impacts: A Workshop Report (2008):

Severe space weather has the potential to pose serious threats to the future North American electric power grid.2 Recently, Metatech Corporation carried out a study under the auspices of the Electromagnetic Pulse Commission and also for the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) to examine the potential impacts of severe geomagnetic storm events on the U.S. electric power grid. These assessments indicate that severe geomagnetic storms pose a risk for long-term outages to major portions of the North American grid. John Kappenman remarked that the analysis shows “not only the potential for large-scale blackouts but, more troubling, … the potential for permanent damage that could lead to extraordinarily long restoration times.” While a severe storm is a low-frequency-of-occurrence event, it has the potential for long-duration catastrophic impacts to the power grid and its users. Impacts would be felt on interdependent infrastructures, with, for example, potable water distribution affected within several hours; perishable foods and medications lost in about 12-24 hours; and immediate or eventual loss of heating/air conditioning, sewage disposal, phone service, transportation, fuel resupply, and so on. Kappenman stated that the effects on these interdependent infrastructures could persist for multiple years, with a potential for significant societal impacts and with economic costs that could be measurable in the several-trillion-dollars-per-year range.

Electric power grids, a national critical infrastructure, continue to become more vulnerable to disruption from geomagnetic storms. For example, the evolution of open access on the transmission system has fostered the transport of large amounts of energy across the power system in order to maximize the economic benefit of delivering the lowest-cost energy to areas of demand. The magnitude of power transfers has grown, and the risk is that the increased level of transfers, coupled with multiple equipment failures, could worsen the impacts of a storm event.

Kappenman stated that “many of the things that we have done to increase operational efficiency and haul power long distances have inadvertently and unknowingly escalated the risks from geomagnetic storms.” This trend suggests that even more severe impacts can occur in the future from large storms. Kappenman noted that, at the same time, no design codes have been adopted to reduce geomagnetically induced current (GIC) flows in the power grid during a storm. Operational procedures used now by U.S. power grid operators have been developed largely from experiences with recent storms, including the March 1989 event. These procedures are generally designed to boost operational reserves and do not prevent or reduce GIC flows in the network. For large storms (or increasing dB/dt levels) both observations and simulations indicate that as the intensity of the disturbance increases, the relative levels of GICs and related power system impacts will also increase proportionately. Under these scenarios, the scale and speed of problems that could occur on exposed power grids have the potential to impact power system operators in ways they have not previously experienced. Therefore, as storm environments reach higher intensity levels, it becomes more likely that these events will precipitate widespread blackouts in exposed power grid infrastructures.

So we really are extremely vulnerable to a CME and a 1921 style CME - or even worse , a 1859 style CME - would cause months-long black-outs in some areas.

Share |      Randall Parker, 2009 September 02 07:13 PM  Dangers Natural General

K said at September 3, 2009 2:33 AM:

That event is fascinating as history.

I suspect the key to reducing damage lies in the time it takes for a storm to reach Earth. The 1859 storm is said to have taken 18 hours.

So the next big storm won't arrive without warning. And with warning a huge amount of electrical and electronic equipment can simply be shut down. That and shielding can't protect everything, I think it would save most.

The prospect of no electricity for a day or a week is not pleasant. A shutdown of water supplies becomes serious very quickly. The economic and social effects would be immense. And there is the political problem of ordering a shutdown. We won't know the exact effects in advance and convincing millions or billions to act will be tough.

Joe Franklin said at September 3, 2009 9:44 AM:

Since you are all really ignorant about how the electric grid actually works, the short answer is that civilization will not only not collapse, it will hardly notice the burp, as those pesky little inventions known as automated circuit breakers with response times in the milliseconds kick over and protect most everything.


A Texan said at September 3, 2009 1:33 PM:

Joe Franklin - regrettably, you appear to be wrong. Take a look here: at the section entitled "Electric Grid." Unless the system is shut down, there will be damage. Damage estimate if a storm similar to 1921 occurred: $2 trillion - with a "T." The 1859 Carrington event was more powerful than 1921 (it was the most powerful in recorded history, which is VERY short for these purpose).

Do you really think that every power company is simply going to shut down for an unspecified period of time, up to several days long? Can you imagine the chaos of no lights ANYWHERE for 3 days or more? That is why "they" won't do it...despite the fact that failure to do so will result in no lights anywhere for months or years (and that cost would be incalculable, since the sheer survival of civilization would be at stake). I would hope that we were better about such things as a society, but I don't hold out much hope.

K said at September 3, 2009 3:33 PM:

Franklin is partly right, any device or grid can be protected with the right design. And some will keep working. However I understand that protection is far from universal. And how adequate it would prove to be is not truly known.

These storms can be a hour long or a week. And very strong or negligible. Besides the grid itself there are literally billions of electronic and electric devices which could be ruined. I suspect it would largely depend on whether they are operating at the time. And we have satellites. Are they immune? I'll leave the answers to those who know.

In general I don't advocate that we create big programs for rare but potentially disastrous events. Those would include schemes like spending hundreds of billions for an asteroid defense - apparently one of Randall's favorites. Or building levees to prevent any possible flood almost anywhere on Earth. Or spending a trillion to reduce lightning damage by refitting every building. And how far should we go in preparing for earthquakes, tidal waves, hurricanes, and colossal volcanic eruptions?

Nor do I endorse big spending to prepare for the next great Carrington Event (they occur at low levels rather often and cause no problems). It is interesting to discuss and that is all.

We have finite resources and must live with risk.

Joe said at September 3, 2009 4:32 PM:

While it's likely that breakers would mitigate most of the damage, the storms can last long enough that the network could be forced to stay offline for hours to days. Even if we assume that all damage is contained, that's long enough to force widespread outages as suppliers overload and drop off. consider how long it took to bring new york back online a few years ago. It's quite conceivable that much of the country would be running off small generators for several days, perhaps longer for the northeastern US and the massive power generating network that feeds it.

Randall Parker said at September 3, 2009 7:24 PM:

Joe Franklin,

I would strongly encourage you to perform some due diligence before calling other people ignorant. Read my update where I excerpt from an NAS report.


Rare events happen. Tunguska in 1908. The Carrington CME in 1859. The Tambora volcanic eruption with an VEI in 1815. Imagine one of them happening today.

K said at September 3, 2009 10:05 PM:

Randall: I agree. Rare events happen and I can imagine them. After agreeing about that the next step isn't nearly as easy.

I guessed that the travel time from Sol to Earth is where we might focus our efforts, if any. Others would support other strategies.

Alas, then matters get even worse and the choices harder. How much do we budget? Who do we tax? What programs do we cancel to free up resources? Do we trade time for money, or money for time?

Lono said at September 4, 2009 7:58 AM:


You don't think we should spend hundreds of Billions to deter a possible, though rare, extinction level event - when the Bush and Obama administration's just partnered with the Fed to give out 24 Trillion to the banks!??

(and the unprofitiable Iraq war has already cost 3 Trillion in real costs?)

Wow! - narrow minded people like you have some pretty f-d up priorities...

Why don't you just relax and get ready to watch another season of Dancing with the Stars - genius!

K said at September 4, 2009 2:24 PM:


You have no idea about whether I would have put us into the Iraq War. And the $3T is spent. That means it is gone. Money spent on CME won't bring it back. And conversely, treasure spent in Iraq won't help anyone evaluate the CME threat.

You might as well have mentioned we shouldn't have anchored the battleship Maine in Havana Harbor.

You also have no idea whether I would have spent one cent to help the banks or bankers. I said nothing about either. Nothing.

But somehow you managed to get your first 18 words right. Indeed, I would not launch major projects as readily as many others. And I do not accept the argument that we must always act whenever a catastrophe can be imagined but is far from certain.

What we to do about great but rare dangers is a problem and must always be. There are just too many such possible events. For some we know of no solution. For others, such as CME, it unclear which solution to try and somewhat unclear if any can work.

If our resources were infinite or our knowledge more certain it would be another matter.

I am completely relaxed about our lack of security in this universe. You are the one who seems tense.

Southeast Texan said at September 5, 2009 1:06 AM:

A Texan, "Can you imagine the chaos of no lights ANYWHERE for 3 days or more?"

No electric lights? Nothing that three to six weeks of replacing blown transformers won't cure. We do it every few years 'round these parts. You must be a West Texan.

A Texan said at September 6, 2009 2:27 PM:

Southeast Texan said: "No electric lights? Nothing that three to six weeks of replacing blown transformers won't cure. We do it every few years 'round these parts. You must be a West Texan."

Uh, no, South Texas.

More to the point, replacing blown transformers is easy when only a few are blown - the supply chain anticipates that. It would be helpless in the face of hundreds or thousands being blown simultaneously. Oh, and my understanding is that transformers are no longer manufactured in the US - if that's the case, and there are similar events where the transformers are made, do you care to hazard a guess as to where any existing stocks, and early production of new transformers, will be going?

Further, it isn't just the lights that would go out - how do you pump gas and diesel fuel without electricity? How do you even refine it? Thus, how do you do farming, processing of food, shipping of it and refrigeration? I am NOT talking about someone living on or near a farm, but of the massive numbers that live at the end of a long and very finely-tuned supply chain. It is a very efficient chain, but not in any way robust. How long will diesel for hospital generators last? How long will generators last for drug company factories? Computers require power, as well, and our economy is utterly dependent upon them. Do you see the problem? Our ancestors were prepared for a life without electricity - they didn't even know what it was, or else it was so rarely available as to be effectively non-existent. Not so now.

I am, in case anyone had any doubts, in the camp of those who believe that we should do something on a national level to mitigate the damage that a geomagnetic storm or a purposeful EMP attack would do to this nation (either could literally threaten the existence of the nation and place hundreds of millions at risk of death by starvation). Given that we have spent far more on less worthy things (examples - the Iraq war and bailing out the corrupt banking system), to spend some money that would result in manufacturing and service jobs here in this country, and do it in a planned manner over the course of several years, would seem to make sense.

Just my $0.02.

Another Joe, Australia said at April 18, 2010 7:26 PM:

I have been referred to a video about the 1859 Solar Storm at

It notes that storms are not predictable with any precision, but that activity cycles a recognisable enough to indicate that 2012 could be at highish risk of one to test many of today's world's increasing reliance on electronics and communications satellites, possibly to destruction.

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