Bracing for a Solar Superstorm; August 2008; Scientific American Magazine; by Sten F. Odenwald and James L. Green; 8 Page(s)
As night was falling across the Americas
on Sunday, August 28, 1859, the phantom
shapes of the auroras could already
be seen overhead. From Maine to the tip of Florida,
vivid curtains of light took the skies. Startled
Cubans saw the auroras directly overhead;
ships¿ logs near the equator described crimson
lights reaching halfway to the zenith. Many people
thought their cities had caught fire. Scientific
instruments around the world, patiently recording
minute changes in Earth¿s magnetism, suddenly
shot off scale, and spurious electric currents
surged into the world¿s telegraph systems.
In Baltimore telegraph operators labored from 8
p.m. until 10 a.m. the next day to transmit a
mere 400-word press report.
Just before noon the following Thursday, September 1, English astronomer Richard C. Carrington was sketching a curious group of sunspots¿ curious on account of the dark areas¿ enormous size. At 11:18 a.m. he witnessed an intense white light flash from two locations within the sunspot group. He called out in vain to anyone in the observatory to come see the brief fiveminute spectacle, but solitary astronomers seldom have an audience to share their excitement. Seventeen hours later in the Americas a second wave of auroras turned night to day as far south as Panama. People could read the newspaper by their crimson and green light. Gold miners in the Rocky Mountains woke up and ate breakfast at 1 a.m., thinking the sun had risen on a cloudy day. Telegraph systems became unusable across Europe and North America.