Scientists are finally beginning to properly
understand a historic solar storm in 1859. One day, the storm, which
was the most potent disruption
of Earth's ionosphere in recorded history
could happen again.
by Ron Koczor
Newly uncovered scientific
data of recorded history's most massive space storm is helping a
NASA scientist investigate its intensity and the probability that
what occurred on Earth and in the heavens almost a century-and-a-half
ago could happen again.
In scientific circles
where solar flares, magnetic storms and other unique solar events
are discussed, the occurrences of September 1-2, 1859, are the star
stuff of legend. Even 144 years ago, many of Earth's inhabitants
realized something momentous had just occurred. Within hours, telegraph
wires in both the United States and Europe spontaneously shorted
out, causing numerous fires, while the Northern Lights, solar-induced
phenomena more closely associated with regions near Earth's North
Pole, were documented as far south as Rome, Havana and Hawaii, with
similar effects at the South Pole.
What happened in 1859
was a combination of several events that occurred on the Sun at
the same time. If they took place separately they would be somewhat
notable events. But together they caused the most potent disruption
of Earth's ionosphere in recorded history. "What they generated
was the perfect space storm," says Bruce Tsurutani, a plasma physicist
at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory.
To begin to understand
the perfect space storm you must first begin to understand the gargantuan
numbers with which plasma physicists like Tsurutani work every day.
At over 1.4 million kilometres (869,919 miles) wide, the Sun contains
99.86 percent of the mass of the entire solar system: well over
a million Earths could fit inside its bulk. The total energy radiated
by the Sun averages 383 billion trillion kilowatts, the equivalent
of the energy generated by 100 billion tons of TNT exploding each
and every second.
But the energy released
by the Sun is not always constant. Close inspection of the Sun's
surface reveals a turbulent tangle of magnetic fields and boiling
arc-shaped clouds of hot plasma dappled by dark, roving sunspots.
Photo copyright Chris
Northern Lights appeared over Wisconsin on Oct. 22, 2003.
During the superstorm of 1859, such lights appeared as
far south as Cuba and Hawaii.
Once in a while - exactly
when scientists still cannot predict - an event occurs on the surface
of the Sun that releases a tremendous amount of energy in the form
of a solar flare or a coronal mass ejection, an explosive burst
of very hot, electrified gases with a mass that can surpass that
of Mount Everest.
What transpired during
the dog days of summer 1859, across the 150 million-kilometre (about
93 million-mile) chasm of interplanetary space that separates the
Sun and Earth, was this: on August 28, solar observers noted the
development of numerous sunspots on the Sun's surface. Sunspots
are localized regions of extremely intense magnetic fields. These
magnetic fields intertwine, and the resulting magnetic energy can
generate a sudden, violent release of energy called a solar flare.
From August 28 to September 2 several solar flares were observed.
Then, on September 1, the Sun released a mammoth solar flare. For
almost an entire minute the amount of sunlight the Sun produced
at the region of the flare actually doubled.
"With the flare came
this explosive release of a massive cloud of magnetically charged
plasma called a coronal mass ejection," said Tsurutani. "Not all
coronal mass ejections head toward Earth. Those that do usually
take three to four days to get here. This one took all of 17 hours
and 40 minutes," he noted.
captured this movie of a coronal mass ejection (CME) heading
toward Earth on Oct. 22nd. NOAA forecasters expect the
CME to cause a geomagnetic storm when it reaches Earth
on or about Oct. 24th, but not as severe as the superstorm
Not only was this coronal
mass ejection an extremely fast mover, the magnetic fields contained
within it were extremely intense and in direct opposition with Earth's
magnetic fields. That meant the coronal mass ejection of September
1, 1859, overwhelmed Earth's own magnetic field, allowing charged
particles to penetrate into Earth's upper atmosphere. The endgame
to such a stellar event is one heck of a light show and more - including
potential disruptions of electrical grids and communications systems.
Back in 1859 the invention
of the telegraph was only 15 years old and society's electrical
framework was truly in its infancy. A 1994 solar storm caused major
malfunctions to two communications satellites, disrupting newspaper,
network television and nationwide radio service throughout Canada.
Other storms have affected systems ranging from cell phone service
and TV signals to GPS systems and electrical power grids. In March
1989, a solar storm much less intense than the perfect space storm
of 1859 caused the Hydro-Quebec (Canada) power grid to go down for
over nine hours, and the resulting damages and loss in revenue were
estimated to be in the hundreds of millions of dollars.
"The question I get
asked most often is, 'Could a perfect space storm happen again,
and when?'" added Tsurutani. "I tell people it could, and it could
very well be even more intense than what transpired in 1859. As
for when, we simply do not know," he said.
Note - To research the "perfect space
storm" of 1859, Tsurutani and co-writers Walter Gonzalez, of the
Brazilian National Space Institute, and Gurbax Lakhina and Sobhana
Alex, of the India Institute of Geomagnetism, used previously reported
ground, solar and auroral observations, and recently re-discovered
ground-based magnetic- field data from Colaba Observatory in India.
The findings were published in a recent issue of the Journal
of Geophysical Research.