Frederic Edwin Church
Europe The Americas To The East

The Carrington Event: When the Sun Exploded

10-minute read


The year is 1859. It is the year Wilhelm Grimm of the literary duo Brothers Grimm breathes his last in the Kingdom of Prussia, Oregon becomes the 33rd US state, and ground is breaking on the new Suez Canal in Egypt.

Over in England, you might find a voracious reader enjoying lazy afternoons reading a first-edition copy of Charles Darwin’s On the Origin of Species or Charles Dickens’ A Tale of Two Cities, still warm from their respective presses. In London, you could enjoy the chimes ringing out from the Great Bell — soon to be nicknamed Big Ben — in the newly completed Clock Tower for the first time. And if you were amateur astronomer Richard Carrington, you’d be busy staring at the sun, marveling at an activity you’d never before witnessed.

The Carrington Event

It’s September and Richard Carrington is admiring a particularly lovely sun spot, as he is wont to do, when he notices a large flash beside it. Odd, but probably just a technological or observational error here on Earth. It happens.

amateur astronomers like Richard Carrington
what do you think, lil’ monkey?

Meanwhile, across the pond, weary miners sleep soundly in preparation for another day of gold-digging in Rocky Mountain territory. When the bright light of a new dawn rouses the men, they begin making breakfast to fuel a long day of mining shiny minerals. There’s just one problem — it’s not the sunrise illuminating the sky. It’s a beautiful natural phenomenon called an aurora.

Also known as the northern or southern lights, this instance of aurora borealis/australis was truly magnificent in its breadth. It was so bright that folks in the northeastern US could read newspaper by the light. It stretched wide, with people in Cuba, southern Japan and China, Chile and Colombia, and even the north and south poles enjoying the show.

Years later, Australian gold miner C.F. Herbert would describe the Carrington Event to the Daily News in a letter:

I was gold-digging at Rokewood, about four miles from Rokewood township Victoria. Myself and two mates looking out of the tent saw a great reflection in the southern heavens at about 7 o’clock p.m., and in about half an hour, a scene of almost unspeakable beauty presented itself.

Lights of every imaginable color were issuing from the southern heavens, one color fading away only to give place to another if possible more beautiful than the last, the streams mounting to the zenith, but always becoming a rich purple when reaching there, and always curling round, leaving a clear strip of sky, which may be described as four fingers held at arm’s length.

The northern side from the zenith was also illuminated with beautiful colors, always curling round at the zenith, but were considered to be merely a reproduction of the southern display, as all colors south and north always corresponded.

It was a sight never to be forgotten, and was considered at the time to be the greatest aurora recorded. The rationalist and pantheist saw nature in her most exquisite robes, recognising, the divine immanence, immutable law, cause, and effect. The superstitious and the fanatical had dire forebodings, and thought it a foreshadowing of Armageddon and final dissolution.

On its own, that sounds like a wonderful treat. (Almost as wonderful as a 19th-century Aussie miner writing straight poetry when describing it.)

But, there were technical difficulties. Telegraph machines across Europe and North America emitted sparks that stung their operators, set fire to paper, and broke the machines entirely. Some reports described unplugged machines continuing to operate thanks to rogue electrical currents floating through the atmosphere, which sounds legitimately terrifying.

One conversation between two operators (reported to the Boston Traveler) went as follows:

Boston operator (to Portland operator): “Please cut off your battery entirely for fifteen minutes.”

Portland operator: “Will do so. It is now disconnected.”

Boston: “Mine is disconnected, and we are working with the auroral current. How do you receive my writing?”

Portland: “Better than with our batteries on. Current comes and goes gradually.”

Boston: “My current is very strong at times, and we can work better without the batteries, as the aurora seems to neutralize and augment our batteries alternately, making current too strong at times for our relay magnets. Suppose we work without batteries while we are affected by this trouble.”

Portland: “Very well. Shall I go ahead with business?”

Boston: “Yes. Go ahead.”

This went on for two hours sans battery. The men don’t seem rattled, but this wouldn’t be the only time telegraph operators showed the world they had stones of steel.

During the Carrington Event, telepgraph machines went haywire
yes, I tried turning it on and off again

While all this was going down, Carrington was busy making observations that would lead to a breakthrough. See, folks knew about auroras and they knew about the Sun — but they had no idea the two could be related.

You’re A Shining Star

Just what was happening on that fateful 19th-century day? Cosmic magnetism. You’re welcome for the band name.

Earth has a magnetic field that fluctuates based on a variety of factors, including the Sun’s activity. Every so often our trusty star releases a sudden burst of high-energy photons and other potent particles from its atmosphere. Called a solar flare, this type of eruptive event puts out an explosion of electromagnetic radiation that can cause matter to explode in our direction.

This matter comes from a CME — or coronal mass ejection — which is when many a butt tun of super-heated plasma travels toward Earth at a million miles per hour. Picture a bomb going off on the sun that forces hot solar goo to shoot into our atmosphere. When these pieces from the Sun and Earth meet they make a little particle mosh pit. Down below, we see all these particles pushing and shoving each other as an aurora. Neato.

Why does any of this matter? Because these charged particles don’t just produce pretty lights. A changing magnetic field generates electricity that filters down into the atmosphere. If you don’t watch out, this extra electricity is going to overload your telegraph machines. Gasp!

In 1859, that’s a mild inconvenience and something to discuss at your latest corpse photoshoot. But in the modern world, a similar overload could spell catastrophe.

Look Ma, No Tech

Something like the Carrington Event, in which one or many explosive solar flares accompanied by CMEs cause magnetic fluctuations that create excess electricity, could definitely overload our energy grids. That means mass outages — no internet, no phone, no TV, no anything with an electrical circuit. Seeing as how nearly every aspect of our society runs on electricity, from health to sanitation to agriculture, you can see how this would be a major issue.

meh, sounds like a personal problem

Something like the Carrington Event would set some societies back years as they tried to recover. And since the sun goes through a solar cycle every 11 years that includes a maximum period with many flares and a minimum with fewer, we run this risk each decade. Since 1859 there have been Carrington-sized events that didn’t impact us, simply because they weren’t aimed our way.

But before you start doomsday prepping, know that there are agencies like the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, NASA, the National Science Foundation, etc, collaborating to prepare for such an event.

Unfortunately, with a large solar flare, you’ve got about 8 minutes of lead time before the radiation reaches Earth, putting any folks at high altitudes (astronauts, certain flights) at immediate risk. Fortunately, we have observatories on constant sun-watch able to put out warnings when they sense configurations that could lead to flares. We also have the capability to predict CMEs a few days before they occur.

Many organizations have contingency plans. Take astronauts on the ISS, for example. They have spaces onboard with dense radiation-blocking walls they can take refuge in. Earth-orbiting satellites turn away from the sun to prevent the highest energy particles from hitting their electronics. With a little notice, power companies can go offline before a storm strikes, avoiding overload damage and longer outages.

Sure, the idea of our technologically-driven infrastructure going down is apocalyptic, but look on the bright side — you’ll still be able to read a newspaper.

A Series of Unfortunate Carrington Events

As for Richard, the Carrington Event was a bright spot in a life about to be marred by a series of unfortunate turns.

As an amateur scientist, Carrington relied on the wealth of his father, a brewer, to keep him afloat while he stared at the sun. He attended Trinity College and had his very own state-of-the-art observatory where he refined the theories of the day. Even as he took over Brentford Brewery when his father suddenly died in 1858, he published award-winning catalogs, traveled abroad for discussions with other scientists, won medals, and was elected to the Fellowship of the Royal Society for his work on the 1859 storm.

Richard Carrington's home and observatory, Redhill
farmhouse sink, man cave, open floor plan…the works

But Carrington’s star faded fast. In just two years his prominence waned significantly. Trying to run a busienss and maintain scientific pursuits exhausted him. He tried and failed to secure professorships at Oxford and Cambridge. He became depressed.

Eventually, Richard Carrington sold his equipment and stopped practicing astronomy. When he managed to sell his brewery, he tried to break back into the old game but didn’t get far. In 1865 he fell severely ill and never fully recovered. In 1869, he married Rosa Jeffries and retired to Surrey.

That sounds nice, but in reality his marriage was distracting and toxic. Just two years later Rosa was outed as a cheater when her lover, whom she passed off as Carrington’s brother, stabbed her. In 1875 she was found dead in her bed from an overdose of chloral. People whispered that Carrington did it. He was subject to inquiries about taking proper nursing precautions, and his servants all deserted him.

Just a few weeks later a neighbor saw him enter his house and never emerge. When the authorities broke open the doors they found him dead in a locked apartment, splayed over a mattress with a poultice of tea leaves tied over his left ear. The coroner ruled the death sudden and by natural causes, though some remain unconvinced.

Whatever the case, we hope Richard Carrington is now out amongst the stars, making observations and sketches with strokes of cosmic ink.

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Continue down the rabbit hole:


NPR Short Wave: When Our Star Erupts – The 1859 Solar Storm And More
University of Alaska: A Study of the Aurora of 1859
The American journal of science Jan-May 1860
National Geographic: What If the Biggest Solar Storm on Record Happened Today?
American Scientist: Sunspotting

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