A northern lights in Madrid? It’s over. It was in 1859, when the most powerful solar storm ever recorded took place. It was so powerful that in August of that year auroras were seen in mid-latitude areas, such as the Spanish capital or Rome, but also in Santiago de Chile, Havana, Panama City, in the north of Colombia or in Australia, in the southern hemisphere.

Was the most violent interaction ever recorded between solar activity and the Earth. On August 28, numerous sunspots appeared, numerous areas with flares were declared. The action of the solar wind on Earth that year was by far the most intense on record.

That of 1859 was the most violent interaction ever recorded between solar activity and the Earth

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Known as the Carrington event -after the English astronomer Richard Carrington who was the first to observe it-, it is considered the most powerful solar storm recorded in history. That Coronal Mass Ejection (CME) released into space an amount of energy equivalent to that released by ten billion atomic bombs.

To get an idea, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) uses the “G scale” of geomagnetic storms to measure the strength of solar flares. The scale goes from 1, the lowest level, to 5, the maximum. This solar storm would have been classified as G5.

This is how a solar storm is generated

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The great coronal mass ejection or solar flare of 1859 caused the failure of the technology, the technology of that time. Sparks flew from the telegraph machines in Paris. The network went down for 14 hours across Europe and the United States. The telegraph cables suffered cuts and short circuits that caused numerous fires. But also, because of the superabundance of electricity in the air, telegraph machines sent long-distance messages without the help of batteries.

Earth was narrowly saved in 2012

But what would happen today with a similar solar storm? What effect would it have on our multiple technologies? Ten years ago we almost found out. On July 23, 2012, a coronal mass ejection much like the Carrington event crossed Earth’s orbit just 9 days after Earth passed that point. The planet, our civilization, was narrowly saved from an immense disaster.

On July 23, 2012, a solar ejection similar to that of 1859 passed close to Earth.

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Satellites, electricity systems, electrical and digital technologies would have been severely affected. I mean, for days and weeks nothing would have worked. According to some studies, in the US alone, the cost of replacing the damaged electrical system would have taken four years and a bill of some 2.6 billion dollars, Charles Q. Choi tells in livescience.

Solar storm.

a few years before, in 1989, we did have a solar storm, but not as intense like the Carrington event. In just a minute and a half, a geomagnetic storm knocked out power to the entire Canadian province of Quebec. According to NASA calculations, six million customers were left in the dark for nine hours. It also damaged transformers as far away as New Jersey and nearly knocked out US power grids from the East Coast to the Pacific Northwest.

Without telecommunications, transportation or food

As the probability of an event similar to that of 1859 exists, there are several organizations -scientific or not- that have taken care to imagine its consequences. A 2013 study by the British insurance giant Lloyd’s calculated that power outages could mean a loss of income of up to 2.6 billion dollars only for the North American electrical industry.

This work predicted global blackouts lasting up to years because the event would have simultaneously damaged a large number of high-voltage transformers. This, in turn, could lead to significant interruptions in financial markets, banking, telecommunications, commercial transactionsemergency and hospital services or the transport of fuel and food.

There is evidence that the sun can produce “superflowers” that unleash 10 times the energy of the 1859 storm

Another investigation, this one from 2017, estimated that the blackout could affect 66% of the US population. This study, published in the journal Space Weathercalculated that daily economic losses in that country could amount to 41.5 billion dollars, plus another 7 billion dollars of losses due to interruptions in the international supply chain

Image of solar storms from the Sun.

But we should not be so pessimistic. Hugh Hudson, a solar physicist at the University of Glasgow in Scotland, says in livescience that already “We’ve seen comparable events since then.” He cites two of the so-called Halloween solar flares of 2003, which he believes may have emitted comparable amounts of radiated energy to that of the 1859 storm.

Solar “superflowers” may occur approximately every 3,000 years

Hudson, who in 2021 published a study on the matter in the Annual Review of Astronomy and Astrophysicsconsider that today a solar megastorm “It would have a substantial impact, primarily on human activities in space.” The physicist assures that there is evidence that the sun may be capable of producing “superflowers” that can unleash an energy 10 times greater than that of the Carrington event.

When is the next one? The 2021 study of the Astrophysical Journal analyzing data from the Kepler telescope suggests that these “superflowers” can occur approximately every 3,000 years and those that are 100 times more energetic can occur every 6,000 years or so.