Witnessing solar storms is one of the most exhilarating celestial events to observe. But when they are aimed at Earth, the consequences could potentially be very disastrous for our technologically-dependent civilization.
While we haven't had a major solar storm hit us since the mid-1800s, many believe the next "big one" could be absolutely disastrous for our modern world. With that in mind, here are some of the most notable solar storms in human recorded history.
What is a solar storm?
A solar storm is something of an umbrella term for any disturbance in the "normal" activity of the Sun. These events can emanate outward from across the Sun's heliosphere to affect the entire solar system.
They are a natural part of the Sun's 11-year cycle and can last minutes to hours on the Sun's surface.
These disturbances are usually the cause of something called "space weather" over the long- and short-term. Solar storms come in a few major varieties including, but not limited to: -
- Solar flares - These are large ejections of protons from within the Sun's atmosphere.
- Coronal mass ejections (CME) - These are ginormous releases of plasma and magnetism from the Sun's surface. They can occur in any direction, and will usually plow right through the solar wind and, therefore, solar system. CMEs are only potentially dangerous to us here if we happen to be in its path. These can travel up to several million miles per hour.
- High-speed solar wind - These streams are typically associated with something called coronal holes. These holes can form anywhere on the Sun but are usually seen near the solar equator.
- Solar particle events (SPE) - These primarily consist of protons or other high-energy charged particles. They are thought to be released by shocks formed at the front of CMEs and solar flares.
For the purposes of this article, we will only discuss those events that have affected us here on Earth.
Are solar storms dangerous?
While they're awesome to witness, these events are not actually dangerous to life on Earth -- as long as they remain on Earth's surface. Our planet is protected from any major effects of such storms thanks to our protective blanket of atmosphere and magnetic "shield."
Without this protection, life on Earth would be bathed in high-energy particles that could, conceivably, cause radiation poisoning, potentially in fatal doses.
Our technology, however, would not be so lucky. When something like a coronal mass ejection strikes our atmosphere, it can cause a disturbance in the Earth's magnetic field.
Such events, called geomagnetic storms, can and will disrupt satellites, high-flying aircraft, and potentially damage power grids -- causing widespread blackouts until any damage is repaired.
A particularly large one could send us, literally and figuratively, back into the dark ages.
What were the strongest solar storms in the history of our solar system?
And so, without further ado, here are some of the strongest known solar storms in the history of our solar system. This list is far from exhaustive and is in no particular order.
1. There was a pretty strong one in 1859
In 1859, one of the strongest solar storms in recorded history hit Earth. Called "The Carrington Event," this storm was particularly powerful.
It is the first-ever documented time that a solar flare impacted our planet and occurred in the morning (EDT) of September the 1st. First noticed by Richard Carrington (the astronomer who witnessed it first) and is thought to have been the largest in the last 500 years -- according to NASA.
When the flare hit our magnetosphere, it caused major aurora events that could be seen as far south as the Caribbean. It also caused noticeable perturbations in the global telecommunications networks of the day.
These included minor electrocution of telegraph operators, fires, and other discharges from the lines igniting telegraph paper.
2. Another big one hit in 1921
Another massive solar storm struck Earth in 1921. Called the "1921 Geomagnetic Storm," it is widely considered the largest recorded in the 20th Century.
Caused by an extraordinarily large coronal mass ejection, it took place between the 13th and 15th of May that year. As seen today, this enormous event occurred prior to the extensive global interconnectivity of electrical systems and only really seriously affected certain parts of the world.
Where it did affect electrical systems, wires were shorted, and signaling systems, especially in New York, were put out of action.
3. Another one knocked out long-distance communications across America
In 1972, another major solar storm struck Earth. Occurring on the 4th of August, 1972, it knocked out long-distance phone communications across many states of America, including Illinois.
"That event, in fact, caused AT&T to redesign its power system for transatlantic cables," said NASA on the matter.
It is also thought to have detonated some sea mines and may have also been responsible for affecting military operations in Vietnam.
4. Yet another solar storm knocked out electrical grids in Canada in 1989
In March of 1989, another major solar storm knocked out portions of Canada's electrical grid. This caused a major blackout in the affected regions leaving people without power for nine hours, or so.
Caused by a solar flare, it damaged the electrical power transmission systems of the Hydro Québec generating station and even melted some power transformers in New Jersey.
According to NASA scientists, this solar flare was nowhere near the same scale as the Carrington event.
5. In 2000, another solar flare struck Earth, knocking out satellites
X-class flares are the highest designation possible for them, and the "Bastille Day Solar Storm" is one of the most violent of its kind ever recorded.
The largest since the 1989 Canada event, this solar storm knocked out some satellites and led to radio blackouts in affected areas.
6. Another big solar storm occurred in 2003
On October 28th, 2003, another enormous solar storm was unleashed from the Sun. Another solar flare, this one was so powerful it overwhelmed the X-ray detector aboard NOAA's GOES satellite observing it.
The sensor topped out at X28 (already massive), but later analysis found that it actually peaked at around X45. It was part of a string of similar flares released over a two-week period.
"The particles bombarded instruments around Earth: satellite engineers were forced to switch some satellites to operate in safe mode, and astronauts aboard the International Space Station were advised to seek shelter from the elevated radiation levels. On Earth, airliners were rerouted and polar routes were temporarily restricted. " - NASA.
7. Yet another big solar storm hit Earth in 2006
This kind of solar storm could be devastating in today’s world…”The Carrington Event” of 1859— Iowa Climate 🇺🇸 (@IowaClimate) September 11, 2019
Guest post by Paul Dorian
A modern solar flare recorded December 5, 2006, by the X-ray Imager onboard NOAA’s GOES-13 satellite. The flare was so intense t… https://t.co/7jDojZ887O
Another major X-class solar flare was ejected from the Sun on the 5th of December, 2006. It was recorded as peaking at X9 on the space weather scale.
It "disrupted satellite-to-ground communications and Global Positioning System (GPS) navigation signals for about 10 minutes," according to NASA. The flare was also powerful enough to actually damage the solar X-ray imager instrument on the GOES 13 satellite that snapped its picture.