A Super Solar Flare
At 11:18 AM on the cloudless morning of Thursday, September 1, 1859, 33-year-old Richard Carrington – widely acknowledged to be one of England’s foremost solar astronomers – was in his well-equipped private observatory. Just as was the case on every sunny day, his telescope was projecting an 11-inch-wide image of the sun on a screen, while Carrington skillfully drew the sunspots he saw.
On that morning, he was capturing the likeness of an enormous group of sunspots. Suddenly, two brilliant beads of blinding white light appeared over the sunspots, intensified rapidly, and became kidney-shaped. Realizing that he was witnessing something unprecedented and “being somewhat flurried by the surprise,” Carrington later wrote, “I hastily ran to call someone to witness the exhibition with me. On returning within 60 seconds, I was mortified to find that it was already much changed and enfeebled.” He and his witness watched the white spots contract to mere pinpoints and disappear.
It was 11:23 AM. Only five minutes had passed.
Just before dawn the next day, skies all over planet Earth erupted in red, green, and purple auroras so brilliant that newspapers could be read as easily as in daylight. Indeed, stunning auroras pulsated even at near tropical latitudes over Cuba, the Bahamas, Jamaica, El Salvador, and Hawaii. Auroras are usually visible only in the extreme northern latitudes.
Even more disconcerting, telegraph systems worldwide went haywire. Spark discharges shocked telegraph operators and set the telegraph paper on fire. Even when telegraphers disconnected the batteries powering the lines, aurora-induced electric currents in the wires still allowed messages to be transmitted. What really happened that day?