Status: 06.12.2023, 04:56 a.m.
By: Tanja Banner
Between 1859 and 1921, three extreme solar storms hit the Earth. Their impact was small. Experts warn that the situation is likely to be different today.
Nagoya – In November 2023, aurora borealis could be seen as far south as the sun had sent a violent solar storm towards Earth, creating the colourful play of lights in the sky. Currently, the Sun is approaching the maximum activity of its eleven-year cycle and is becoming more and more active. But the colorful aurora borealis in the sky are not the only effect of an active sun. Massive solar storms can also damage infrastructure on Earth, as experts have been warning about for many years.
A new study now shows that the Earth has been hit by a supersolar storm several times in the past two hundred years. The most famous are the so-called "Carrington Event" in 1859 and the "New York Railroad Storm" in 1921. However, a team of researchers has now found evidence of a third supersolar storm that hit Earth in February 1872.
Three super-solar storms hit the Earth in just over 60 years
With the help of historical records and solar data from the time, the international team was able to take a closer look at the so-called "Chapman-Silverman storm" from 1872. "Our results confirm the 'Chapman-Silverman storm' in February 1872 as one of the most extreme geomagnetic storms in recent history," explains Hisashi Hayakawa, who led the study, which was published in The Astrophysical Journal. "Its size rivals that of the 'Carrington storm' in September 1859 and the 'NY Railroad storm' in May 1921," the expert from the University of Nagoya (Japan) continues.
The sun is currently more active than expected. Eruptions on the surface hurl plasma into space, which can hit Earth in the form of a solar storm. (Archive image) © NASA/SDO/AIA/Goddard Space Flight Center
What particularly surprised the researchers was that the violent solar storm apparently originated from a medium-sized group of sunspots near the solar center. The team was able to reconstruct this using sunspot records from Italian and Belgian archives. One conclusion: "These results suggest that even a medium-sized group of sunspots triggered one of the most extreme magnetic storms in history."
Solar storms are a "non-negligible risk"
According to the researchers, more than 700 recordings of the Northern Lights in February 1872, which slumbered in archives and libraries, showed that the colorful aurora could be seen in the sky from the polar regions to the tropics – i.e. to latitudes around 20 degrees. For comparison, the solar storm of early November 2023 could be seen as far away as Italy. Rome is located at about 41.8 degrees latitude, the southernmost tip of the country is about 37 degrees latitude.
"We now know that the world has experienced at least three geomagnetic superstorms in the last two centuries. Space weather events that could have such a large impact pose a non-negligible risk," Hayakawa warns in a statement. The researcher continues: "Such extreme events are rare. On the one hand, we can count ourselves lucky that we have been spared such superstorms in modern times. On the other hand, the occurrence of three such superstorms within six decades shows that the threat to modern society is real."
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Super solar storms can paralyze entire infrastructure
During the Super Solar Storm in 1872, telegraph communications were largely paralyzed, and similar information has been handed down from the "Carrington Event" and the "New York Railroad Storm". Electricity was not yet widely used at that time, which is why the further effects were limited. In today's technology-dependent world, however, the effects of such a super-solar storm would be much greater, experts fear. After all, humanity is dependent on electricity, communication systems and satellites.
"The longer the power supply could be interrupted, the more society, especially residents of urban areas, will struggle with it," Hayakawa points out. In the worst-case scenario, major solar storms could shut down the power grid, communication systems, aircraft and satellites. "Could we sustain our lives without such an infrastructure?" asks Hayakawa and replies himself: "Well, let's just say it would be an extreme challenge." (tab)