What was the 1859 Carrington Event?

The 1859 Carrington event is described as one of the most interesting phenomena in history. It was discovered and observed by an amateur astronomer Richard Carrington in his private observatory. The event was described as the most intense geomagnetic storm, which resulted in auroral displays around the world. 

This gave birth to a continuous stream of studies and researches carried around the world to predict the upcoming geomagnetic storm. Today, a storm of the same magnitude would lead to blackouts and electrical disruptions. So, let’s take the discussion further and see how the event unfolded. 


The 1859 Carrington event was described as one of the largest geomagnetic storms that occurred. In addition to the auroras, flames were observed that were related to the coronal mass ejection. It is said that the flames took around 17.6 hours to make their 150 million kilometer journey directly towards the earth. 

Even though, researchers and astronomers argue that typical CME’s take comparatively longer to reach the earth but this time around it took them relatively less time due to the high speed of the prior CME. It is also assumed that the large aurora event that took place on 29th August, cleared the way for the ambient solar wind plasma.

Solar Flare


The earliest observations of the solar flare associated with the carrington event solar storm were recorded just before noon on 1st September by astronomers Richard Hodgson and Richard Christopher Carrington. However, these observations were recorded independently. 

Soon, both astronomers compiled their observations and published them in the Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society along with the drawings at the November 1859 Royal Astronomical Society Meeting. 

Carrington was off the view that there might be a solar-terrestrial connection due to the geomagnetic solar flare effect and the observance of the geomagnetic storm the following day. Then, independent reports related to the Carrington event effects were compiled from around the world and were published by American mathematician Elias Loomis. These worldwide reports supported the observations of Stewart and Carrington. 


Perhaps the biggest observation was the carrington event aurora. These auroras were observed around the world and those in the northern hemisphere stretched as far as the Caribbean. At the same time, the auroras that occurred over the rocky mountains of the U.S were so bright that the gold miners began preparing breakfast assuming it was morning.

The light was so bright that people could easily read the newspapers. The Baltimore American and Commercial Advertiser on Saturday 3 September 1859 reported that those who were late night out on Thursday got to witness the magnificent display of the auroral lights. 

The display was more or less the same compared to the one that took place on Sunday night. However, there were slight fluctuations in the light but the prismatic hues became even more stunning. The auroras had covered the sky resembling a luminous cloud through which the larger magnitude stars shone. 

There came a point where the light became brighter than the moon and seemed to be delicate and soft, enveloping anything upon which it rested. 

Another noteworthy observation by an Australian gold miner C.F. Herbert in 1909 was reported to The Daily News in Perth. The gold miner stated that he along with his friends observed a great reflection in the southern heavens at around 7 PM. The event was such that it was difficult to describe in words at first instance. 

There were lights of different colors arising from the southern heavens. While one faded away, it gave way to another light, which was even more beautiful than the previous. According to some, it was the greatest aurora recorded and was a sight that could never be forgotten. 

How Likely is Another Carrington Event?

Last year, the British Antarctic Survey and the University of Warwick came together for a joint study to estimate the likelihood of the upcoming space super-storms. Similar to the solar flares that originated back in 1859, the future storms may also result in associated solar flares but these wouldn’t prove to be harmful to humans.

The reason is that our atmosphere will protect us but our modern technologies will severely be impacted just as the telegraphs were back in the day. Scientists say that they can cause extreme blackouts, can take out satellites, and even disrupt and cause temporary loss of GPS signals. 

In addition to that, scientists have also found out that severe super-storms occurred 42 years out of the last 150 years. Meanwhile, the great super-storms occurred in 6 years of the 150. Scientists and astronomers state that particular date or year of the occurrence cannot be decided.

However, one can occur any given year. There is a 0.4 % chance of one storm per year, while a 0.7 % chance of a Carrington class storm per year. 

The year 2012 saw the earth avoiding a massive coronal mass ejection involving a powerful eruption near the surface of the sun, associated with solar flares. The flares traveled from the sun, through space, and narrowly missed earth. If the flames were to hit the earth, it would have resulted in a super-storm.

A Different Perspective

While the Carrington event history views it as something the world had rarely seen and experienced before but according to some researchers such as Hisashi Hayakawa of Japan’s Nagoya University, it was not unique. He was of the view that recent studies have uncovered events of the same intensity. 

Even though the Carrington event was considered a once-in-a-century catastrophe but in reality, events like this have been occurring frequently. For instance, the year 1770 saw extremely bright auroras overcoming Japan and several parts of China. 

Upon compiling and studying the records, it was found that the 1770 instigating sunspot was twice the size of the Carrington sunspot group. In addition to that, paintings, drawings, and other evidence suggest the lowest altitude auroras ever, spanning over a period of 9 days. 

Final Word

Researchers and scientists continue to study and are trying to predict the exact occurring time of such superstorms. The Carrington event led to a series of continuous investigations that have helped scientists understand the pattern. However, only time can tell if humans are able to track and prevent any modern technology breakdowns and damages if such situations were to occur in the future.

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