By Jack KinsellaThe Omega Letter
In early September in 1859, telegraph wires suddenly began to short out, igniting wide-spread fires across both the United States and Europe. The Earth had been hit by a perfect solar storm.
A solar storm is created when the sun erupts, sending charged particles racing outward in an expanding plasma bubble of hot gas. In 1859, four crucial events came together to create that perfect storm.
First the blob of plasma that was ejected hit the earth full on. Secondly, the magnetic fields of the ejected coronal mass was exceptionally intense.
Third, it hit at unusually high velocity. A typical solar storm can take two to four days to cover the 93 million miles of space separating the two. The 1859 storm took less than 18 hours to cover the distance.
And finally, the coronal magnetic field hit the earth from the opposite direction from the earthâ€™s protective magnetic field called the â€œsolar wind.â€
During the 1859 flare-up, solar observers logged almost an entire minute during which the amount of sunlight doubled at the region of the flare.
"Such a strong white-light flare has never been seen since," says Paal Brekke, SOHO deputy project scientist. "So if this type of flare happened, yes we would know right away." But he adds that the orientation of Earth's magnetic field would not be known. That can't be determined without some kind of space-based observation platform. And the orientation of the Earth's protective magnetic field determines how much damage the earth will sustain.
In August 1972, a 230,000-volt transformer at the British Columbia Hydroelectric Authority blew up when shifting magnetic fields induced a current spike. On March 13, 1989, a storm plunged Quebec into a complete power blackout, affecting millions.
To get some sense of the relative strength of the 1859 solar storm, a space stormâ€™s impact is measured in nTâ€™s or nano-Teslas.
The storm that fried Quebecâ€™s power grid in 1989 measured 589 nTâ€™s. The perfect storm in 1859 measured a whopping 1,760 nTs.
According to a new study from the National Academy of Sciences, if a coronal mass ejection creating the size solar storm that hit in 1859 were to strike today, the damage could be catastrophic. "A contemporary repetition of the  event would cause significantly more extensive (and possibly catastrophic) social and economic disruptions,â€ concluded the study.
"Impacts would be felt on interdependent infrastructures with, for example, potable water distribution affected within several hours; perishable foods and medications lost in 12-24 hours; immediate or eventual loss of heating/air conditioning, sewage disposal, phone service, transportation, fuel resupply and so on.â€
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