The Coming Storm

Reports are coming in that an ‘extreme’ solar storm is heading towards Earth, and is likely to affect communications and power grids tomorrow (Friday or Saturday, depending on where you are).

This won’t be the first or last such event, but it’s only since we became so dependent on satellites, electricity, and global communications that a solar storm has had the potential to cause havoc. Before we relied on electricity, no doubt people just enjoyed the pyrotechnics as the sky lit up with the Aurora Borealis or (for the minority of us in the southern hemisphere) the Aurora Australis – and attributed the display to supernatural phenomena.

One of the largest such events to be recorded in detail took place between 28 August and 2 September 1859. By then, many parts of the world were already becoming dependent on the electric telegraph, so this solar flare caused havoc in communications – though on a much smaller scale than is possible today. It is known as the Carrington Event, after the English astronomer Richard Carrington, who was one of the first to notice what was happening.

The telegraph was already important in Australia. Not surprising, considering the size of the continent and its sparse population.

Electric Telegraph stamp

1871 Electric Telegraph stamp from New South Wales

During the 1859 solar storm, the Aurora Australis was seen in Australia as far north as Brisbane and Ipswich – far, far to the north of where it would normally be visible. Here’s part of the report from the Moreton Bay Courier, 7 September 1859:

MOST of our readers saw last week, for three nights, commencing after sunset, and lighting up the heavens with a gorgeous hue of red, the Southern Aurora. At Sydney they only appear to have had a tithe of the beauty, as the Aurora did not shine so long or so brightly as in Queensland. Friday night was the grandest in appearance here, the Aurora being visible from seven o’clock in the evening until after midnight. At times there was an appearance of rays down the whole range of light, which seemed many miles in extent, and a number of stars were distinctly visible, contrasting their pale effulgence with the red hue of the Aurora. The sight was the general object of remark on Friday night by reason of its brilliancy and the length of time it appeared.

The telegraph wires were ‘deranged’ and communications were disrupted for days. Meanwhile, in Ipswich, west of Brisbane, a resident wrote to the newspaper to report that

Last night, and on the night of Monday last, the Aurora Australis was beautifully observable in the southern sky. A neighbour of mine thought it was the first sign of the coming Judgment!

North Australian, Ipswich and General Advertiser, 6 September 1859

Let’s hope not. Meanwhile, if the coming storm is as bad as people predict, dear reader, you probably won’t be reading this until the whole thing is over. Meanwhile, I’m going out to look up at the sky tonight.

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4 responses to “The Coming Storm

  1. Dr Neville Buch

    Thanks, I appreciate the weather warning. As wonderful as the expanding digital world is being created in our time, the larger physical environment keeps pressing inwards.

    Was the days of telegraphs less encompassing? I initially imagine so, compared to how our visual attention is drawn to surrounding screens, windows to another world; as oppose to the incompressible tapping sounds to the majority of untrained ears.

    Perhaps the historical reflection is a reminder to look outside the windows that came before the screens.

    • There’s a book about the telegraph called ‘The Victorian Internet’ – thought that seems a bit exaggerated.

      As always, there was far less weather drama than the forecasts promised! But yes, it’s nice to look up from the screen a bit more – the full moon last week was nearly as good as an aurora 🙂

  2. I love the “deranged” telegraph! If anything deranged the Internet, we’d be in a lot of trouble.

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