|Orange dotes mark sightings of auroras on the morning of September 2, 1859|
On this day in 1859 a massive wave of energy from the sun - a coronal mass ejection or CME - energized our planet to the point that it literally "turned on the lights." Our friends at spaceweather.com wrote this about the event:
... a billion-ton coronal mass ejection (CME) slammed into Earth's magnetic field. Campers in the Rocky Mountains woke up in the middle of the night, thinking that the glow they saw was sunrise. No, it was the Northern Lights. People in Cuba read their morning paper by the red illumination of aurora borealis. Earth was peppered by particles so energetic, they altered the chemistry of polar ice.
Read the rest of the post here. [Search the archive if you visit after September 2, 2015]
In 1859 the geomagnetic storm was so powerful that telegraph keys sparked and caught fire. Even with power lost in the lines, the storm electrified them to the point that messages could still be sent. Given our dependence on technology today, such storms pose a significant threat. From NASA's Science News page:
...a huge solar flare on August 4, 1972, knocked out long-distance telephone communication across Illinois. That event, in fact, caused AT&T to redesign its power system for transatlantic cables. A similar flare on March 13, 1989, provoked geomagnetic storms that disrupted electric power transmission from the Hydro Québec generating station in Canada, blacking out most of the province and plunging 6 million people into darkness for 9 hours; aurora-induced power surges even melted power transformers in New Jersey. In December 2005, X-rays from another solar storm disrupted satellite-to-ground communications and Global Positioning System (GPS) navigation signals for about 10 minutes.
Read the complete (brief) Science News story here.
By the way, we have a much weaker CME heading toward Earth today. There is a good likelihood of some bright northern lights tonight perhaps as far south as the U.S.- Canada border.
wikipedia.com, Solar Storm of 1859