Could another 'Carrington Event' solar storm happen?

A mesmerizing display of the Northern Lights graced much of the U.S. on Friday night courtesy of a potent solar storm. Even observers as far south as Florida reported seeing the sky painted with vivid, swirling colors. 

This awe-inspiring phenomenon followed a U.S. Government alert on Thursday—the first severe geomagnetic storm watch in almost two decades. 

The public was warned about "at least five Earth-directed coronal mass ejections" and sunspots spanning an area more than 16 times the size of Earth. Classified as a G4, this event ranks as a severe geomagnetic storm, the second most intense category on the U.S. classification scale.

While the beauty of the Northern Lights captivated many observers who aren't usually within viewing range, the issuance of a severe geomagnetic storm watch sounded alarms about potential disruptions to communication and GPS systems.

RELATED: Solar flare could disrupt communications, produce northern lights

Understanding the potential devastation of a massive coronal mass ejection is crucial, especially as concerns grow about the possibility of another Carrington Event, a colossal solar storm that struck in 1859, caused widespread telegraph disruptions and introduced the world to the destructive power of solar activity. 

Today, with our reliance on advanced technology, a similar event could have even more far-reaching consequences. 

Here's everything you need to know about the dangers of a major solar storm and why the threat of a new Carrington Event looms large.


The northern lights fill the sky with green ribbons of electrical charged particles over the barn and pastures at Greaney's Turkey Farm in Mercer, Maine on May 11, 2024.

What is a coronal mass ejection?

A coronal mass ejection (CME) is a massive burst of solar wind and magnetic fields rising above the solar corona or being released into space. Originating from the Sun’s outer atmosphere, CMEs involve the release of huge quantities of matter and electromagnetic radiation into space.

This matter, primarily composed of protons and electrons, is ejected at speeds ranging from 250 to over 3000 kilometers per second.

When these charged particles reach Earth, they can interact with the magnetic field to produce geomagnetic storms, potentially disrupting satellites, communications, and power grids. The visual effect of these interactions in Earth’s magnetosphere is often seen as aurora borealis or aurora australis—commonly known as the Northern and Southern Lights. CMEs are key components in space weather and can have significant implications for Earth’s technological systems.

Have we experienced CMEs before?

Earth has been experiencing space storms throughout its history. Scientific data from ice samples taken from the Arctic show evidence of massive geomagnetic storms as early as 774 A.D.

In 1859, the Carrington Event, named after British astronomer Richard Carrington, caused mass terror when it obliterated the entire global telegraph system. Auroras were visible as far south as Colombia in what is considered the largest recorded account of a solar storm to hit Earth.

Telegraph operators reported receiving electric shocks when touching their instruments as telegraph paper reportedly caught fire from the shortages.

Because the Carrington Event occurred when humans were still early in their technological journey, the damage was minimal. However, experts say if a Carrington-style event were to occur today, with our reliance on technology, the effects could be devastating.

How dangerous are solar storms?

Solar storms, encompassing phenomena such as flares and coronal mass ejections, pose significant risks to Earth's technological infrastructure. 

"In an extreme case, when you have a very, very large magnetic storm, it can actually take out power and destroy transformers over a large region of the United States, for example. And it’s not localized like a tornado or a hurricane or flooding. It is regional - multiple states - like the whole New England area or the South or all of the West Coast, depending on how the power grid is oriented and where the energy is absorbed," NASA scientist Dr. Jim Spann said. 

The intensity of these storms can disrupt satellite operations, impacting GPS navigation, satellite television, and telecommunications. The most severe storms can even damage transformers in power grids, leading to widespread and prolonged electrical blackouts.

Additionally, solar storms can increase radiation levels in space, presenting hazards to astronauts and potentially damaging the systems onboard spacecraft. 

For instance, during a solar storm in 1989, not only did a mass power blackout affect Canada, but cosmonauts aboard the Mir space station received their maximum yearly radiation dose within just a few hours. Such events underscore the risks that solar storms pose, requiring airline flights, especially those over the poles, to be rerouted to avoid heightened radiation.

Despite being a natural part of the sun's cycle, solar storms' unpredictability and potential severity highlight them as significant hazards in our technology-dependent world.

NASA’s new AI technology may give us time to prepare

Thankfully, NASA has developed a groundbreaking artificial intelligence (AI) model named DAGGER (Deep Learning Geomagnetic Perturbation), which offers an advanced warning system for solar storms. 

By analyzing solar wind data from satellites, this model can predict solar storms and their impact locations on Earth with a 30-minute lead time. This capability allows essential infrastructure, like power grids and telecommunications, to prepare and potentially mitigate the damaging effects of these storms.

DAGGER represents a significant advancement in space weather forecasting, providing rapid, accurate global predictions by merging AI analysis with real-time space and terrestrial data. 

Available as open-source software, this tool enables various industries to protect their operations against solar storms, NASA says on its website.

As the next solar maximum approaches, expected in 2025, DAGGER's predictive technology is a vital asset in managing and reducing the risks associated with solar activity.

How to prepare for a worst-case scenario

In the event of a Carrington-sized coronal mass ejection (CME), massive blackouts and power outages could occur, impacting critical infrastructure. Here’s what you might face:

  • Loss of water and wastewater systems
  • Spoilage of perishable foods and medications
  • Disruption of heating, air conditioning, and lighting systems
  • Failure of computer, telephone, and communication systems, affecting flights, satellite networks, and GPS services
  • Breakdown of public transportation and fuel distribution systems
  • Outage of all electrical systems without backup power

These scenarios resemble typical natural disaster outcomes, making preparation crucial. recommends assembling an emergency kit with the following essentials:

  • Water: At least one gallon per person per day for several days, for drinking and sanitation
  • Food: Non-perishable food items sufficient for at least three days
  • Flashlight: With extra batteries
  • First Aid Kit: Well-stocked to handle minor injuries and illnesses
  • Moist Towelettes, Garbage Bags, and Plastic Ties: For personal sanitation
  • Wrench or Pliers: To turn off utilities if necessary
  • Manual Can Opener: For opening canned food
  • Local Maps: For navigating if GPS services are disrupted
  • Cell Phone with Chargers and a Backup Battery
  • Battery-powered or Hand-crank Radio: To receive updates if internet and cellular networks are down
  • Extra Batteries: For all battery-operated devices
  • Medications: A seven-day supply and any medical items needed (hearing aids with extra batteries, glasses, contact lenses, syringes, etc.)
  • Multi-tool: For various applications in a compact form
  • Personal Hygiene Items: Including feminine supplies and personal hygiene items
  • Cash: As ATMs and credit card systems may not be operational
  • Emergency Blanket: To stay warm if heating systems fail

While it might not be feasible for everyone to assemble a kit immediately, staying informed about space weather is vital. 

The NOAA's Space Weather Prediction Center (SWPC) and the U.S. Air Force's Weather Agency (AFWA) collaborate to keep both military and civilian populations informed. 

For ongoing updates on space weather alerts or warnings, follow SWPC on Twitter.