It was the end of August 1859. Those who looked at the sky from certain latitudes saw strange lights, unusual northern and southern auroras that should not be there, while, at the same time, the Sun was progressively filling with “small” moles. The inhabitants of Cuba or Honolulu could see the spectral lights of the northern lights painting the sky and the southern auroras appeared in places like Chile. So intense was the anomaly that, it is said, one could read the newspaper by the light of the auroras.
September 1-2, 1859. Amateur astronomers Richard Carrington and Richard Hodgson independently observe two bright bursts on the Sun’s surface, a sign that the Sun was unleashed. The Carrington event (SOL1859-09-01) was in full apotheosis, the largest solar storm on record during a solar maximum.
On the calends of September, a powerful coronal mass ejection reached the Earth. Fortunately, dependence on electricity at the time was light. What was primarily affected were worldwide telegraph services, the Internet of the time. In some places fires were caused by sparks flying from the devices and some operators had to be hospitalized due to the accidental discharges they received. There is no doubt that such an event would be catastrophic for our modern society: satellite communications, GPS systems, large generators, and the electrical system in many parts of the world would cease to function for days, months or even years.
Such tremendous eruptions are most likely to occur during solar maxima, events that occur in 11-year cycles characterized by an increase in sunspot numbers and radiation emission.
These types of events show us the greatness and danger of nature. In 2012 (curiously enough, when, according to some, the world was going to end based on several Mayan prophecies) we were close to experiencing a phenomenon similar to the Carrington event, which would have unleashed dire and unforgettable consequences. Fortunately, we were spared by a margin of 9 days, since the region from which the solar flare emanated was not pointing directly towards the Earth.
In 2003 there were some problems in satellite communications and a brief widespread blackout in Sweden, as well as polar lights in Florida or Texas, all caused by another solar storm. Similarly, in 1989 another solar storm knocked out power in large parts of Quebec, Canada.
Carrington, R.C. (1859). Description of a singular appearance seen in the Sun on September 1, 1859. Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society 20, 13-15.
Lovett, R.A. (2011). What If the Biggest Solar Storm on Record Happened Today? National Geographic [online] March 4, available in: https://www.nationalgeographic.com/science/article/110302-solar-flares-sun-storms-earth-danger-carrington-event-science