Remember the massive storm that shook the world in 1859?
All right, you don't because you were not around then. So here is a round-up---an 'invisible wave' crashed into our planet.
Electrons were like detritus in a long magnetic current, and so they moved on telegraph wires. Telegraph operators suffered electric shocks, while papers in telegraph offices were aflame. Batteries were put off, yet operators found that there were giddy subatomic streams that transported their messages over long distances. Some lights danced wildly in the sky. This was the most massive solar storm that we know about and have documented.
However, this unknown solar storm has another side. It would have ripped out satellites and killed astronauts if it had struck us today.
Although technology today monitors the sun all the time and would warn us of a solar storm if it happens, "a massive solar flare's telltale flash of radiation" would hit us fast and leave us with very little time to prepare ourselves to fight the solar flares.
In 1859 too, at 11:18 am on September 1, an English astronomer Richard Carrington saw the solar flare before its storm reached the earth. In his private observatory, he was recording sunspots, when he projected a solar image through his telescope onto a small screen.
"Two patches of intensely bright and white light broke out," he wrote in his report, "Description of a Singular Appearance seen in the Sun," for the journal Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society.
"My first impression was that by some chance a ray of light had penetrated a hole in the screen attached to the object-glass, by which the general image is thrown into shade, for the brilliancy was fully equal to that of direct sunlight."
The next morning before sunrise, NASA writes that "skies all over planet Earth erupted in red, green, and purple auroras so brilliant that newspapers could be read as easily as in daylight. Indeed, stunning auroras pulsated even at near-tropical latitudes over Cuba, the Bahamas, Jamaica, El Salvador, and Hawaii."
If there had been astronauts strolling through space, they may not have had enough time to scram through their rockets. The storm was merely a light show in the pre-electrified world of 1859. There were no imminent dangers due to the solar storm.
"Humans in space would be in peril, too," NASA writes. "Spacewalking astronauts might have only minutes after the first flash of light to find shelter from energetic solar particles following close on the heels of those initial photons. Their spacecraft would probably have adequate shielding; the key would be getting inside in time."
Solar storms affected the earth even in 1972 and 2005, when X-rays from a solar flare disturbed the satellite-to-ground communication, as well as the GPS system for about ten minutes. It posed a threat to satellites monitoring the air, sea, and land travel.
But the worst was the 1859 Carrington storm.
If it hits today, it would put us back by $1 to $2 trillion in the first year, and then cost us another 4-10 years to recover completely. Another 2007 NASA estimate sees the damage to the satellite fleet being expensive---between $30 billion and $70 billion.
Such Carrington-scale storms are very rare, and do not occur more than once in 500 years. Still, we cannot predict when the next storm will hit us.