May 15, 2021: You know a solar storm is serious when buildings burst into flame. Sounds crazy? It really happened 100 years ago today.
On May 15, 1921, the biggest solar storm of the 20th century hit Earth. Around 02:00 GMT that Sunday morning a telegraph exchange in Sweden burst into flames. Across the Atlantic, the same thing was going on in New York. Flames engulfed the switch-board at the Brewster station of the Central New England Railroad and quickly spread to destroy the whole building. During the conflagration, long distance telephone lines burned out in New Brunswick; voltages on telegraph lines in the USA spiked as high as 1000 V; and auroras were sighted by ships at sea crossing the equator. It was a Big. Solar. Storm.
The outburst happened during the lazy tail end of Solar Cycle 15, an unremarkable cycle that was almost over in 1921. Sunspot numbers were low–but it only took one. Giant sunspot AR1842 appeared in mid-May and started flaring, hurling multiple coronal mass ejections (CMEs) toward Earth. In those days scientists had never heard of “CMEs,” so they were completely surprised when the clouds of plasma struck Earth. Around the world, magnetometers suddenly went offscale, pens in strip chart recorders pegged uselessly to the tops of their papers.
In response to the pummeling, Earth’s magnetic field swayed back and forth, rippling with energy. Fires were a direct result. Physics 101: When a magnetic field changes rapidly, electricity flows through conductors in the area. It’s called “magnetic induction.” Early 20th century telegraph lines suddenly found themselves buzzing with induced currents. In Sweden and New York, wires grew so hot they ignited telegraph papers and other combustibles.
What would happen if the same storm struck today? A 2013 Royal Academy of Engineering report summarizes the possibilities. Suffice it to say, fire would be the least of our worries. Modern technology is far more sensitive to solar activity than the simple copper wires of 1921. The same solar storm today could black out regional power grids, expose air travelers to radiation, knock out satellites, and disable radio-based technologies such as GPS.
Loss of electricity is often cited as the worst likely side-effect of a solar superstorm, but power systems are more resilient than they used to be. Thanks to improvements made after the Great Quebec Blackout of 1989, many modern grids would bounce back quickly. A more worrisome loss might be GPS. We think of GPS as our main way of finding things: ambulances finding accidents, pilots finding runways, and so on. But there’s more to it than that. GPS tells us what time it is, a service of atomic clocks onboard the satellites. In fact, GPS time is woven into the fabric of modern society.
Consider the following paragraph from a report in the Atlantic entitled “What Happens if GPS Fails?“
“Telecom networks rely on GPS clocks to keep cell towers synchronized so calls can be passed between them. Many electrical power grids use the clocks in equipment that fine-tunes current flow in overloaded networks. The finance sector uses GPS-derived timing systems to timestamp ATM, credit card, and high-speed market transactions. Computer network synchronization, digital television and radio, Doppler radar weather reporting, seismic monitoring, even multi-camera sequencing for film production—GPS clocks have a hand in all.”
“What if all these flying clock radios were wiped out, and everything on the ground started blinking 12:00?” asks the author, Dan Glass. Answer: “Nobody knows.”
Space weather scholars routinely call the May 1921 event a “100 year storm.” However, recent research (both historical and statistical) suggests that such storms come along more often–every 40 to 60 years. Either way, we’re overdue.
Happy 100th anniversary, May 1921!
“The Great Storm of May 1921: An Exemplar of a Dangerous Space Weather Event” by Mike Hapgood (Rutherford Appleton Laboratory, UK)
“Intensity and Impact of the New York Railroad Superstorm of May 1921” by Jeffrey Love (US Geological Survey) and colleagues.