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Saturday, June 15, 2024

Head in the Clouds, Again

Two once-in-a-lifetime astronomical events spread over three days across the land could have been observed in their fullness during the past few weeks, and we got hosed on all of them.

There was the solar eclipse in April, which was significantly obscured by clouds that spread across the sky just as it started. Then last week, a major solar storm brought the Northern Lights to Northern New Jersey and record solar storms flooded the atmosphere with plasma that presented itself in vivid steams of color visible all the way to Georgia.

But not here. The three nights it happened, Friday, Saturday and Sunday, we were again smothered by cloud cover. Sure, some people were able to squeeze off a few shots through a break or two in the overcast, but overall, we missed out on three different nights.

Oh, well. There could be another solar storm another time. They’ve been happening as long as the Earth has existed. Our atmosphere protects our persons from injury. And during last week’s storm, we were largely spared damage to our stuff.

It’s only been in the past 100 years or so that these atmospheric disruptions posed any threat at all to our lives. But that’s because society changed, not the Sun and the Earth.

Solar storms can wreak havoc on our modern stuff. You’ve probably heard of electromagnetic pulse, or EMP, a wave of high voltage energy that would emanate from a high-altitude nuclear detonation. It would pass harmlessly through people, but could fry electrical components, mostly those connected to the power grid. Unprotected power lines would conduct the pulse into our stuff. A major solar storm could cause similar damages.

Fortunately, this past weekend’s storms came nowhere near that level. But they have in the past. Are you familiar with the Carrington Event? No, not the nighttime soap opera with John Forsythe and Joan Collins. It was the most intense solar storm recorded.

It happened in 1859, when there wasn’t a power grid to fry.

In early September of 1859, a British astronomer Richard Carrington observed extraordinary magnetic storms on the surface of the Sun. Enough was already known about sunspots and solar activity to indicate that an aurora would likely be visible within a night or two.

But while earthlings did not have any power grid to speak of and today’s electronics, we did have a nascent telegraph system. By the evening of September 2, 1895, the storm arrived, bringing with it vivid displays in the skies visible as far south as Havana. It also filled the atmosphere with electrical charges. Harmless to people, that voltage collected in the exposed wires of the telegraph system.

A telegraph operator in Boston realized his setup was overheating. He disconnected the battery, but there was so much residual voltage in the air and on the telegraph lines, that his telegraph devices functioned normally. The operator contacted another operator in Maine who was experiencing the same phenomenon. They chatted for hours using just the electrical current in the air.

Telegraph service was disrupted wherever they existed, some machines burning out completely. Fires were reported all along the telegraph lines from wires overheated by current in the air.

What would happen if a Carrington Event occurred today? Scientists, engineers and know-it-all alarmists say that with our reliance on electrical power, which we didn’t have in 1859, we would be doomed, and only the Amish would know how to survive. We’d have to learn to live like Adam and Eve. Or Fred and Wilma.

But more sober voices suggest predictions of doom are unwarranted. In fact, astronomers believe we’ve already been hit by Carrington-level events, as recently as the Halloween event of 2003.

I remember that one because like last weekend, I looked for the resulting aurora in 2003 and saw only clouds. Oh, well.

Joe Phalon
Joe Phalon, Contributing Writer
Contributing Writer

Joe was lured out of retirement by the opportunity to be a part of the Ridge View Echo. During a decades-long career in publishing and journalism, he has covered government on many levels from local school boards to the United States Supreme Court.

Along the way, Joe has worked at American Lawyer Magazine, The National Law Journal and The Record among other publications, and as the Press Officer of Columbia Law School. His work has been recognized with several first place awards from the Society of Professional Journalists and the New Jersey Press Association.

Being part of the Ridge View Echo brings Joe back to his roots and the kind of news coverage he loves: Telling the stories of people and local communities as well as keeping an eye on how their money is spent by their government officials.

Joe lives in Blairstown with his wife Rose, the founder of Quilting for a Cause, and their two wiener dogs. He is an artist in his spare time.