Intercontinental radios and telegraph operators picked up nothing but static. Power lines carried surges of electricity, tripping relays and burning out circuits. And the night sky turned red from northern Canada to southern California.
The cause of all this commotion was a powerful magnetic storm on the Sun. It blasted out streamers of electrically charged particles, which showered Earth 50 years ago tonight.
As the particles reached Earth, our planet's magnetic field funneled them toward the magnetic poles. When they hit atoms and molecules of oxygen high above Earth, they created a striking display of the northern lights -- the Great Red Aurora of 1958. We'll have more about that tomorrow.
At lower altitudes, the particles disrupted the ionosphere -- an electrically charged layer of the atmosphere. Radio signals can travel thousands of miles as they bounce off this layer. But with the ionosphere out of whack, the United States and Canada were cut off from radio contact with much of the rest of the world.
Cascades of solar particles even reached the surface. They filled telegraph and telephone lines with static, and caused electrical problems at sites in the United States, Canada, and Scandinavia -- regions that were hardest hit by the solar storm.
Much of today's technology is shielded against solar storms. But major storms can still have a powerful impact on our high-tech society -- just as they did 50 years ago tonight.
Script by Damond Benningfield, Copyright 2007
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