Superstorm! Part 3

StarDate: September 2, 2009

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[Morse code audio]

Before tweets, emails, or plain old phone calls, the only way to reach out and touch someone in a hurry was the telegraph. It was a matter of some consternation, then, when many of the world's telegraph lines went crazy on September 2nd, 1859. Many were filled with static. Others gave their operators nasty shocks, and even started fires.

The cause of this havoc was an outburst on the Sun. The day before, the largest solar flare of the last five centuries had exploded above the Sun's surface. At the same time, a massive bubble of charged particles was blasted toward Earth at five million miles an hour.

When the bubble hit less than 18 hours later, our planet's magnetic field wobbled like a tower of Jell-O. The part of the field that faces the Sun was squeezed down to the top of Earth's atmosphere.

As solar particles streamed into the atmosphere, they created displays of the northern lights that were bright enough to read by -- fiery sheets of red laced with undulating streamers of green, purple, gold, and silver.

The magnetic field carried some of this energy to the ground, generating electric currents in the telegraph wires. It took several days for the magnetic field to right itself, allowing the wires to once again hum with messages. [more Morse code]

If a similar outburst hit today, though, the results could be much worse. More about that tomorrow.

Script by Damond Benningfield, Copyright 2009

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