Pesky Auroras

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Pesky Auroras

125 years ago today, the Sun made a big nuisance of itself. A giant storm peppered Earth with radiation and charged particles. That disrupted the telegraph wires across most of the United States for several hours. It also blacked out some phone lines in other parts of the world. On the other hand, it also produced some dazzling auroras — the northern and southern lights.

At the time, people blamed the disruptions on the auroras. Instead, both were caused by a solar storm. A giant sunspot — a dark magnetic storm — scarred the surface of the Sun. An explosion of particles related to the sunspot raced out into the solar system.

When they reached Earth, the particles zapped atoms and molecules in the upper atmosphere, causing them to glow — creating auroras that were bright enough to see during the day. Other particles made it to the surface. They created electric currents that traveled through the telegraph and telephone wires.

Reports at the time said telegraph service was disrupted for hours, across all of the country west of the Rockies. The disruptions came in waves. Most of them lasted for a few minutes, although one kept the lines out of service for an hour.

Bright auroras were reported in the U.S., Europe, and the southern hemisphere. And a scientist in New Zealand said his phone service was wonky at the same time — disrupted by the unruly Sun.

Script by Damond Benningfield

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