On the Earth, there were all sorts of communications blackouts. All of the expeditions on Mount Everest
were lost contact with. There were forest fires in California at the time, and the radios would not work
properly so they could not correctly coordinate their efforts to fight these fires. The marine disaster
network, the emergency network there, was blacked out as well. Then there were other somewhat more
trivial communications issues, such as mobile phones and satellite television being blacked out for people.
Perhaps most seriously of all was that this was the first time that passenger aircraft were diverted
because of the risk of high altitude radiation. The solar flares on the 28 thof October and again two days
later on the 30 were so large that the FAA decided that they would move all aircraft away from the
Polar Regions. These have been becoming increasingly popular as routes, to go over the poles of the
planet. The trouble is, that is where the magnetic field of the Earth funnels all this solar radiation down
into the Earth's atmosphere, and so, when these storms hit, as a precaution really and nothing else, they
diverted the planes down to below latitude 54 and brought them down lower into the atmosphere so that
there was more air above them to provide some protection.
But a question that occurs in my mind for all of this is: 'Did we have really quite a lucky escape?' All those
things that I have mentioned to you, if the flare of November the fourth had hit the planet, it could have
been much worse. Perhaps it could have been GPS that was badly affected. Certainly, over that
Halloween period, all the GPS signals became much more inaccurate than normal. I think the clue as to
what might have happened is if we look back 150 years into the past, to the time when we know that
there was the biggest flare and subsequent magnetic storm in recorded history.
Let me take us back then; we are in 1859, it is September, and we were on board the clipper ship, the
Southern Cross. The Southern Cross is designed simply to go from East Coast America all the way down,
round South America, and back up to Gold Rush California. It just simply shuttles backwards and
forwards. On the night of September the second, it was in temperate Pacific southern waters, off the
coast of Chile, and the crew were fighting a gale that night. As the water whipped against the side of the
ship and the spray sort of fell away to leeward, the sailors would be turning their backs into the wind,
and they began to notice that over towards the other side of the ship, the whole ocean appeared to be
the colour of blood. They wrote in the ship's log, 'We were sailing in an ocean of blood.' As the storm started to abate a little, and they looked up, they saw, even through the covering of cloud that was left,
that '...the whole heavens was glowing red as well. It was the most unearthly sight.'
The thought immediately struck them that these could be aurora; these could be the southern lights.
They were used to seeing them down near the Straits of Magellan, but never had they seen them this
high up, near the Equator, and certainly never had they seen them encompassing the whole sky in this
way. The next thing that they noticed was all the masts and the lanyards began to glow with electricity.
They knew what this was as well - it was the St Elmo 's fire. It was a sure sign that there was electricity,
and it is usually a sure sign that there was thunder and lightning storms around. However, despite the
weather that night and the squalls, there had been no electrical activity of that kind that they sailed
Getting towards dawn, the clouds began to clear and they started to see through to the night sky, and
here, not just was the sky still enwreathed in red, but vivid white bolts of light seemed to be flying
upwards from the horizon to burst above them at the zenith. They wrote: 'It was as if the very souls of
all humanity were fleeing whatever cataclysm had engulfed the Earth.'
A little while later, they arrived at San Francisco, and they rushed to tell their story of this extraordinary
night. But they discovered that they were by no means the only people that had seen these. In fact,
around two-thirds of the whole Earth was covered in this blood red glow.
The blood red aurora of September the second 1859 is the largest and most widespread of an auroral
storm ever witnessed. It stretched down into the northern tropics. People gathered on the shores of the
Caribbean islands, convinced that the neighbouring islands were on fire. It is very usual for the aurora to
be green. It is very unusual for them to be totally red, and this is another sign of just how extraordinary
the 1859 one was. In the Midwest, in America, they thought that there were enormous prairie fires
engulfing the states there. You could read by some of these lights. People were woken up by the
brightness of the aurora and could read newspapers by it.
There was a sinister side to this great auroral display. It was not all just light shows. The telegraph
system was the internet of its day. It was the high tech communication - everything that you use the
internet for today, so was the telegraph used by the Victorians. As the aurora erupted into the sky that
night, so the telegraph system around the world went down. It crashed spectacularly. Not only did it cease functioning, but enormous currents surged along the wires, setting fire to equipment in the
telegraph offices, causing huge sparks to fly out of the equipment that was being used, stunning
operators unconscious. It was as amazing and as frightening just as surely as if the internet were to go
down today, and in this time period, what happened was that the politicians turned to the scientists and
they said, 'What happened to our planet?' and the scientists had to say, 'We have no clue - this is
completely beyond our understanding. It is completely beyond our knowledge. There is something that
has engulfed our world that we are helpless in its grip and we simply do not know what it was.'
They did, however, have just a couple of clues. It was certainly known that the aurori were linked with
magnetic effects, because in the 1700s, Professor Celsius and a student called Hiortner, investigated the
aurora. They had equipment out in front of them, and Hiortner recalls later in his writings that as a great
aurora burst over their heads, he noticed that the compass needle was wildly oscillating around, its lock
on magnetic north was totally lost, and he said to Professor Celsius, 'Look what's happening to the
compass - somehow these lights are magnetic.' The Professor, the wily old Professor, turned round and
said to Hiortner, 'Ah yes, I noticed that too, but I thought I wouldn't say anything just to see if you
noticed it!' Commenting on this comment, historian of astronomy, Jack Meadows, wrote in a footnote in
one of his papers that says: 'I notice that the relationship between professors and their students has not
changed greatly down the ages.'
So somehow the aurora were magnetic. There was also one other clue, and that was what I have called
the solar lockstep. General Sabine was an adventurer and scientist, and he tracked the compass readings
across the globe in his quest for magnetic north, and he noticed that the compass needle points in a
slightly different direction at the end of the day than it does at the beginning of the day. He tracked this,
and what happens is that, when you get up in