The Time Aurora Borealis was so Powerful It Set Fire to Observation Equipment

March 22, 2019 Updated: March 25, 2019

Hundreds of thousands of people travel north from all over the world to get a glimpse of the incredibly beautiful “northern lights.” Spectacular as they may be, there are risks associated with these lights, also called aurora borealis. Their underlying forces can be incredibly dangerous.

On Saturday, the brilliant green spectacle, sometimes even pink or red, is expected to be more powerful than usual, due to a geomagnetic storm earlier this week. As a result, the lights may be visible in parts of the U.S. as far south as New York and Chicago, NOAA reports.

Thanks to a small solar flare that occurred on Wednesday, a giant cloud of super charged particles from the sun is headed our way. This is also known as a “coronal mass ejection,” or CME, where particles from the sun’s corona are shot out into the solar system.

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As observed historically, such solar storms are not without their risks. In 1859, the northern lights were so powerful in fact that they started fires in observational facilities. A British astronomer named Richard Carrington was studying sun spots when he saw two bright flashes, indicating a huge geomagnetic storm.

He reported that a ray of light as bright as direct sunlight had passed through his observational equipment. The resulting magnetic pulse was so strong that it shocked operators and caused sparks to erupt from telegraph machines, setting papers ablaze.

While typically northern lights are seen near polar regions, during the 1859 event, red auroras were seen from as far south as El Salvador and Hawaii. The incident has since been dubbed the Carrington Event after the astronomer who reported it.

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Such solar storms can wreak havoc on places that depend on power grids—pretty much the entire society. Solar radiation and magnetic shockwaves can disrupt magnetic fields and power systems. They can short out satellites, GPS’s, and cell phones, damage computers and other electronic devices, and overload the power grid.

A simple contraption known as a “Faraday cage” can help you protect electronic devices, or backup devices such as radios or laptops, in the event of a magnetic storm. A simple cardboard box completely wrapped in aluminum foil will help protect against external magnetic disruptions. Another way is to place your devices in a metal garbage can lined with cardboard. Indeed, some people have gone to the extreme with this principle, lining rooms or even their homes in metal mesh radiation shielding. Others have gone so far as to make suits and hats with the protective material.

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There are other precautions that can be taken in this situation: simply unplugging electronic devices can ensure that they are not overloaded during a surge; there are also a range of surge protectors for your house as well as for individual electronic devices such as computers and TVS.

Meanwhile, there are certain supplies that are worth keeping handy: a backup, off-grid power source, such as a gas generator, and batteries will allow access to electricity if all else fails; an “uninterrupted power supply” (UPS) for a computer will help prevent power surges and brownouts; an emergency supply box containing food, heater, cooker, water, backup of personal and financial records, cash, radio, and first aid may prove a life-saver.

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