Look up and see the Northern Lights over Bristol
If you look to the heavens over the next few nights, you might just spot something that hasn't been seen from Bristol for more than 150 years – the Northern Lights. DAVID CLENSY reports
THE last time the Northern Lights were visible from our part of the world, 151 years ago, Bristol was a very different city.
It was September 1, 1859, and something extraordinary was happening in the evening skies above the city.
Sailors in the harbour were looking up from their boats in amazement. In the streets the shopkeepers were all outside their shops, their eyes fixed on the heavens. They were all asking the same question. Why hasn't it gone dark?
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It was a question that was hanging on the lips of people all over the world, as night "time" came, but night itself simply failed to show up.
Instead, the skies around the globe were lit up by the Northern Lights – the aurora borealis – normally only seen in the Arctic, and the Antarctic (as the aurora australis).
Most people didn't know it, but the world was being buffeted by a solar superstorm – a massive influx of electromagnetic energy, bursting out of the sun in a gigantic malevolent flare.
Last weekend, the sun gave out a similar "coronal mass ejection" – a twin burst of plasma, which erupted in two gargantuan spurts into the solar system – aimed straight at Earth. Scientists believe that over the next few nights the sky as far south as Bristol may light up once again with the spectacular auroral displays.
Solar flares are not unusual – the splurges of gas are omitted regularly by our sun, but normally they do little more than cause the pretty swirls of light above the polar bears and penguins.
Occasionally these flares develop into a solar storm – on average once every 11 years. But sometimes – every 100 years or so – they are even bigger, and are known as solar superstorms – and that's exactly what was going on 151 years ago.
One of the few men who understood a little about what was happening back then was one of Britain's top astronomers, Richard Carrington, who happened to be observing the sun earlier that week.
Using a filter, he studied the solar surface through his telescope, and he'd been the first to see something unusual. He saw a bright flash of light erupt from the sun's surface and head towards his telescope.
The 50,000-mile-wide eddies of boiling hydrogen plasma erupted from the surface of the sun in a billion-tonne blob of crackling-charged gas, and careered through space towards Earth at up to a million miles an hour. Just 48 hours after Carrington first saw the eruption, it struck our planet, and the effects were extraordinary.
Brilliant aurorae lit the night skies right down to the Tropics – it was possible to read a newspaper at midnight. Telegraph operators received severe electric shocks as solar-induced currents surged through the networks.
Such damage as there was, was easy to repair. In 1859, the world ran mostly on steam and muscle. Human civilisation did not depend on a super-network of electric power and communications. But it does now.
And the bad news is that the experts believe this week's display could be a sign that the sun is on the cusp of another "superstorm".
For a few years, experts have warned that the most likely date for another comparable cosmic event is 2012.
It's a subject that has kept Professor Guy Nason occupied for the past couple of years. In his office at Bristol University's department of mathematics, the expert statistician has been using data from NASA's monitoring of activity on the surface of the sun to try to come up with a way of predicting when the catastrophe might strike.
"The trouble at the moment is that among the data there's a lot of extra electromagnetic information that the physical scientists don't need – we call this activity that simply gets in the way noise," he explains. "My recent work has been trying to come up with mathematical techniques to lessen this noise in the data, which should in turn allow the scientists to develop a more accurate way of predicting when the next Carrington-scale event could strike.
"You have to wonder if Governments are really taking the potential danger of a major electromagnetic storm at all seriously.
"Our entire infrastructure's based on computers, satellites and electronic equipment these days. If they're all knocked out in one event, we'd struggle to meet the task of fixing every computer on Earth. We'd very quickly lose essential things like lighting, electricity supplies and most importantly fresh water supplies and waste management systems."
The food supply chain could quickly grind to a halt. The internet would crash, TV and radio would go off air and petrol supplies would dry up. We could be back in the Dark Ages within weeks.
According to research published by New Scientist magazine in 2008, it is predicted that a year after the event, Britain, most of Europe and North America would find itself in the grip of the deepest economic catastrophe in history. While 100,000 Europeans could die of starvation, the Third World would remain virtually unaffected by the crisis.
Daniel Baker, a space weather expert at the University of Colorado, prepared a report for the US National Academy of Sciences last year, and the conclusions were grim. A huge solar storm would cause massive power surges, amounting to billions of unwanted watts surging through the grids.
So can anything be done to prevent an epic disaster?
Mr Baker suggests a more robust electricity grid and new satellites to give warning of what is happening on the sun. That's where the work of Professor Nason could make a difference.
"It's about speeding up the prediction process," he explains, "so at least the world would have a chance to brace itself for the storm."
But for the next few nights, we can simply enjoy what could be a spectacular show.