Blood red skies over China, explained 300 years later

Red Aurora Over the Hill Residence Anchorage, Alaska, February 2002


On Sept. 10, 1770, the air above China, Korea, and Japan turned an eerie red, and eight are the nights that glowing red aurora ‘ s linger.

For almost three centuries, this mysterious event was lost to history.

Now, researchers are unraveling palace diaries and other historical documents from East Asia have rediscovered the bizarre phenomenon, and have suggested a likely cause: A massive magnetic storm that rivalled the most powerful one on record, the so-called Carrington Event of 1859. (Geomagnetic storms occur when solar eruptions hit Earth’s magnetosphere, the shell of electrically charged particles by the magnetic field of the Earth.)

If a similarly huge magnetic storm on Earth now, it can wreak havoc on power grids around the planet, researchers said. [The Sun’s Wrath: Worst Solar Storms in History]

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Mysterious event is being rediscovered

For the rediscovery of this cryptic event, Hisashi Hayakawa, a historian and astronomer from Osaka University in Japan, and his colleagues examined historical records from China, Korea, and Japan from the 18th-century, looking for references to the aurora’s. (Northern lights, the brilliant displays of colors in the sky known as the northern or southern lights, result from solar particles striking the Earth’s magnetosphere. They are usually most visible in the neighborhood of the planet of the magnetic poles, but when they occur at lower latitudes, far away from the Earth’s poles, they can reveal evidence of geomagnetic storm activity.)

These types of “historical documents can we leave traces of solar activity for millennia,” Hayakawa told Live Science. For example, records of the aurora can be found in the Babylonian astronomical diaries, 567 B. C., ” he said.

The team also investigated sunspot drawings from the same period by the amateur German astronomer Johann Caspar Staudacher, as well as records of Captain James Cook’s missions on the HMS Endeavour.

After the study of 111 historic documents, the scientists found evidence of red auroras seen in East Asia, from Sept. 10 to 19, 1770. These long-lasting auroras were observed at low latitudes, suggesting a powerful geomagnetic storm caused.

The researchers also found these auroras were documented further south by members of the crew aboard the HMS Endeavour in the vicinity of Timor Island in Southeast Asia. These findings are some of the earliest known records of simultaneous aurora observations in both hemispheres.

“Since this event was so large, it would be reasonable to have more events not only in Eastern Asia but also in other low latitude areas,” Hayakawa said. As a result, the team is the extension of the archive of surveys to areas as distant as the Middle East, Hayakawa added.

The team also scoured historical records for the drawings of the sunspots, which often co-occur with geomagnetic storms. These drawings suggested that sunspots during the 1770 event were twice as large in surface area, such as those seen during the Carrington Event, which suggests that they were at least comparable in strength. During the infamous Carrington Event, electric currents in the atmosphere zapped telegraph wires and caused the paper from the devices to catch fire.

The research suggested the 1770 event affected at least as much of the world as the Carrington Event. In addition, the 1770 case of the aurora’s were seen in nine nights, while the Carrington Event were to be seen on just four nights.

“The events in 1770 lasted much longer,” Hayakawa said.

As a result, scientists may need to rethink how often such powerful storms, the researchers said.

“Now we know that the Carrington event was not particularly,” study co-author Hiroaki Isobe, a solar physician at the University of Kyoto in Japan, told live Science. “Such an event occurs from time to time, about once in 100 years.”

A potentially catastrophic event

Having regard to the subject of electricity in the world has become since the Carrington Event, when a similarly powerful geomagnetic storm were to hit now, untold damage would result.

For example, in 1989, a geomagnetic storm blacked out Quebec in 90 seconds, leaving 6 million customers in the dark for 9 hours, damaging transformers as far away as New Jersey, and nearly taking down AMERICAN power grids of the east coast to the Pacific Northwest. However, the Quebec event can be packaged only one-tenth of the strength of the Carrington Event, prior work proposed.

2013 a study of Lloyd’s of London is an estimated $2.6 trillion cost for North America if a Carrington-level storm happened now, and predicted “a Carrington-level, extreme geomagnetic storm is almost inevitable in the future.”

“We believe we should expect more economic and social consequences for this kind of extreme and long-lasting magnetic storm,” Hayakawa said.

The researchers are now looking into other historical examples of powerful magnetic storms. “We already have another 1770-class event,” Hayakawa said.

The scientists detailed their findings online Nov. 29 in the journal Astrophysical Journal Letters.

Original article on Live Science.

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