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Auroral omens of the American Civil War

December 31, 2014

Aurorae are a splendid night-time sight: coruscations of green, purple, and red fluorescent light in the form of gently wafting ribbons, billowing curtains, and flashing rays. Mostly seen at high latitudes, in the north aurorae are often called the northern lights or aurora borealis, and, in the south, the southern lights or aurora australis. The mystery of their cause has historically been the subject of wonder. The folklore and mythology of some far-northern civilizations attributed auroral light to celestial deities. And, in ironic contrast with their heavenly beauty, unusual auroral displays, such as those seen on rare occasions at lower southern latitudes, have sometimes been interpreted as portending unfavorable future events.

Today we understand aurorae to be a visual manifestation of the dynamic conditions in the space environment surrounding the earth. Important direct evidence in support of this theory came on September 1, 1859. On that day, an English astronomer named Richard Carrington was situated at his telescope, which was pointed at the sun. While observing and sketching a large group of sunspots, he saw a solar flare—intense patches of white light that were superimposed upon the darker sunspot group and which were illuminated for about a minute. One day later, a magnetic storm was recorded at specially designed observatories in Europe, across Russia, and in India. By many measures, the amplitude of magnetic disturbance was the greatest ever recorded.

In the United States, the effects of the Carrington storm could be seen as irregular backand-forth deflections of a few degrees in the magnetized needle of a compass. Rapid magnetic variation also induced electric fields in the earth’s conducting lithosphere, and interfered with the operation of telegraph systems. The Carrington magnetic storm, and an earlier storm that had occurred on August 28, 1859, caused spectacular displays of aurora borealis in the night-time sky over the entire United States and the western hemisphere, possibly all the way down to the equator. This was extremely unusual, so much so that an auroral event o

Publication Year 2014
Title Auroral omens of the American Civil War
DOI 10.1080/00431672.2014.939912
Authors Jeffrey J. Love
Publication Type Article
Publication Subtype Journal Article
Series Title Weatherwise
Index ID 70114648
Record Source USGS Publications Warehouse
USGS Organization Geologic Hazards Science Center