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It was the second of September 1859. The clipper ship Southern Cross was off Chile when, at 1.30 a.m., it sailed into a living hell. Hailstones from above and waves from all around whipped the deck. When the wind-lashed ocean spray fell away to leeward, the men noticed they were sailing in an ocean of blood. The colour was reflected from the sky, which — they could see even through the clouds — was wreathed in an all-encompassing red glow.

The sailors recognised the lights as the southern aurora that usually graced the skies near the Antarctic Circle, just as their northern counterparts cling to the Arctic. To see them from this far north was highly unusual. As the gale subsided, they witnessed an even more astonishing display. Fiery lights loomed against the horizon as if some terrible conflagration had engulfed the Earth. Vivid bolts flew across the now clear sky in spiral streaks and exploded in silent brilliance, as if the very souls of all humanity were fleeing whatever cataclysm had befallen the planet.

Upon their arrival at San Francisco, the ship’s company discovered that theirs was not an isolated experience. Two thirds of the Earth’s skies had been similarly smothered. Also, there was a sinister side to the aurora.

The beguiling lights had disabled the telegraph system, wiping out communications across the world. For days, nature refused to allow these arteries of information to flow freely. It was as if today’s Internet had suddenly, inexplicably shut down. In Philadelphia, a telegrapher was stunned by a severe shock. In some offices the equipment burst into flames. In Bergen, Norway, the operators had to scramble to disconnect the apparatus, risking electrocution. On top of this, compasses spun uselessly under the grip of the aurora, disrupting global navigation.

In the scramble to understand just what had engulfed Earth, the Victorians had only one clue. On the previous morning amateur astronomer Richard Carrington was working in his private observatory at Redhill, Surrey, and found himself witness to an unprecedented celestial event.

He was studying sunspots, the unexplained dark blemishes that occasionally speckle the Sun. The sunspot that Carrington gazed upon that day was really huge. It was almost ten times the diameter of the Earth. Yet on the Sun, it barely stretched a tenth of the way across the fiery disc. Without warning, two beads of searing white light appeared over it.

No one had ever described the Sun behaving like this before and Carrington instantly began timing the lights as they drifted across the sunspot, faded and vanished. That night, the apocalyptic aurora burst over the Earth. Could it be that Carrington’s titanic explosion had somehow hurled the electrical and magnetic energy at the Earth?

Carrington himself never pursued the research. Yet his discovery of the solar flare began half a century of intrigue, rivalry and speculation as other astronomers raced to understand the mysterious way in which the Sun could reach out across 93 million miles of void and strike the Earth. With the benefit of hindsight, we can see that the Carrington flare was a tipping point for astronomy. Suddenly aware that the Earth and its technology could be affected by celestial events, astronomers turned their attention away from charting the positions of stars to aid navigation, and began studying the nature of celestial objects.

Today, the study continues. Astronomers routinely watch solar flares with their spacecraft and know that these explosions usually eject huge clouds of electrically-charged particles into space. When these strike the Earth, they produce the aurora in the atmosphere and cause technology to malfunction. Astronomers call it space weather and the ferocity of it still occasionally catches them unawares. In October 2003, a Japanese weather satellite died during a solar storm. In 1989, millions of North Americans were blacked out when a solar storm damaged the Hydro-Quebec power station in Canada.

In all these studies, however, there is one sobering thought. The scale of the solar storm of 1859 has never been equalled since. Even the fiercest recent storms are between three and five times smaller. With our current reliance on technology higher than at any time in history, another ‘Carrington-event’ could cost us billions.

ВОПРОС 1 When the clipper ship Southern Cross was off Chile,
1) the weather improved.
2) huge stones started falling from above.
3) the ocean water changed its colour.
4) there was a lot of blood around.

ВОПРОС 2 It is rare for the southern aurora
1) to be seen against the horizon.
2) to have red colour.
3) to appear so far north.
4) to grace the skies near the Antarctic Circle.

ВОПРОС 3 What was NOT the effect of the aurora?
1) The telegraph system was disabled.
2) The Internet suddenly shut down.
3) The equipment in some offices burst into flames.
4) Compasses spun uselessly, disrupting global navigation.

ВОПРОС 4 The probable reason for the aurora was
1) a huge sunspot.
2) the light from the sun.
3) the electrical and magnetic energy of the Earth.
4) powerful solar flares.

ВОПРОС 5 Carrington’s discovery was a tipping point for astronomy because
1) it began half a century of intrigue, rivalry and speculation.
2) it proved celestial events were unable to affect our planet.
3) astronomers began studying the nature of the celestial objects.
4) astronomers turned their attention to charting the positions of stars.

ВОПРОС 6 Today astronomers are still surprised by
1) the extreme force of solar storms.
2) the amount of electrically-charged particles ejected by solar flares.
3) the fact that the aurora causes technology to malfunction.
4) the fact that a Japanese weather satellite died during a solar storm.

ВОПРОС 7 The solar storm of 1859 was
1) the first solar storm on our planet.
2) twice as big as the fiercest recent storms.
3) less fierce than most recent solar storms.
4) the fiercest in recent history.

ВОПРОС 1: – 3
ВОПРОС 2: – 3
ВОПРОС 3: – 2
ВОПРОС 4: – 4
ВОПРОС 5: – 3
ВОПРОС 6: – 1
ВОПРОС 7: – 4