Five years ago, when the Sun spat DEATH

By Phil Plait | November 3, 2008 9:09 am

It was five years ago when the Sun decided to show us who’s boss.

It was well past the solar max, the time when the twisted magnetic field of the Sun is at its worst. Things were dying down. In general, the biggest and most powerful explosions of released magnetic energy do lag the actual solar max by about a year, but we were well past that.

No one expected that in October and November of 2003 the Sun would unleash the most violent flares ever seen in modern times. One was so huge it was reclassified more than once, upgraded to be the nastiest event ever detected. The Sun, it seemed, can still surprise us.

NASA has put together some information on the fifth anniversary of this event. They also put together a video (it was for Halloween, hence the ghouliness).

I wrote about this extensively in my book. I learned a huge amount about the properties of the Sun, and what sort of damage it can do on Earth. It’s funny: to the eye you’d never see a flare; the Sun doesn’t get much brighter overall, so you’d hardly notice. But it can blow out transformers, melt power lines, and cause billions — yes, billions — of dollars in damage. We’re at the minimum of the solar cycle right now, but things are starting up again. Things will peak in about 5-6 years. What will happen two years after that?

Tip o’ the transformer to Rani Gran at the NASA/Goddard Space Flight Center Public Affairs Office!

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Astronomy, DeathfromtheSkies!

Comments (26)

  1. blurayven

    i cant wait to read your book phil, its at home in indiana and i am in new mexico for tech college (wind energy). im going home for thanksgiving though, will pick it up then. in the mean time i can read all the articles of DEATH.

  2. In a nice coincidence I just finished the Sun chapter a little while ago. So far I am really digging the book.

  3. Dan W.

    Just bought your book at Borders last night. cant wait to start reading it!

  4. BethK

    I saw my first aurora during that storm. I was absolutely positive when we saw a huge blotch of red from my front yard after bringing my daughter home from a Halloween party. I had been anxiously hoping that the magnetosphere disruptions we’d been seeing all day would hold out until it got dark here. Eventually I had aurora crowning over my house – and a camera not up to the task of capturing it.

    That doesn’t happen very often at 40 degrees north. It hasn’t been happening anywhere lately. :-( Maybe in a few more years.

  5. Adrian Lopez

    I’ve heard about flares interfering with the operation of computers, but I never knew a flare could melt power lines. How does that work, and would such a flare also cause damage to our nervous system?

  6. I hope some people get on the business of shielding satellites, including TV satellites. The destruction of one of both TV satellite systems broadcasting over the Arab countries could have some serious political consequences (part of the entire reason there are two instead of one).

  7. Cheyenne

    And they also just found that the magnetic poles sometimes line up? FTE- Flux Transfer Events apparently. I wonder what would happen if a major solar flare occurred precisely when that alignment occurred?

    Probably a whole lot more mayhem. Maybe a bit more Death From the Skies?

  8. Cheyenne

    Oopsy daisy- I meant the magnetic poles of the Sun and Earth line up- and are connected directly (but only for short periods of time).

  9. Michelle

    Oh yea, I remember that… First auroras I ever saw. It was surprising in my area. I live in Quebec, where there’s plenty of auroras… But I’m pretty close to Quebec City. So I miss almost all of them. However, these were so strong I could see pale grayish curtains dancing above my head, and I wasn’t even expecting that. It was AMAZING.

  10. The solar flares responsible for those aurorae had emanated from a giant sunspot region AR 10486. Click on my name for the link to NASA’s Astronomy Picture of the Day on 6-Nov-2003.

    Expect more useless information from me in due course.

  11. John Powell

    In all the recent talk of building a “smart” grid to replace our current electrical grid, are there any ideas on how to harden a future grid against damage from solar flares?

  12. As promised, here is some more useless information. Click on my name again and the link will lead you to a selection of movie/images of those solar flares, as observed by the Solar and Heliospheric Observatory (SOHO) on 4-Nov-2003.

  13. TheBlackCat

    They didn’t do anywhere near as good a job of making it scary as Phil did. “Yeah, we lost a few satellites and some people in Sweden lost power for a few hours”

  14. Having trouble with the YouTube link. It plays for a few seconds then locks up, again & again. Trouble with too many BAblogees linking at the same time? I’ll try again later… I don’t know what I’d do if the intertoobz went down for days at a time! Gaak!

    OTOH I’m bummed as all heck having nothing to show people through my Ha PST solar scope. Would it kill the sun to give us a nice sunspot now and then? Region 1007 is hopeful, but I want something more substantial to show folks! :grumble: :grumble:

    I had my Ha PST and my club’s CaK PST side-by-side on my Atlas mount at the Green Bank Open House last weekend to good effect, but there was nothing to show people… Hard to talk about a quiet sun and make it exciting.
    Rich in Charlottesville

  15. A small note: Depending on how you define “modern times”, the claim that this was the most powerful flares seen could be incorrect. The 1857 flare (I believe that’s the right year) was larger than the one 5 years ago. So much so that it caused power lines to arc and cause fires. Even though power was lost, there was still enough induced current that telegraph operators were still apparently able to send telegraphs.

  16. Maria

    Shhhh……… don’t say thatflares will peak in 5-6 years. It only gives ammunition to those that think we are in the first year of the 7 year tribulation……… :-)

  17. Bill

    Thanks, Phil, that reminded me of a blog I had to go out and find:

    Good satire; that crazy Bush.

  18. IVAN3MAN

    @ Jon Voisey (the Angry Astronomer)

    Actually, according to Wikipedia, it was on both August 28, 1859 and September 2, 1859 that the “great geomagnetic storm” occurred: Auroral events of historical significance. The second auroral event occurred as a result of the exceptionally intense Carrington-Hodgson white light solar flare on September 1, 1859, which produced aurorae so widespread and extraordinarily brilliant that at about one o’clock in the morning ordinary newspaper print could be read by the light. The following conversation occurred between two operators of the American Telegraph Line — one in Boston, Massachusetts, and the other in Portland, Maine — on the night of September 2, 1859 and reported in the Boston Traveler:

    Boston operator (to Portland operator): “Please cut off your battery [power source] entirely for fifteen minutes.”
    Portland operator: “Will do so. It is now disconnected.”
    Boston: “Mine is disconnected, and we are working with the auroral current. How do you receive my writing?”
    Portland: “Better than with our batteries on — current comes and goes gradually.”
    Boston: “My current is very strong at times, and we can work better without the batteries, as the aurora seems to neutralize and augment our batteries alternately, making current too strong at times for our relay magnets. Suppose we work without batteries while we are affected by this trouble.”
    Portland: “Very well. Shall I go ahead with business?”
    Boston: “Yes. Go ahead.”

  19. Occasionally you can see the aurora faintly here in Maine but during that storm is when I first really saw the aurora brightly. I remember standing out in the cold watching for hours, it was amazing.

  20. Originals for many of the data movies in this piece, many in HD, are available here:

    A broader range of solar-specific material here:

    They are free to use them in classrooms, etc.! They are a product of your tax dollars at work. Enjoy!

  21. Ozonator

    This is incorrect – “No one expected that in October and November of 2003 the Sun would unleash the most violent flares ever seen in modern times.” In addition to predicting the CME last week and this week, I had expected big things in the fall of 2003. I deleted the repeated predictions in “C” for the last 3 of 4 weeks. “Given the historic and unprecedented amount of solar flare activity over the last 3+ weeks … Evidence gained though almost a year of solar flare predictions published in GBRWE …“SUPERFLARE: … a coronal mass ejection (CME) hurled into space by the X28 explosion …” (“ What’s Up in Space — 6 Nov 2003″;, 11/6/03).
    … Except for missing the last monster x ray flare in week 11/2 – 8/03, my predictions provided better warning, better quantity and quality of solar flares, better duration of activities, and I included REF. Conservatively, NOAA’s SEC Space Weather Advisory predictions (enclosed) had x ray flare of 2 correct, 2 incorrect and coronal flare of 3 correct, 1 incorrect. My Supplemental GBRWE’s predictions had x ray flare of 2 correct, 2 incorrect and coronal flare of 4 correct, no incorrect. … The last 4 weeks of my solar flare predictions were sent from 10/11/03 – 11/1/03 in GBRWE Supplementals 10/12 – 18/03, 10/19 – 25/03, 10/26 – 11/1/03, and 11/2 – 8/03 … “C. Our monster biological activity also requires warnings from liberated solar flare activity and other discharges from the Ozonator Star Model. 1. There should be monster solar flare(s) (discharges) will hit planet Earth in the form of x-ray(s), radio blackout(s) and/or similar energies. 2. There should be monster predicted CMEs (coronal mass ejection(s)) with a G+ geomagnetic storm(s) to hit planet Earth. 3. The HooShooToo Model for predicting Electron 2MeV Integral Flux (relativistic electron fluxes – REF) is predicted to produce at least one alert with a single day maximum >7000 pfu” (“Extreme Warning – GBRWE* 10/12 – 18/03’s Extreme Planetary Warnings for Earthquakes, Volcanoes, and Solar/Terrestrial Flares from Human Activities**”; Robert Rhodes, Supplemental; GBRWE 10/12 – 18/03; 10/11/03)(x ray flare, incorrect and coronal flare, correct) … “ …C. … >7000 pfu “ (“GBRWE* 10/19 – 25/03’s Extreme Planetary Warnings for Earthquakes, Volcanoes, and Solar/Terrestrial Flares from Human Activities **”; Robert Rhodes, Supplemental; GBRWE 10/19 – 25/03; 10/18/03)(x ray flare, correct and coronal flare, correct) … “It is going to be a violent week. Another round of severe CMEs (coronal mass ejections) …C. … >8000 pfu“ (“GBRWE* 10/26 – 11/1/03’s Extreme Planetary Warnings for Earthquakes, Volcanoes, and Solar/Terrestrial Flares from Human Activities *”; Robert Rhodes, Supplemental; GBRWE 10/26 – 11/1/03; 10/25/03)(x ray flare, correct and coronal flare, correct) … “There should be yet another round of severe CMEs (coronal mass ejections) as bad as last week’s ….C. … >5000 pfu” (“GBRWE* 11/2 – 8/03’s Extreme Planetary Warnings for Earthquakes, Volcanoes, and Solar/Terrestrial Flares from Human Activities **”; Robert Rhodes, Supplemental; GBRWE 11/2 – 8/03; 11/1/03)(x ray flare, incorrect and coronal flare, correct)” (“The End of the Earth’s Humans will be through Solar Flares, not Global Warming or Terrorism”; Robert Rhodes, Supplemental; GBRWE 11/2 – 8/03; 11/6/03).

  22. Grand Lunar

    Too bad I wasn’t at home for the storms; I would’ve loved to see the auroras produced by the storms.

    I now join the many loyal fans here in having received “DEATH”!
    It actually came a day early.

    Loving it already!

  23. Don Snow

    I remember that my computer at that time kept crashing. I figured a solar flare, but didn’t know how big, until I saw photos of aurorae far into North America. I think St. Louis, Mo. could see aurora, if I remember correctly. Definitely, some city in Ohio could see aurora.

  24. whomever1

    I purchased your book Death from the Skies in electronic format for my Amazon Kindle and was greatly enjoying it. Then halfway through the book I got an error message, and wasn’t able to read any of my books without resetting the e-book reader, and any time I try to open Death from the Skies, the same thing happens. Since I bought the book wirelessly, I assume this is your attempt to be self-referential.
    Amazon Help is on the case.

  25. It is interesting to note that the astronomy/scientific community have a long history of denouncing theories outside of its inner circle. I believe that the lone pioneering work of Grote Reber in demonstrating the invisible radio universe is one of the best examples of how self appointed pontiffs of science cannot match the work of an amateur who is doing the work for the love of it. Please check out for more information

  26. Ozonator

    Phil Plait ,

    You are the only good thing on coasttocoast anymore. Good luck with the book. I can’t read it because of the toxic ink and formaldehyde. Thought you might like to see that there is some easily provable basis for my claims of spitting death.

    #58th comment

    posted 11/24/08 @ 12:55 PM PST
    Ozonator and humanity 1
    extremist Republicans and Christians 0

    “EXPLOSION IN PROGRESS: An explosion is underway on the sun. The source of the blast lies out of sight somewhere over the sun’s western limb, but the ejecta is visible as it billows into space: … Click to view a 1 MB movie … A coronagraph onboard the Solar and Heliospheric Observatory (SOHO) is monitoring the progress of the expanding CME. The cloud is not directed at Earth and should cause no geomagnetic activity on our planet. It is, however, a promising “sign of life” on the sun. Slowly but surely, solar minimum is coming to an end” (“What’s up in Space”; Dr. Tony Phillips;, 11/24/08).

    “Ozonator posted 11/22/08 @ 1:27 PM PST … Practicing science with a conscience; … I enclose many of the predictable, violent chunks of global warming generated by the toxic mother’s milk of the ExxonMobils and willing accomplices. … “A. Our Ozonator’s preamble for Survival … 1. … In this day and age, to give more free time for the Prophet Muhammad … ~700,000+ violently dead GBRWE victims of global warming and other environmental racism. … Spectacular solar wind and/or CMEs should be of the man-made varieties on both sides of the Sun with CMEs””.

    But doesn’t Albino Roy “d-rage” Spencer work at the University of Alabama at Huntsville doing whizz quizzes for the local inmates, fraternities, and sororities with his Holy Grail in his pants (front or back)? “The sun is going through a peaceful time, Huntsville scientists say, with the lowest number of recorded sunspots marked in 2008 compared to the past 54 years. The sun has been dormant for 210 days this year … Dr. David … Hathaway said … “What we have now is a featureless ball.” … Hard to predict, sunspots and solar flares spew particles toward the Earth” (“Sun draws a blank with Huntsville scientists”; Posted by Shelby G. Spires;, 10/21/08). “The sun of science … A better prediction about the sun’s inner and outer workings is the Holy Grail for any solar researcher … Understanding of how the sun interacts with Earth to influence our planets fragile climate is critical to our well-being, he said” (“Solar Storms Keep Space Forecaster Hopping”; By Leonard David, Senior Space Writer;, 4/17/00).”


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