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The night the sky caught fire

Record of a geomagnetic storm

British Geological SurveyRecord of a geomagnetic stormBritish Geological Survey

Colombian researchers have found evidence that a spectacle of colorful and dazzlingly bright lights illuminated the city of Montería, Colombia, on the night of September 2, 1859.  These lights have the same origin as the polar aurora events commonly seen at latitudes close to the North or South Poles: they are emitted when electrically charged particles ejected by the Sun collide with the Earth’s atmosphere.  On September 1, 1859, as British astronomer Richard Carrington was observing a dark spot on the surface of the Sun, a brilliant flash suddenly erupted from it.  This mass ejection of charged particles from the Sun, known as the Carrington Event, is considered by modern-day astrophysicists to be the largest on record.  The explosion produced extraordinary polar aurorae over the two following days.  Many newspaper of the time reported sightings of these events in Northern Hemisphere countries far below the Arctic Circle, where aurorae normally appear.  Cities in Cuba and Panama were already known to have witnessed the light show.  But now, Freddy Cárdenas and Sergio Sánchez from the Gimnasio Campestre school in the city of Bogotá, Colombia, in partnership with astronomer Santiago Domínguez from the National University of Colombia, have discovered a description of the aurora written at the time by José Inés Ruiz, vicar at the cathedral of Montería, located south of Panama City (Advances in Space Research, September 1, 2015).