Articles | Volume 23, issue 3
30 Mar 2005
 | 30 Mar 2005

Identification of possible intense historical geomagnetic storms using combined sunspot and auroral observations from East Asia

D. M. Willis, G. M. Armstrong, C. E. Ault, and F. R. Stephenson

Abstract. Comprehensive catalogues of ancient sunspot and auroral observations from East Asia are used to identify possible intense historical geomagnetic storms in the interval 210 BC-AD 1918. There are about 270 entries in the sunspot catalogue and about 1150 entries in the auroral catalogue. Special databases have been constructed in which the scientific information in these two catalogues is placed in specified fields. For the purposes of this study, an historical geomagnetic storm is defined in terms of an auroral observation that is apparently associated with a particular sunspot observation, in the sense that the auroral observation occurred within several days of the sunspot observation. More precisely, a selection criterion is formulated for the automatic identification of such geomagnetic storms, using the oriental records stored in the sunspot and auroral databases. The selection criterion is based on specific assumptions about the duration of sunspot visibility with the unaided eye, the likely range of heliographic longitudes of an energetic solar feature, and the likely range of transit times for ejected solar plasma to travel from the Sun to the Earth. This selection criterion results in the identification of nineteen putative historical geomagnetic storms, although two of these storms are spurious in the sense that there are two examples of a single sunspot observation being associated with two different auroral observations separated by more than half a (synodic) solar rotation period. The literary and scientific reliabilities of the East Asian sunspot and auroral records that define the nineteen historical geomagnetic storms are discussed in detail in a set of appendices. A possible time sequence of events is presented for each geomagnetic storm, including possible dates for both the central meridian passage of the sunspot and the occurrence of the energetic solar feature, as well as likely transit times for the ejected solar plasma. European telescopic sunspot drawings from the seventeenth century are also used to assess the credibility of some of the later historical geomagnetic storms defined solely by the East Asian sunspot and auroral records. These drawings cast doubt on a few of the associations between sunspot and auroral observations based entirely on the oriental records, at least to the extent that the occidental drawings provide a more realistic date for central meridian passage of the sunspot actually associated with a particular auroral observation. Nevertheless, on those occasions for which European sunspot drawings are available, the dates of all the pertinent East Asian sunspot and auroral observations are corroborated, apart from just one Chinese sunspot observation. The ancient historical observations of sunspots and aurorae are discussed briefly in terms of modern observations of great geomagnetic storms.