Yesterday, the sun had a bit of a conniption, and fired off a pair of X-class solar flares that were observed by NASA's Solar Dynamics Observatory. The first one (you can see both of them play out in the video below) was the largest, classified as an X2.2. Generally, solar flares don't get bigger than X, and the number denotes a multiplier, where an X2 flare is twice as big as an X1 flare. In 2003, we may have observed something between an X28 and an X45 (!), but the biggest solar flare in recorded history occurred in 1859.
We're not quite sure how big the 1859 flare was, but it was likely up into the Z-class range, and pointed directly at Earth. It generated aurorae that could be seen in the Caribbean and Hawaii, and farther north, the lights in the sky were bright enough to read by. Here's a contemporary account from Baltimore:
"Those who happened to be out late on Thursday night had an opportunity of witnessing another magnificent display of the auroral lights. The phenomenon was very similar to the display on Sunday night, though at times the light was, if possible, more brilliant, and the prismatic hues more varied and gorgeous. The light appeared to cover the whole firmament, apparently like a luminous cloud, through which the stars of the larger magnitude indistinctly shone. The light was greater than that of the moon at its full, but had an indescribable softness and delicacy that seemed to envelop everything upon which it rested. Between 12 and 1 o'clock, when the display was at its full brilliancy, the quiet streets of the city resting under this strange light, presented a beautiful as well as singular appearance."
While many of us would love to see aurorae like these, solar flares of this strength can cause serious damage to communications infrastructure. Were we to get hit by something similar, it would probably cost the world economy somewhere in the neighborhood of $2.6 trillion to repair the damage.
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Via NASA SDO