Solar storm almost fried Earth's electronics two years ago?

A fascinating NASA presentation suggests that in July 2012 Earth was one week away from being struck by a massive solar storm that would have had devastating effects. Can this be?

coronalmassejection.jpg
A coronal mass ejection. NASA/Goddard Space Flight Center

Near-misses are never quite as exciting as a direct hit that splatters all before it.

Still, this week saw the second anniversary of an event that might have changed lives and, well, even wrecked Facebook's march to power. At least, that's what some scientists believe.

NASA's own Science News describes this event as being "perilous." Indeed, as perilous as "an asteroid big enough to knock modern civilization back to the 18th century."

There are plenty of people here on Earth who are already machinating to send us back to the 18th century. Clearly, there's something alluring about olden times.

In this case, however, it's the coronal mass ejection that's captivating minds. This solar storm "tore through Earth orbit in 2012," says Science News. "Fortunately Earth wasn't there."

Yes, Earth was, as usual, out to lunch.

The fear, though, was that if the storm had struck us, our technology would have been disrupted. Some larger elements of technology would have taken years to repair, apparently.

Worse, in the words of physicist Daniel Baker of the University of Colorado: "If it had hit, we would still be picking up the pieces."

It's unclear exactly which particular pieces actually would be picked up. I am troubled when such suggestions lead the New York Post to conclude: "Solar flare nearly destroyed Earth two years ago."

I hadn't got the sense that these CMEs, which are billions of tons of magnetized plasma hurtling through space, would actually destroy Earth. Rather, they might wreck our electronics for a while. That doesn't seem quite the same thing.

Some might argue that Earth could do with a little rest from electronic attachment, anyway.

Baker described the probable effects like this: "Extreme solar storms pose a threat to all forms of high-technology. They begin with an explosion -- a 'solar flare' -- in the magnetic canopy of a sunspot. X-rays and extreme UV radiation reach Earth at light speed, ionizing the upper layers of our atmosphere; side-effects of this 'solar EMP' include radio blackouts and GPS navigation errors."

That's only Phase One.

Next: "Minutes to hours later, the energetic particles arrive. Moving only slightly slower than light itself, electrons and protons accelerated by the blast can electrify satellites and damage their electronics. Then come the CMEs, billion-ton clouds of magnetized plasma that take a day or more to cross the Sun-Earth divide. Analysts believe that a direct hit by an extreme CME such as the one that missed Earth in July 2012 could cause widespread power blackouts, disabling everything that plugs into a wall socket. Most people wouldn't even be able to flush their toilet because urban water supplies largely rely on electric pumps."

The scientists, who studied the solar storm and actually released their findings last year, compare this to the Carrington Event of 1859. In that, beautiful lights were seen across the sky and telegraph lines began to spark.

The world, as far as I can see, didn't actually end.

It's natural that the second anniversary of a solar storm near-miss would lead to some publicity and frissons of excited fear.

But the only thing that was struck by the 2012 storm was the Stereo-A satellite, which was beyond the Earth's orbit. Not only did it survive, but it managed to record some data of the event.

Baker explained: "Inside Earth's magnetosphere, strong electric currents can be generated by a CME strike. Out in interplanetary space, however, the ambient magnetic field is much weaker and so those dangerous currents are missing."

Perhaps the ultimate truth is that we can't fully know how such a solar storm would affect us, until one actually does. Scientists suggest there's a 12 percent chance such a thing will happen in the next 10 years.

We can't, as I understand it, actually prevent it happening. Preparation is the only option we have. But it's not exactly easy to prepare for something whose effect is, at heart, not entirely known.

I contacted Baker to ask what specific preparations he feels we might take and will update, should I hear.

A future storm might be stronger or weaker than the one on July 23, 2012. With naturally occurring phenomena, how can we know their full effects?

We are, after all, just a tiny planet in a universe that is full of things we don't understand.

 

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