Pure Dumb Luck Saved Us from a Calamity in 2012 Sparked by One of the Strongest Solar Storms in Recorded History

By Tom Yulsman | August 2, 2014 1:27 am

On July 23, 2012, billions of tons of plasma exploded from the Sun and raced out into space in what was one of the most powerful solar storms ever recorded.

And it’s only by chance that Earth wasn’t in the way of this gargantuan coronal mass ejection, or CME.

“If it had hit, we would still be picking up the pieces,” Daniel Baker of the University of Colorado told NASA.

And that may be putting it mildly. A CME of the size that almost hit us in July of 2o12 would probably knock out satellites we depend on for modern telecommunications and also cause global blackouts lasting for months.

Everything that plugs into a wall socket would be disabled. And as NASA puts it, “Most people wouldn’t even be able to flush their toilet because urban water supplies largely rely on electric pumps.”

For a good overview of the solar storm that almost caused this kind of mayhem in 2012, and how it compared to the notorious Carrington event of September, 1859 (which set telegraph lines on fire and caused auroral displays as far south as Cuba), check out the video above.

“I have come away from our recent studies more convinced than ever that Earth and its inhabitants were incredibly fortunate that the 2012 eruption happened when it did,” Baker says. “If the eruption had occurred only one week earlier, Earth would have been in the line of fire.”

The cloud of particles, rocketing outward at 3,000 kilometers per second — more than four times faster than a typical CME — hit NASA’s STEREO-A spacecraft. As a result of its design, and the fact that it travels in interplanetary space (a much safer place, it turns out, that inside Earth’s magnetosphere), the spacecraft survived and transmitted valuable data and imagery back to Earth.

The NASA video above includes some of that imagery. Other spacecraft also captured direct and indirect evidence of the event, and you can see some of that in the video too.

Earth stands about a 12 percent chance of actually being hit by material from a solar storm of this magnitude in the next decade, according to research by physicist Pete Riley published in the journal Space Weather. So it’s not a question of if we’ll be hit; it’s only a question of when. And unfortunately, the world is woefully unprepared to deal with the consequences.

CATEGORIZED UNDER: select, Solar System, Sun, Top Posts
  • Christien Janson

    12% per what? Year? Event? Century?

    • Buddy199
      • Tom Yulsman

        Thanks for this Buddy. Wired was on top it!

    • Tom Yulsman

      Good editing catch Christien! I was in too much of a rush to finish this post last night. I’ve fixed the story now and provided a link to the actual research. (In answer to your question: It’s a 12% risk over the course of the next decade.) Thank you for taking the time to read the whole story and leave your comment. I appreciate it.

      • Christien Janson

        Now i understand the story a lot better, so thanks!

  • Buddy199

    So the Mata were almost right? Spooky… Can you imagine the New Age doomsday cult lunacy that would have followed such an event if it had actually occurred.

    • Skookum1

      The Maya never said any such thing; New Age mumbo jumbo said that they were saying that; they denounced such claims

  • http://www.citizensclimatelobby.org/ Fred G

    Was it Nostradamus who predicted such an event like this?

  • Maia

    If this kind of event is definitely going to happen, shouldn’t we be making changes ? We live such plugged-in lives, and this leaves us vulnerable. Can we try doing more things without gadgets and machines so that somethings will work even if the grid goes down?

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ImaGeo

ImaGeo is a visual blog focusing on the intersection of imagery, imagination and Earth. It focuses on spectacular visuals related to the science of our planet, with an emphasis (although not an exclusive one) on the unfolding Anthropocene Epoch.

About Tom Yulsman

Tom Yulsman is Director of the Center for Environmental Journalism and a Professor of Journalism at the University of Colorado, Boulder. He also continues to work as a science and environmental journalist with more than 30 years of experience producing content for major publications. His work has appeared in the New York Times, Washington Post, Audubon, Climate Central, Columbia Journalism Review, Discover, Nieman Reports, and many other publications. He has held a variety of editorial positions over the years, including a stint as editor-in-chief of Earth magazine. Yulsman has written one book: Origins: the Quest for Our Cosmic Roots, published by the Institute of Physics in 2003.

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