A Solar Storm Almost Threw Earth Over 200 Years Back in Time

As we blithely went about our lives on July 23, 2012, we had no idea how close we were to a Revolution-esque technology blackout caused by a huge magnetic super storm from the Sun.

The size of solar flares compared to the size of Earth (Photo: NASA)

Two years ago, modern infrastructure came very close to a serious disruption. The culprit? One of the largest solar storms in recorded history, which would have sent civilization back to the 18th or 19th century, according to NASA.

However, few Earthlings had any idea what was going on.

The freak space weather was caused by a rapid succession of coronal mass ejections, intense eruptions from the surface of the Sun also known as solar flares, which sent a pulse of magnetised plasma hurtling out into space and through the Earth’s orbit.

“If the eruption had occurred only one week earlier, Earth would have been in the line of fire,” said Daniel Baker, professor of atmospheric and space physics at the University of Colorado.

This is not the first time solar activity has threatened Earth.

A massive solar storm in 1859, dubbed the Carrington Event after the English astronomer who witnessed it, caused the northern lights to appear as far south as Cuba; and it caused telegraph lines to spark, setting fire to a number of buildings, according to [email protected] editor Dr. Tony Phillips.

“According to data from the STEREO-A spacecraft (a solar observatory), the solar storm of July 23, 2012, was every bit as potent as the Carrington storms,” he said.

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. 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.

In terms of our technological capabilities, we’d be pushed back hundreds of years. Since phones were invented in the 19th century, we’d essentially be forced to live 18th century lifestyles again.

Most people wouldn’t even be able to flush their toilet because urban water supplies largely rely on electric pumps.

“An extreme space weather storm — a solar superstorm — is a low-probability, high-consequence event that poses severe threats to critical infrastructures of the modern society,” warned Liu, who is with the National Space Science Center of the Chinese Academy of Sciences in Beijing.

“The cost of an extreme space weather event, if it hits Earth, could reach trillions of dollars with a potential recovery time of 4-10 years. Therefore, it is paramount to the security and economic interest of the modern society to understand solar superstorms.”

In February 2014, physicist Pete Riley of Predictive Science Inc. published a paper in Space Weather entitled “On the probability of occurrence of extreme space weather events.” In it, he analyzed records of solar storms going back 50+ years. By extrapolating the frequency of ordinary storms to the extreme, he calculated the odds that a Carrington-class storm would hit Earth in the next ten years.

The answer: 12%.

“Initially, I was quite surprised that the odds were so high, but the statistics appear to be correct,” says Riley. “It is a sobering figure.”

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