How a solar storm two years ago nearly caused a catastrophe on Earth

Solar flare preceding CMEs on July 22, 2012 (NASA)

CME captured by NASA July 23, 2012 (NASA)

On July 23, 2012, the sun unleashed two massive clouds of plasma that barely missed a catastrophic encounter with the Earth’s atmosphere.  These plasma clouds, known as coronal mass ejections (CMEs), comprised a solar storm thought to be the most powerful in at least 150 years.

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


Via NASA: “This movie shows a coronal mass ejection (CME) on the sun from July 22, 2012 at 10:00 p.m. EDT until 2 a.m. on July 23 as captured by NASA’s Solar Terrestrial RElations Observatory-Ahead (STEREO-A). Because the CME headed in STEREO-A’s direction, it appears like a giant halo around the sun. NOTE: This video loops 3 times.” Credit: NASA/STEREO

Fortunately, the blast site of the CMEs was not directed at Earth.  Had this event occurred a week earlier when the point of eruption was Earth-facing, a potentially disastrous outcome would have unfolded.

“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 tells NASA.  “If the eruption had occurred only one week earlier, Earth would have been in the line of fire.”


Video overview of July 23, 2012 solar storm

A CME double whammy of this potency striking Earth would likely cripple satellite communications and could severely damage the power grid.  NASA offers this sobering assessment:

Analysts believe that a direct hit … 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.

. . .

According to a study by the National Academy of Sciences, the total economic impact could exceed $2 trillion or 20 times greater than the costs of a Hurricane Katrina. Multi-ton transformers damaged by such a storm might take years to repair.

CWG’s Steve Tracton put it this way in his frightening overview of the risks of a severe solar storm: “The consequences could be devastating for commerce, transportation, agriculture and food stocks, fuel and water supplies, human health and medical facilities, national security, and daily life in general.”

Solar physicists compare the 2012 storm to the so-called Carrington solar storm of September 1859, named after English astronomer Richard Carrington who documented the event.   

“In my view the July 2012 storm was in all respects at least as strong as the 1859 Carrington event,” Baker tells NASA. “The only difference is, it missed.”

During the Carrington event, the northern lights were seen as far south as Cuba and Hawaii according to historical accounts.  The solar eruption “caused global telegraph lines to spark, setting fire to some telegraph offices,” NASA  notes.

NASA says the July 2012 storm was particularly intense because a CME had traveled along the same path just days before the July 23 double whammy – clearing the way for maximum effect, like a snowplow.

“This double-CME traveled through a region of space that had been cleared out by yet another CME four days earlier,” NASA says. ” As a result, the storm clouds were not decelerated as much as usual by their transit through the interplanetary medium.”

NASA’s online article about the science of this solar storm is well-worth the read.  Perhaps the scariest finding reported in the article is this:  There is a 12 percent chance of a Carrington-type event on Earth in the next 10 years according to Pete Riley of Predictive Science Inc.

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

It’s even more sobering when considering the conclusion of Steve Tracton’s 2013 article: Are we ready yet for potentially disastrous impacts of space weather? Tracton’s answer: “an unequivocal, if not surprising, no!”

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