NASA Scientists are now saying that a couple years ago a massive solar flare passed by the Earth so close that, if the timing had been more spot-on, it would have disrupted and knocked out most communications systems on the planet, not to mention doing the same for many electronic gadgets and machines. This was in 2012. And if the solar superstorm had hit Earth, there would have been quite a few of those doomsday prepper people saying things like: "I told you so."
Agence France-Presse reported (via Yahoo News) July 24 that on July 23, 2012, a solar storm rolled past Earth in a near-miss that would have been large enough to "knock modern civilization back to the 18th century," according to NASA. That solar storm, scientists said, was the most powerful in 150 years.
Back in 2012, when everybody was reading stories and talking about the impending Mayan Apocalypse, there were a few doomsday accepters who just knew that the Sun was about to fire off gigantic -- or perhaps a series of -- coronal mass ejections, otherwise known as the phenomena commonly referred to as solar flares. The electromagnetic energy shot out from these flares would most likely destroy sources of power around the world, crippling the world's ability to generate electricity.
But most didn't know that the Sun was in its most violent phase of a continuous cycle that repeats itself every 11 years on average. The phase is known as "Solar Maximum." The Earth is currently in Solar Cycle 24, which began in 2008.
Even those that did know and understand the workings of the Sun were just as oblivious to the solar flare that swept past the Earth that July.
Daniel Baker, who is a professor of atmospheric and space physics at the University of Colorado, noted: "If the eruption had occurred only one week earlier, Earth would have been in the line of fire." In fact, if it had hit, the world "would still be picking up the pieces," he said, according to the NASA website.
The solar storm hit STEREO-A, a solar observatory designed to observe, among other things, solar phenomena. The 2012 solar storm gifted NASA with enormous amounts of data. And that data were somewhat alarming.
The solar storm that washed over STEREO-A, scientists concluded, would have been worse than the Carrington Event.
For those not in the know, the Carrington Event -- until now -- was the largest solar storm event on record. It was the name given the solar superstorm that bombarded the Earth and knocked out all power in the Canadian province of Quebec in 1859.
"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," said Baker.
The economic impact of a solar storm like the Carrington Event could cost the modern economy more than two trillion dollars and cause damage that might take years to repair, according to the National Academy of Sciences (per AFP). But NASA noted that the 2012 event was twice as powerful. And the power-dependent infrastructure of the planet is far more extensive than it was in 1859.
It is the stuff of bad horror movies and the fear of many a doomsday prepper, the knocking out of "The Grid," or the world's power sources. Not only that, but the charged electrons and protons that follow a mass coronal ejection (or solar flare) have the ability to fry the electrical systems of satellites and other mechanical outliers in space, an occurrence that could conceivable shut down long-distance communications. A direct hit by a solar storm could very well cause extensive blackouts that impact any number of infrastructural systems, from guidance systems and radios. Water systems could even be affected, given that many of them run on electric pumps.
Most of the time the Earth is protected against most solar winds by the magnetic belts that surround the planet. But giant solar flares and their subsequent storms have the potential to overwhelm the protective fields.
Physicist Pete Riley published a paper in the journal Space Weather earlier this year on the topic of solar storms, and he found that there was a 12 percent chance that a Carrington Event-sized solar superstorm could hit the Earth with the next decade.
Still, to show that the universe seems to always be seeking some sort of balance, it was noted by astronomers last year that the Sun's space-weather cycle was at its least energetic in a century, according to Space.com. Even though the Sun was at solar maximum, it was being rather subdued. And like the near-miss from the solar superstorm, a rather subdued Sun is a good thing for those of us on planet Earth.