The world's media has been awash recently with news of a cosmic near-miss a couple of years ago that could have spelled disaster for planet Earth.
Physicists have released details of a solar storm that occurred on July 23rd, 2012, along with the disturbing fact that, had the storm occurred just one week earlier, Earth would have been directly in the line of fire.
“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,” physicist Daniel Baker of the University of Colorado said in a NASA Science online release. “If the eruption had occurred only one week earlier, Earth would have been in the line of fire.”
During the 2012 blast, the sun unleashed two enormous plasma clouds, known as coronal mass ejections (CMEs), that combined to form the most violent solar storm for over 150 years, rivalling the historic Carrington storm of September 1859. This dramatic solar event was named after English astronomer Richard Carrington, who recorded its ferocity.
“In my view the July 2012 storm was in all respects at least as strong as the 1859 Carrington event,” Baker told NASA. “The only difference is, it missed. If it had hit, we would still be picking up the pieces.”
If the timing had been right, billions of tonnes of highly charged particles would have been propelled towards Earth's magnetic field at a speed of 2,500 km (1,500 miles) per second. The result would have been visually breath-taking, with a spectacular display of the northern lights (aurora borealis) and southern lights (aurora australis) visible as far as the equator, turning the night sky as bright as daytime.
Historical records detail how, during the Carrington event, the northern lights were seen as far south as Cuba and Hawaii, and the solar eruption caused global telegraph lines to spark and start fires.
So what would have been the effect on Earth if the deadly storm had unleashed its fury directly towards us?
According to NASA, the impacts of the solar flare could have brought the developed world to a standstill; power grids and satellites would have undoubtedly been knocked out and the aftermath could have profoundly affected almost every aspect of daily life for years to come:
“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.”
Steve Tracton of The Washington Post’s Capital Weather Gang added his views: “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.”
According to NASA, the velocity of the storm in July 2012 was exacerbated as it was unleashed along a clear pathway, cleared by a previous CME a short while before:
“This double-CME traveled through a region of space that had been cleared out by yet another CME four days earlier,” NASA said. “ As a result, the storm clouds were not decelerated as much as usual by their transit through the interplanetary medium.”
Earth may have dodged a solar bullet two years ago, but advice from NASA suggests that there is a 12 percent chance of another potentially earth-shattering event occurring during the next 10 years, according to Pete Riley of Predictive Science, and next time, we may not be so lucky.
“Initially, I was quite surprised that the odds were so high, but the statistics appear to be correct,” Riley told NASA. “It is a sobering figure.”
The world's media has disseminated this story as though it is surprising new information, yet Unknown Country has been warning of the risks from such significant solar storms for years. Whitley Strieber has even written an e-book, entitled "Solar Flares - What You Need To Know," which is available to purchase from Amazon.