NASA

How A Solar Flare Could Have Wrecked Earth's Electronics

Researchers say if Earth had been a week earlier in its orbit around the sun, it would have taken a direct hit from a 2012 coronal mass ejection.

By Evan Thomas | July 25, 2014

We could have been living in the Stone Age!

That is, if Earth had been a few days earlier in its orbit around the sun two years ago. Scientists at NASA say in 2012, Earth narrowly avoided a direct hit from a coronal mass ejection — a solar flare, basically.

NASA explains coronal mass ejections, or CMEs, occur when huge bursts of energy launch material from the surface of the sun. If Earth's orbit takes it into the path of the CME, the charged plasma can wreak complete havoc with electronics.

That didn't happen in 2012. This is the specific CME that skated past Earth by just a week. NASA quotes one physicist who says we got very lucky: "If it had hit, we would still be picking up the pieces."

The scientists say in July of 2012, the sun launched a CME at speeds of more than 6.7 million mph — fast enough to make it from the sun to Earth in a little more than 13 hours. And their conclusions suggest we earthlings didn't just dodge a bullet, but an enormous, society-crippling space EMP.

NASA's records say the last time an event of this magnitude hit Earth, the electromagnetic fallout was sufficient to set telegraph offices on fire.

These days, the damage would be much more severe. NASA's scientists estimate the damage from the 2012 storm could have topped $2 trillion, or 20 times that caused by Hurricane Katrina.

Headlines like this one at ExtremeTech say it all, really — we don't have much of a backup plan.

 

"You can't just magically replace dozens of giant transformers and substations. If a giant solar storm hit the Earth, large parts of society could be without power for months or years."

The best defense, in this case, appears to be vigilance. The scientists using fleets of satellites to monitor the sun say even hours of advance warning could be enough to help — even if it's just unplugging things around the house. (Via NASA)

In the meantime, the scientific community is gathering all the data it can. The 2012 CME was the subject of a paper published in the journal Nature Communications this March.

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