Although it sounds like science fiction, two years ago today the earth narrowly (by cosmic standards) missed being hit by a massive solar storm that had the potential to knock our technology-dependant society back a hundred years.
Back in 2010 we looked at the granddaddy of all known solar storms, the Carrington Event of 1859, and have revisited the topic a number of times since then, including:
While this solar cycle has produced the weakest solar maximum in living memory, it also produced – on July 23rd, 2012 – the largest known solar flare in 155 years. A double-whammy solar flare that rivaled, or perhaps even exceeded, the power of the 1859 Carrington event.
One that - had it erupted a week earlier – would have directly impacted earth.
A Solar Flare is the brief, sudden release of radiation energy (X-Ray, Gamma Rays, & energetic particles (protons and electrons)) from the surface of the sun, generally in the vicinity of an active sunspot.
Solar flares are rated as either C Class (minor), M Class (Moderate), or X Class (extreme), and while the electromagnetic radiation they release can reach earth in only about 8 minutes time, their effects are mostly limited to disrupting communications and potentially damaging satellites.
A CME (Coronal Mass Ejection) is the ejection of a massive amount of plasma (electrons and protons & small quantities of helium, oxygen, and iron) from the the sun that may last for hours. Some of this plasma falls back into the sun, but trillions of tons can escape and if aimed in their direction, impact surrounding planets.
A CME may arrive on earth – 93 millions miles distant from the sun – 48 to 72 hours after it is observed, and spark a Geomagnetic Storm.
While they pose no direct physical danger to us on the earth’s surface (we are protected by the earths magnetic field and atmosphere), a large CME can wreak havoc with electronics, power generation, and radio communications.
All of which brings us to a report, and 4 minute video, from NASA on this second anniversary of the earth almost getting clobbered by a `Carrington class’ solar storm. First the links, and excerpts, and then I’ll be back with more.
July 23, 2014: If an asteroid big enough to knock modern civilization back to the 18th century appeared out of deep space and buzzed the Earth-Moon system, the near-miss would be instant worldwide headline news.
Two years ago, Earth experienced a close shave just as perilous, but most newspapers didn't mention it. The "impactor" was an extreme solar storm, the most powerful in as much as 150+ years.
"If it had hit, we would still be picking up the pieces," says Daniel Baker of the University of Colorado.
A ScienceCast video recounts the near-miss of a solar superstorm in July 2012. Play it
From my perspective, that wasn’t a `near miss’ . . . that was more of a `near hit’.
And even more sobering is this assessment, suggesting the odds of earth being struck by one of these solar super storms is actually a lot higher than we’ve previously thought. Again from the NASA article:
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%.
FEMA takes these solar storms seriously, and in 2010 held a major table-top exercise in anticipation of the upcoming solar maximum. According to a tweet from FEMA Director Craig Fugate back in 2011, they now include a solar weather update in their daily briefings.
A 30 page PDF file is available for download from the FEMA library on this exercise which envisioned a `near worst-case scenario’.
In 2009 the National Academy of Sciences produced a 134 page report on the potential damage that another major solar flare could cause in Severe Space Weather Events—Understanding Societal and Economic Impacts.
You can download the PDF for free from the National Academies Press at the above link.
In November of 2012 the U.S. National Intelligence Council released a report called "Global Trends 2030: Alternative Worlds" that tries to anticipate the global shifts that will likely occur over the next two decades (see Black Swan Events). Making their top 10 list was:
7. Solar Geomagnetic Storms
"Solar geomagnetic storms could knock out satellites, the electric grid, and many sensitive electronic devices. The recurrence intervals of crippling solar geomagnetic storms, which are less than a century, now pose a substantial threat because of the world's dependence on electricity," the report says.
And last year Lloyds of London issued a risk assessment for the insurance industry called Solar storm Risk to the north American electric grid which calls another `Carrington’ class event inevitable, and the effects likely catastrophic, but the timing is unknowable.
Solar storms are among a number of plausible low-probability, high-impact events that – while not anything I would lie awake at night worrying about – are nevertheless worth considering as part of a balanced `All Hazards’ approach to preparedness.
In the 2011 OECD Report: Future Global Shocks report, the authors concentrated most of their attention on five highly disruptive future shock events.
- A Pandemic
- A Cyber Attack
- A Financial Crisis
- A Geomagnetic Storm
- Social Unrest/Revolution
While all of these are difficult to prepare for, the truth is - if you are well prepared for an earthquake or a hurricane - you are automatically in a better position to deal with the disruptions caused by these more exotic threats. Some resources to get you started on the road to `all threats’ preparedness include:
AMERICAN RED CROSS http://www.redcross.org/
And some of my preparedness blogs, including: