In one of those lovely “This could happen to YOU!” stories, my favorite astronomer says 2012 really could have been bad. Like, “global disaster” bad:
In July 2012 the Earth dodged a bullet. Or more accurately, the bullet was misaimed. But had it hit, we’d have been in big trouble.
The bullet in this case was a solar storm, an eruption of a billion tons of plasma exploding outward from the Sun. This kind of event—called a coronal mass ejection, or CME—is actually relatively common. But this particular CME was a monster … in fact, it may have been the most powerful one ever seen.
People sometimes ask me if anything in astronomy actually worries me. Something like this is near the top…
What’s this? A “space weather expert” explains:
Coronal mass ejections are caused when the magnetic field in the sun’s atmosphere gets disrupted and then the plasma, the sun’s hot ionized gas, erupts and send charged particles into space. Think of it like a hurricane — is it headed toward us or not headed toward us? If we’re lucky, it misses us.
What went wrong in the 1989 storm?
In the U.K., there were two damaged transformers that had to be repaired. But no power cuts. The worst thing is what happened in Quebec. In Quebec, the power system went from normal operation to failure in 90 seconds. It affected around 6 million people. The impact was reckoned to be $2 billion Canadian in 1989 prices.
We had lots of disruption to communications to spacecraft operations. The North American Aerospace Defense Command has big radars tracking everything in space, and as they describe it, they lost 1,600 space objects. They found them again, but for a few days they didn’t know where they were.
A serious concern would be whole regions losing electrical power for some significant time. Here in the U.K., the official assessment is that we could lose one or two regions where the power might be out for several months.
And then, the toughest lament of the scientist:
We had a recent flare-up of publicity in March thanks to a solar storm that didn’t really amount to much. Is this sort of coverage a good thing or a bad thing?
It makes such a good scare story, and it’s entertaining. It was a mildly interesting event, certainly, but not at all big-league stuff. It makes people think, “Oh it’s nothing really,” so experts like myself are in danger of being in the crying-wolf situation. That’s something that is a concern to me, personally.
Of course Killing Joke covered this. Of course it was in the album called 2012 (well…MMXII):
Cities on blackout, satellites are knocked out
I-phones, laptops, it’s one big belly flop
Servers, TV, alarms and security
Everything’s gone in seconds
Cars are all crashing, planes are all grounded
Everyone knows it’s over
Borders on lock down, everything’s on shut down
Everyone knows it’s over
The solar storms have come and chaos rules outside
The freezer’s broke, the food is off, the GPS has died
Communications have all gone down, the world is flying blind
Everyone’s at boiling point — and noone’s got the ice