Our planet dodged a "huge magnetic bullet" -- for lack of a better term -- according to a new report by University of California, Berkeley, and Chinese researchers, which was published in the journal Nature Communications.
The paper, released earlier this week, states that "a rapid succession of coronal mass ejections -- the most intense eruptions on the sun -- sent a pulse of magnetized plasma barreling into space and through Earth’s orbit" in July of 2012.
Turns out anyone subscribing to those Mayan doomsday prophecies weren’t so far off, after all. Well, almost ...
"Had the eruption come nine days earlier," a release from University of California, Berkeley, states, "it would have hit Earth, potentially wreaking havoc with the electrical grid, disabling satellites and GPS, and disrupting our increasingly electronic lives."
Indeed, usually fodder for a Hollywood film or a TV series, a "monster blast of geomagnetic particles from the sun could destroy 300 or more of the 2,100 high-voltage transformers that are the backbone of the U.S. electric grid," according to the National Academy of Sciences as reported by Reuters. "Even a few hundred destroyed transformers could disable the entire interconnected system."
There is precedent for panic. More than 600 million people in India lost power over two days in July 2012, leading to chaos. Fifty-five million were affected by the Northeast Blackout of August 2003, leading to wild speculation about a terrorist attack, and bringing with it reminders a similar blackout in November 1965.
You get the idea.
"(T)he kind of long-duration outage that might happen in the case of a massive solar storm would have more profound and costly effects," the Reuters report continues. Specifically, a report from the National Academy of Sciences theorizes that replacements for transformers might not be available for a year or more, and the cost of damage in the first year after a storm could be as high as $2 trillion. There are other groups that dispute those estimates.
Richard Andres, an energy and environmental security expert at the military’s National Defense University, told Reuters that, in a worst-case scenario, commerce would almost instantly cease; water and fuel, which depend on electric pumps, would stop flowing in most cities within hours, modern communications would end and mechanized transport would stall.
The solar storm of 1859, also known as the Carrington Event, knocked out the nation’s telegraph system, literally shocking telegraph operators, and the Northern Lights lit up the night sky as far south as Hawaii. It was the largest magnetic storm ever reported on Earth.
UC Berkeley research physicist Janet G. Luhmann said the 2012 storm was similar to the Carrington Event, but given the technological advances over the past 150-plus years, the effects on society would have been "tremendous."
"An extreme space weather storm -- a solar superstorm -- is a low-probability, high-consequence event that poses severe threats to critical infrastructures of the modern society," said Ying D. Liu, now a professor at China’s State Key Laboratory of Space Weather, who worked on the report. "The cost of an extreme space weather event, if it hits Earth, could reach trillions of dollars with a potential recovery time of four to 10 years."
So what can we take away from this? Well, for starters, though science has proved the Earth is one of many celestial bodies circling our sun, one of an unimaginable number of other stars in the universe, man still seems to think everything revolves around humanity. When, in truth, be it a solar storm or collision with a giant comet, life on our little spec of dirt and water is actually very fragile.
We should appreciate that, and use it as a reminder to take care of the planet we call home. After all, it’s the only one we’ve got.
It also may be a good idea to watch a couple of Doomsday Preppers episodes ... you know, just to be a little prepared.