The apocalypse that almost happened went under the radar for two years. This week, a chilling NASA report details how civilization as we know it nearly ended back in 2012, when a super-powerful solar flare missed Earth by a tiny margin.
It's the type of flare the EMP Coalition has warned about for years, powerful enough to zap all of Earth's electronics and send us back to the Stone Age. And since no one remembers how to live without electricity, the group thinks 90 percent of us would be dead within a year. The coalition, which counts Newt Gingrich among its members, wants to warn about the danger of electromagnetic pulses and their threat to the grid.
Not everyone is convinced a solar flare could take out power worldwide. In 2008, the National Academy of Sciences conducted a study modeled on a flare about two-thirds as powerful as the one that hit in 2012. While still dire, it predicted power loss for only 130 million people. An event on the order of the 2012 pulse, it said, would cause $2 billion in damage. Some electronics, though, would return to functioning when the storm faded.
The last solar flare powerful enough to wreak such destruction hit Earth in 1859, frying some telegraph lines. Earlier this year, the EMP Coalition warned we're due for another hit.
It turns out that hit had already taken place, and it barely missed us. Had the flare erupted a week earlier, Earth would have been in the line of fire. Instead, the July 23 solar event hit only a NASA satellite. The readings sent back by that satellite show it to be most powerful solar storm we've recorded in our vicinity, sending electrons, protons and magnetized plasma trailing just behind Earth.
"[A] direct hit by an extreme [solar flare] such as the one that missed Earth in July 2012 could cause widespread power blackouts, disabling everything that plugs into a wall socket," NASA said. Had the pulses hit Earth, said the University of Colorado's Daniel Baker, "we would still be picking up the pieces."
Even the first hours after such an event would be catastrophic. "You'd have massive industrial accidents," the EMP Coalition's Peter Pry told National Journal earlier this year. "One hundred four nuclear reactors going Fukushima, spreading toxic clouds everywhere. Oil refineries burning down, oil pipelines exploding.… Airliners crashing down."
The months that followed would see humanity try to sustain itself without transportation, hospitals, ready information, or perishable-food preservation. "This gets translated into mass fatalities, because our modern civilization can't feed, transport, or provide law and order without electricity," Pry said.
Pry's coalition wants to reinforce the grid against that possibility, installing large-scale surge protectors and putting current-absorbing cages around the giant transformers that power the grid. The coalition pegs the cost of that precautionary work at $2 billion, but they've found no momentum to get the protections through Congress.
So, sans safeguards, what are our odds of getting zapped? Over the next 10 years, physicist Pete Riley told NASA, we stand a 12 percent chance that another such storm will strike Earth.
The near-miss did teach us some science lessons. The satellite that discovered the flare was able to observe the pulses' magnetic structure, as well as determine that it was preceded by several bursts of solar wind.
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