Newt Gingrich’s Space Nightmare Almost Came True in 2012

A solar flare nearly hit Earth — and fried our electronics.

National Journal
Alex Brown
Add to Briefcase
Alex Brown
July 25, 2014, 12:02 p.m.

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.

What We're Following See More »
FIRST TIME SINCE COLD WAR
Nuclear Bombers Preparing to Go Back on 24-Hour Alert
9 hours ago
THE LATEST

"The U.S. Air Force is preparing to put nuclear-armed bombers back on 24-hour ready alert, a status not seen since the Cold War ended in 1991...Putting the B-52s back on alert is just one of many decisions facing the Air Force as the U.S. military responds to a changing geopolitical environment that includes North Korea’s rapidly advancing nuclear arsenal, President Trump’s confrontational approach to Pyongyang, and Russia’s increasingly potent and active armed forces."

Source:
TRUMP’S ATTORNEY WAS SET TO TESTIFY ON WEDNESDAY
Senate Intel Postpones Testimony by Cohen
2 days ago
THE LATEST
AMENDMENT WOULD HAVE PREVENTED CONSIDERATION
Senate Rejects Effort to Nix SALT Tax Changes
3 days ago
THE LATEST

"Senate Democrats on Thursday failed in their first attempt to save the state and local tax deduction, which helps many residents of California and other high-cost states reduce their federal income tax bills. The Republican-controlled Senate voted 52-47 to reject an amendment that would have prevented the Senate from considering any bill that repeals or limits the deduction as part of a planned tax overhaul."

Source:
INTERVIEWED BY COMMITTEE STAFF
Lewandowski Meets with Senate Intelligence Committee
3 days ago
THE LATEST

"President Donald Trump's former campaign manager Corey Lewandowski appeared on Capitol Hill for a closed-door interview with the Senate intelligence committee Wednesday, according to a source familiar with the matter. Lewandowski is the latest senior official in Trump's orbit who has met with the committee as part of its investigation into Russian election meddling and possible collusion with the Trump campaign."

Source:
FISHING EXPEDITION
Some Members Seek to Wrap Up Russia Investigations by Year’s End
4 days ago
THE LATEST

"A growing number of key Republicans are sending this message to the leaders of the congressional committees investigating potential Trump campaign collusion with the Russians: Wrap it up soon. In the House and Senate, several Republicans who sit on key committees are starting to grumble that the investigations have spanned the better part of the past nine months, contending that the Democratic push to extend the investigation well into next year could amount to a fishing expedition."

Source:
×
×

Welcome to National Journal!

You are currently accessing National Journal from IP access. Please login to access this feature. If you have any questions, please contact your Dedicated Advisor.

Login