Newt Gingrich’s Space Nightmare Almost Came True in 2012

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

National Journal
Alex Brown
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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.

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