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 »
Foreign Policy takes a look at the future of mining the estimated "100,000 near-Earth objects—including asteroids and comets—in the neighborhood of our planet. Some of these NEOs, as they’re called, are small. Others are substantial and potentially packed full of water and various important minerals, such as nickel, cobalt, and iron. One day, advocates believe, those objects will be tapped by variations on the equipment used in the coal mines of Kentucky or in the diamond mines of Africa. And for immense gain: According to industry experts, the contents of a single asteroid could be worth trillions of dollars." But the technology to get us there is only the first step. Experts say "a multinational body might emerge" to manage rights to NEOs, as well as a body of law, including an international court.
Not to be outdone by Jeffrey Goldberg's recent piece in The Atlantic about President Obama's foreign policy, the New York Times Magazine checks in with a longread on the president's economic legacy. In it, Obama is cognizant that the economic reality--73 straight months of growth--isn't matched by public perceptions. Some of that, he says, is due to a constant drumbeat from the right that "that denies any progress." But he also accepts some blame himself. “I mean, the truth of the matter is that if we had been able to more effectively communicate all the steps we had taken to the swing voter,” he said, “then we might have maintained a majority in the House or the Senate.”
Ronald Reagan's children and political allies took to the media and Twitter this week to chide funnyman Will Ferrell for his plans to play a dementia-addled Reagan in his second term in a new comedy entitled Reagan. In an open letter, Reagan's daughter Patti Davis tells Ferrell, who's also a producer on the movie, “Perhaps for your comedy you would like to visit some dementia facilities. I have—I didn’t find anything comedic there, and my hope would be that if you’re a decent human being, you wouldn’t either.” Michael Reagan, the president's son, tweeted, "What an Outrag....Alzheimers is not joke...It kills..You should be ashamed all of you." And former Rep. Joe Walsh called it an example of "Hollywood taking a shot at conservatives again."
In a sign that she’s ready to put a longer-than-expected primary battle behind her, former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton (D) is no longer going on the air in upcoming primary states. “Team Clinton hasn’t spent a single cent in … California, Indiana, Kentucky, Oregon and West Virginia, while” Sen. Bernie Sanders’ (I-VT) “campaign has spent a little more than $1 million in those same states.” Meanwhile, Sen. Jeff Merkley (D-OR), Sanders’ "lone backer in the Senate, said the candidate should end his presidential campaign if he’s losing to Hillary Clinton after the primary season concludes in June, breaking sharply with the candidate who is vowing to take his insurgent bid to the party convention in Philadelphia.”