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 »
ONE WEEK
Senate Votes To Fund Government
1 hours ago
BREAKING
ON TO SENATE
House Passes Spending Bill
2 hours ago
BREAKING

The House has passed a one-week spending bill that will avert a government shutdown which was set to begin at midnight. Lawmakers now have an extra week to come to a longer agreement which is expected to fund the government through the end of the fiscal year in September. The legislation now goes to the Senate, where it is expected to pass before President Trump signs it.

FULL CABINET IN PLACE
Acosta Confirmed As Labor Secretary
3 hours ago
THE DETAILS

Alexander Acosta was confirmed Thursday night as Labor secretary, officially filling out President Trump's cabinet on day 98 of his presidency. Nine Democrats joined every present Republican in voting to approve Acosta, with the final tally at 60-38. Trump's first choice for Labor secretary, Andrew Puzder, withdrew his nomination after taking criticism for hiring undocumented workers and for other matters in his personal life.

Source:
HAS WHITE HOUSE BACKING
Hurd to Make Push on Federal IT
4 hours ago
THE DETAILS

"Rep. Will Hurd (R-TX) plans to introduce legislation today designed to help federal agencies update their aging technology—and this time, it has White House backing. Hurd worked alongside White House Office of American Innovation officials Reed Cordish and Chris Liddell in crafting and tweaking the legislation, and called their partnership an 'invaluable' part of the process."

Source:
2,300 JOBS ON THE CHOPPING BLOCK
Tillerson Looking to Slash 9% of State Dept. Workforce
4 hours ago
THE LATEST

"The State Department plans to cut 2,300 U.S. diplomats and civil servants—about 9 percent of the Americans in its workforce worldwide—as Secretary of State Rex Tillerson presses ahead with his task of slashing the agency’s budget, according to people familiar with the matter. The majority of the job cuts, about 1,700, will come through attrition, while the remaining 600 will be done via buyouts."

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