Two years ago this week Earth avoided a major space-weather related catastrophe that hardly anyone knew about at the time.
"If it had hit, we would still be picking up the pieces," Daniel Baker of the University of Colorado recently told NASA’s Science News.
On July 23, 2012, the sun released two clouds of plasma that scientists call coronal mass ejections, or CMEs. The clouds comprised a solar storm thought to be the most powerful in the last 150 years, according to a recent Washington Post blog article.
Had the clouds hit the Earth’s atmosphere, they would have rendered anything using electrical power useless. The costs of such a disaster could top $2 trillion — 20 times the economic impact of Hurricane Katrina — according to a study from the National Academy of Sciences.
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“The consequences could be devastating for commerce, transportation, agriculture and food stocks, fuel and water supplies, human health and medical facilities, national security, and daily life in general,” wrote Steve Tracton for the Washington Post’s Capital Weather Gang.
The planet managed to miss the solar onslaught because it originated from a surface of the sun that was not facing Earth at the time. Had it occurred just one week earlier, the results would have been disastrous.
“I have come away from our recent studies more convinced than ever that Earth and its inhabitants were incredibly fortunate that the 2012 eruption happened when it did,” Baker said. “If the eruption had occurred only one week earlier, Earth would have been in the line of fire.”
Baker published his research of the solar event in the December 2013 issue of the journal "Space Weather."
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The clouds would have been all the more powerful when they hit Earth because scientists say they followed an earlier CME by just four days. Traveling through space along a path that had just been cleared of anything to decelerate the clouds would have made them all the more powerful when they crashed into Earth’s atmosphere.
The last documented CME event occurred in September 1859. Scientists refer to that as the Carrington event, named after English astronomer Richard Carrington who documented the destruction it caused.
Historical records indicate that during the 1859 storm, the northern lights were reported to be seen as far south as Cuba. The solar cloud also caused telegraph wires to spark which in turn set fire to telegraph offices.
“In my view the July 2012 storm was in all respects at least as strong as the 1859 Carrington event. The only difference is, it missed,” Baker said.
Scientists place the likelihood of Earth being hit by a CME in the next 10 years at around 12 percent.
Tracton wrote in his piece for Capital Weather Gang that scientists are just now discussing world governments’ abilities to deal with the potential disaster following such an event.