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SYFY WIRE solar flares

Earth Narrowly Missed a Solar Storm "Apocalypse" in 2012

It would have taken years to rebuild.

By Cassidy Ward

The sci-fi disaster flick Solar Attack (streaming now on Peacock) takes viewers to a world on the brink of a powerful coronal mass ejection (CME). Combined with dangerously high levels of atmospheric methane, the titular solar attack threatens to light the sky on fire. Fortunately, real world CMEs aren’t quite that dangerous, but a well-timed solar sucker punch could knock us temporarily back into the dark ages. And it almost happened in 2012.

When CMEs hit the atmosphere, they can trigger geomagnetic storms. The most powerful directly witnessed geomagnetic storm on record is known as the Carrington Event, which occurred in September 1859. The blast of charged plasma unleashed from the Sun was so powerful that it set a telegraph station ablaze and generated Northern Lights visible from Tahiti, in the Southern Hemisphere.

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We got off lightly in 1859 because our electronic communications technology was new, and we didn’t have very much of it. If a Carrington level CME hit the Earth today, it might crumple power grids and global communications systems, and bring our digitally dependent societies to a standstill. If we’d been a little unluckier, it might have happened in the summer of 2012.

An “Apocalyptic” Solar Storm Almost Smashed into the Earth in 2012

NASA image of a solar flare

On July 23, 2012, an intense CME cut through the Earth’s orbit traveling at three times the normal CME speed. Luckily for us, the Earth was in a different position along its orbit and the CME flew out into space, having missed the planet. It did, however, strike the STEREO-A spacecraft, allowing scientists to study the blast. In 2014, researchers determined it to be one of the most powerful ever detected, maybe even more powerful than the Carrington Event.

“If it had hit, we would still be picking up the pieces,” said Daniel Baker, a scientist from the University of Colorado, in 2014. Researchers also figured out what made the 2012 CME so powerful. The blast was actually two separate CMEs, let loose 10 to 15 minutes apart. The one-two punch also got a speed boost from a CME a few days earlier.

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Ordinarily, CMEs are slowed down by material in the interplanetary medium, but the earlier CME cut through the same area and cleared a path. When the July 23 double CME happened, it had a clear runway through space.

If the blast had gone off a week earlier, it would have been in line with the Earth, and we would have been clobbered. Scientists estimate the ensuing geomagnetic storm would have been powerful enough to destroy power grids and communications systems. Satellites may have been fried in orbit and it would have taken years to replace and rebuild infrastructure.

The findings highlight the importance of understanding solar weather patterns, beefing up our methods of prediction, and designing ways to protect ourselves from a seemingly inevitable eventuality.

In the meantime, catch Solar Attack, streaming now on Peacock!