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SYFY WIRE Bad Astronomy

No, there's no such thing as a solar micronova

By Phil Plait
… and I feel fine. Credit: Dean Reeves, used by permission

Oh noes! A new notpocalypse is upon us!

Doomsday-fetishists are now claiming that in 2046 the Sun will undergo a "micronova" event that will create havoc on Earth, dogs and cats living together… you know the drill by now.

Well, at least this one is semi-new. I was getting tired of Nibiru.

In this case the idea appears to come from a guy named Doug Vogt, who has made a series of videos as part of his Diehold Foundation. In the list of the goals of the foundation there's this: "Expand our finding on the Hebrew alphabet and its similarity to Quantum Computing and its programming," if that gives you any perception of the level of nonsense we're talking about here.

To be clear, it's a mishmash of pseudoreligious weirdness combined with pseudoscience weirdness to make a fairly incomprehensible mishmash of… stuff. It's a little bit hard to follow the arguments, but here's what I can glean from it all.

He seems to think that the Sun has a 12,068-year cycle, and at the peak it undergoes something he calls a "micronova." What this means exactly isn't clear (which is true for most of his claims), but he says it will emit a dust cloud of some kind. At the same time the Earth will have a "pole reversal", and that together these will cause all manners of calamity. He also says all this will happen next in October 2046.

Right away that's a huge mistake. Never put an expiration date on your doomsday claim! That's Apocalypse 101 stuff. When it comes and goes you'll just have to put out another date, which is potentially embarrassing and will cost you some followers.

Missing media item.

Still, let's look at the science, such as it is. To be clear, a micronova isn't a thing. There is what's called a classical nova, which is when you have a white dwarf (the dense core of a star like the Sun left over when it dies and blows off its outer layers) orbiting a normal star. It can draw material off that star, which piles up on the white dwarf's surface until it weighs so much it undergoes nuclear fusion. BANG. Nova.

There's also a kilonova, when two neutron stars collide, giving off way more energy than a nova. And of course there's a supernova — that thing Betelgeuse keeps disappointingly not doing — which gives off vast amounts of energy. Happily, our Sun can't make one of those.

For scale, a typical nova gives off as much energy in a few days as the Sun does in more than 10,000 years. It's a fairly powerful event. So I guess a micronova would give off a millionth that much, which is about what the Sun emits total in a week. That's still a lot of energy, and would cook the Earth (assuming it's emitted rapidly, which is implied in the description of a micronova). So a dust cloud and pole reversal would be the least of our worries.

Artwork of a red dwarf in a binary system undergoing a flare. Credit: NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center/S. Wiessinger

The Sun can't do this anyway. It does have powerful explosions called solar flares, and even bigger ones called coronal mass ejections (or CME), and those are not to be trifled with. But they are nowhere near this powerful — a really powerful solar flare would emit perhaps 10% the total energy the Sun does during that same time. In 2012 one big CME just missed us, and had it been aimed at Earth it would've been very bad. But not because it would cook us, just that it would wipe out satellites and create huge power surges that would blow out power grids.

I find it ironic that that one happened in 2012, during the run-up to the "Maya apocalypse." Doomsday folks can't even get doomsday right when a real potential doomsday happens close in time to their pretend doomsday.

Also, the 12,068-year cycle thing made me snort out loud. We can't even predict when the 11-year sunspot cycles will start or end, yet he seems to think he can nail down a multiple-millennium cycle to 0.008% accuracy. I'm gonna give that a big nope.

Anyway, so about pole reversals… this one is interesting to me. The Earth's magnetic field does in fact reverse every hundred thousand to million years — the last one was about 800,000 years ago — but the effects of this aren't well understood and aren't likely to be a big deal to life on Earth (though it's unclear what might happen to our electronics).

Sequence showing a physical model of magnetic reversal, where blue and yellow lines represent magnetic flux toward and away from the Earth, respectively. The field gets tangled and chaotic during a reversal before settling back down

But this is very different than physically flipping the Earth over, so that south becomes north and vice versa. That just doesn't happen. I mean, a grazing giant impact from an asteroid the size of a big moon might do it, but again the pole reversal would be the least of our worries, since an event like that would melt the Earth's crust all the way down to its base. Kindof a bigger deal.

I see people confusing these two pole flips all the time in doomsday prophecies. I think the physical pole flip nonsense was first proposed by a guy named Charles Hapgood in the middle 20th century (who had a lot of pseudoscientific ideas), and the magnetic field reversal was discovered in the early 20th century.

Pole flips and such have been a staple in end-of-the-world theories for decades. It's a good bellwether for knowing if what someone is saying is nonsense.

I could go on and on, but honestly the main claims here are just plain wrong. None of this can happen, so it's nothing to worry about.

Still, this kind of nonsense gets around, which is why I'm taking the time to debunk it. After all, when the President of the United States promotes a doctor who says that you can get treatments using alien DNA and you can get cysts and endometriosis by having sex with demons in your dreams, then it's pretty clear we need the occasional debunking or two. There's no idea so wacky there won't be people who believe in it.

Although, to be honest, if I have to keep researching stuff like this then 2046 can't come soon enough.

Tip o' the tin foil hat to Andy Grimes.