Two years ago, the worst solar storm in almost two centuries tore through Earth’s orbit. Luckily, the storm’s path just missed Earth.
Now, scientists are shedding new light on the solar event, which didn’t make headlines but could have had a “catastrophic effect.”
“If it had hit, we would still be picking up the pieces,” Daniel Baker of the University of Colorado said in a statement released by NASA this week.
The storm occured on July 23, 2012. If it had taken place a week earlier, when the storm site was directly facing Earth, billions of tons of highly-charged particles would have rained down on the planet, scientists said.
These particles, which travel in clouds of plasma called coronal mass ejections (CMEs), would have reached Earth in about one day.
The resulting firestorm could have knocked out power for millions for months or years and caused more than $2 trillion in damage, scientists said.
While the 2012 storm didn’t strike Earth, it did come into contact with the spacecraft, STEREO-A, NASA said. Since then, scientists have been researching whether a future galactic storm of the same magnitude is merely science fiction.
Physicist Pete Riley in a paper published in “Space Weather” in February puts the odds of a solar storm hitting earth in the next 10 years at 12 percent.
The last solar storm that made a serious impact blacked out Quebec’s power grid in 1989, and storms in October and November in 2003 caused transformer failures in North America and Europe.
The worst solar storm on record happened in 1859 and was observed by amateur astronomer Richard Carrington. Because the so-called “Carrington event” occurred before the electrical age, there wasn’t significant damage on Earth.
A 2009 report by the National Academy of Sciences said another Carrington event today would be utterly debilitating.
“The loss of electricity would ripple across the social infrastructure with water distribution affected within several hours; perishable foods and medications lost in 12-24 hours; loss of heating/air conditioning, sewage disposal, phone service, fuel re-supply and so on,” the report said.
“We need to be prepared,” Baker said.