December 10th, 2013
Researchers from the University of Colorado Boulder recently completed analyzing data from a Coronal Mass Ejection that took place in the summer of 2012. The CME, which was reportedly the most powerful electrical discharge ever recorded from the sun, narrowly missed earth. It was not “earth directed,” meaning the electro-magnetic mass was ejected by the sun when it was facing away from our planet. However, had it occurred just a week prior, the highly charged particles would have struck earth and, according to CU-Boulder Professor Daniel Baker, would have led to nothing short of a technological disaster across the globe.
The CME itself was massive… and its speed was unprecedented, clocking in at 7 million miles per hour.
While typical coronal mass ejections from the sun take two or three days to reach Earth, the 2012 event traveled from the sun’s surface to Earth in just 18 hours.
“The speed of this event was as fast or faster than anything that has been seen in the modern space age,” said Baker.
While early warning systems are capable of detecting CME’s and solar flares ahead of time, this particular event happened so quickly that it is unclear if monitoring groups at NASA’s Solar Shield Project would have been able to send alerts to emergency services teams in time.
Had it struck earth, says Baker, it would have caused damage so significant that modern electrical systems would have been fried.
Had it hit Earth, the July 2012 event likely would have created a technological disaster by short-circuiting satellites, power grids, ground communication equipment and even threatening the health of astronauts and aircraft crews.
We have proposed that the 2012 event be adopted as the best estimate of the worst case space weather scenario…
We argue that this extreme event should be immediately employed by the space weather community to model severe space weather effects on technological systems such as the electrical power grid.
I liken it to war games — since we have the information about the event, let’s play it through our various models and see what happens.
If we do this, we would be a significant step closer to providing policymakers with real-world, concrete kinds of information that can be used to explore what would happen to various technologies on Earth and in orbit rather than waiting to be clobbered by a direct hit.
Most policy makers have not taken the threat of an earth-directed solar flare seriously, even though a senior member of the Congressional Homeland Security Committee recently warned that there is a 100% Chance of a Severe Geo-Magnetic Event Capable of Crippling Our Electric Grid.
If such an event were to happen Congressman Roscoe Bartlett, who has advised people to develop individual preparedness plans based on the threat of massive solar flares or electro-magnetic pulse detonations, says that it would take upwards of 18 months to bring the grid back online because of a decaying national infrastructure.