The world as we know it almost came to an end in 2012 — but it happened before the Mayan calendar came to its end. Instead, one of the strongest solar storms ever recorded sent a burst of energy through Earth’s orbit that could have crippled electrical systems all over the Earth.
“If it had hit, we would still be picking up the pieces,” Daniel Baker of the Laboratory for Atmospheric and Space Physics at the University of Colorado told the Guardian. Luckily for us, it missed our home planet.
The GIF below shows the storm on July 23, 2012, as captured by Helioviewer, a joint project of NASA and the European Space Agency:
If the storm had hit the planet, it would have wiped out power grids, radios, and GPS systems, and as Baker told the Guardian, it would have disabled “everything that plugs into a wall socket.”
Not only would this stop you from using your computer, it would take down most the systems that provide water to urban areas all over the planet.
So how close were we to getting hit?
“If the eruption had occurred only one week earlier, Earth would have been in the line of fire,” said Baker.
It did hit the Stereo A spacecraft, which is what provided the data that researchers have been analysing ever since and released in April.
NASA estimates that the storm may have been even stronger than an 1859 burst that did hit our planet, known as the Carrington event, after the English astronomer Richard Carrington. During that time, the Northern Lights could be seen as far south as Cuba, Tahiti, and Hawaii. Telegraph lines were wiped out and their technicians electrified.
During a solar storm, the sun spews out bursts of plasma. This plasma cloud was one of the biggest ever seen, and flew out four times faster than most bursts, clocking in at more than 1,800 miles per second.
If we’d been in the storms path, we would have first been hit by a solar flare, a blast of radiation that can cause power outages on its own. It would be followed by magnetized plasma — called a coronal mass ejection — which is made of potentially billions of tons of hot electrically charged atoms of hydrogen and helium. These hot atoms would have done most of the destruction.
According to NASA, it would have caused more than $US2 trillion worth of damage.
And even though we’re currently in a cycle with less solar activity than normal, FEMA recommends that U.S. citizens prepare for the potential damage from a burst of solar energy by freezing plastic containers full of water and always keeping your gas tank at least half full.
“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,” said Baker. “We need to be prepared.”
Watch NASA’s video below for more information.
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