Let 23 July 2012 forever be known as the Day Earth Dodged A (Solar) Bullet. According to a newly-released report from NASA, that marks the date of a massive solar storm that could’ve knocked human civilization back to 18th century-levels of technology. Since you’re reading this on a computer, that clearly didn’t happen—but it was dang close.
“A Threat to All Forms of High-Technology”
“Solar storm” is a term used to describe any increased activity in the sun. The July 2012 solar storm consisted of a gargantuan solar flare and a massive coronal mass ejection (CME), a billion-ton cloud of plasma—i.e. protons and electrons from the sun. From NASA’s report:
“Extreme solar storms pose a threat to all forms of high-technology […] X-rays and extreme UV radiation reach Earth at light speed, ionizing the upper layers of our atmosphere; side-effects of this ‘solar EMP’ include radio blackouts and GPS navigation errors. Minutes to hours later, the energetic particles arrive […] Electrons and protons accelerated by the blast can electrify satellites and damage their electronics. Then come the CMEs […] Analysts believe that a direct hit by an extreme CME such as the one that missed Earth […] could cause widespread power blackouts, disabling everything that plugs into a wall socket. […] The total economic impact could exceed $2 trillion, or 20 times greater than the costs of Hurricane Katrina.”
The July 2012 solar storm was the largest such event recorded since 1859, when Earth was struck by what is known as the Carrington Event. That solar flare and CME destroyed much of the telegraph network throughout Europe and North America. “In my view, the 2012 storm was in all respects at least as strong as the 1859 Carrington Event,” said Daniel Baker of the University of Colorado, a lead researcher on the solar storm. “The only difference is [this one] missed.”
So just how close was civilization to getting blasted back 200-plus years? “If the eruption had occurred only one week earlier, Earth would have been in the line of fire,” Baker stated.
You can read NASA’s complete report here.