No news may be good news but late news can really scary, especially when it’s about geomagnetic solar storms – those massive bursts of solar wind that can bring down the electrical grid, GPS systems and the Internet faster than a 15-year-old Bulgarian hacker with a bad attitude.
A report by University of California, Berkeley, and Chinese researchers in the current edition of the journal Nature Communications reveals that on July 23, 2012, two nearly simultaneous coronal mass ejections sent a magnetic storm into Earth’s orbit with a force estimated to have been at least equal to the Carrington Event of September 1-2, 1859, that knocked out telegraph systems – the mass communications network of the time – throughout North America and Europe, with many telegraph operators reporting electrical shocks. It’s estimated that a solar event of that magnitude hitting Earth today would cause $2.6 trillion in damages worldwide.
So how did we escape being solar fried? As they say in the real estate business – location, location, location. It turns out Earth was completely out of sight on the other side of the sun at the time and the storm hit the spot we had been in just nine days earlier. In fact, we wouldn’t have even known about it had it not been for NASA’s STEREO (Solar TErrestrial RElations Observatory) A and B observatories. Launched in 2006 and positioned slightly behind and slightly ahead of Earth in its orbit, they measured the peak speed of the storm at over 2,000 kilometers per second or four times the speed of an average storm. Even scarier, each of the coronal mass ejections had a force of a billion hydrogen bombs.
While STEREO A and B can obviously do nothing to stop the flares, the data they collect will help predict better predict massive storms during the sun’s 11-year solar cycle. We may not be able to get out of the way, but we could at least get enough lead time for cable news networks to give the storms a scary name.