How Did We Survive the 2012 Solar Eruption? Luck. Pure luck.

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EV Lacertae (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
Fierce 2012 magnetic storm just missed us by nine days.
Disaster fiction in print and on film sells well.  We relish the idea of a massive disaster that leaves a few of the hardiest and the luckiest, ourselves included, to struggle to save humanity and to preserve as much culture as they can.

What few people know is that we on Earth came within a hair's breadth of a real disaster from space in July, 2012 when a massive magnetic storm erupted from our Sun.  Had it washed over us, it would have fried out all our cherished electronic cell phones, computers, cameras, heart pacers, television - everything we rely on to survive. 

Had the solar storm struck the Earth, we could now be two years into one of the largest mass extinctions in our planet's 4.5 billion year history.  The human race and all our works should be laying in ashes around us.  In reality, you and I should be dead by now.

But here we are, still enjoying our digital world, 99% of the population unaware of how close we came to at least the end of our civilization and possibly the human race, saved by the pure serendipity of planetary alignment.  And it appears there is little we can do to prevent such a disaster or even to protect ourselves.

Why are we still here?  Why did the storm miss us?

Here's the story:
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Nine Days From Extinction
On July 23, 2012, a huge magnetic storm propelled by two nearly simultaneous coronal mass ejections on the sun plowed through Earth's orbit. Luckily, Earth was on the other side of the sun at the time. Had the outburst hit Earth, however, it would have rivaled the largest magnetic storm to strike Earth in recorded history, possibly wreaking havoc with the electrical grid, satellites and GPS.

According to University of California, Berkeley, and Chinese researchers, a rapid succession of coronal mass ejections -- the most intense eruptions on the sun -- sent a pulse of magnetized plasma barreling into space and through Earth's orbit. Had the eruption come nine days earlier, it would have hit Earth, potentially wreaking havoc with the electrical grid, disabling satellites and GPS, and disrupting our increasingly electronic lives.

According to Cary Forest, a University of Wisconsin-Madison physics professor, solar storms can send billions of tons of solar particles in the form of gas bubbles and magnetic fields off the sun's surface and into space. The storm events essentially peel Earth's magnetic field like an onion, allowing energetic solar wind particles to stream down the field lines to hit the atmosphere over the poles.

The Carrington Event of 1859
The solar bursts would have enveloped Earth in magnetic fireworks matching the largest magnetic storm ever reported on Earth, the so-called Carrington event of 1859. The dominant mode of communication at that time, the telegraph system, was knocked out across the United States, literally shocking telegraph operators. Meanwhile, the Northern Lights lit up the night sky as far south as Hawaii.

In a paper appearing in the journal Nature Communications, research physicist Ying D. Liu, professor at China's State Key Laboratory of Space Weather, UC Berkeley research physicist Janet G. Luhmann and their colleagues analyzed the 2012 solar eruption. In the paper, Luhmann stated:
"Had it hit Earth, it probably would have been like the big one in 1859, but the effect today, with our modern technologies, would have been tremendous."
This low-probability, high-consequence event would have cost trillions of dollars
Studies estimate that the cost of a solar storm like the Carrington Event could reach $2.6 trillion worldwide. A considerably smaller event on March 13, 1989, led to the collapse of Canada's Hydro-Quebec power grid and a resulting loss of electricity to six million people for up to nine hours.

"An extreme space weather storm -- a solar superstorm -- is a low-probability, high-consequence event that poses severe threats to critical infrastructures of the modern society," warned Liu. "The cost of an extreme space weather event, if it hits Earth, could reach trillions of dollars with a potential recovery time of 4-10 years. Therefore, it is paramount to the security and economic interest of the modern society to understand solar superstorms."

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 CU-Boulder Professor Daniel Baker. The event not only had the most powerful CME ever recorded, but it would have triggered one of the strongest geomagnetic storms and the highest density of particle fluctuation ever seen in a typical solar cycle, which last roughly 11 years.

Analysis of the July 22nd, 2012 event shows it propelled a magnetic cloud through the solar wind at a peak speed of more than 2,000 kilometers per second -- four times the typical speed of a magnetic storm. It tore through Earth's orbit but, luckily, Earth and the other planets were on the other side of the sun at the time. Any planets in the line of sight would have suffered severe magnetic storms as the magnetic field of the outburst tangled with the planets' own magnetic fields.

The researchers determined that the huge outburst resulted from at least two nearly simultaneous coronal mass ejections (CMEs), which typically release energies equivalent to that of about a billion hydrogen bombs. The speed with which the magnetic cloud plowed through the solar wind was so high, they concluded, because another mass ejection four days earlier had cleared the path of material that would have slowed it down.

"The authors believe this extreme event was due to the interaction of two CMEs separated by only 10 to 15 minutes," said Joe Gurman, the project scientist at NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Md.

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One reason the event was potentially so dangerous, aside from its high speed, is that it produced a very long-duration, southward-oriented magnetic field, Luhmann said. This orientation drives the largest magnetic storms when they hit Earth because the southward field merges violently with Earth's northward field in a process called reconnection. Storms that normally might dump their energy only at the poles instead dump it into the radiation belts, ionosphere and upper atmosphere and create auroras down to the tropics.

"These gnarly, twisty ropes of magnetic field from coronal mass ejections come blasting from the sun through the ambient solar system, piling up material in front of them, and when this double whammy hits Earth, it skews the Earth's magnetic field to odd directions, dumping energy all around the planet," she said. "Some of us wish Earth had been in the way; what an experiment that would have been."

"Electrical transmission grids can act like a big receiver that doesn't know how to deal with the energy when it comes in," says Forest, who explains that scientists think very large and potentially dangerous events occur about every one thousand years or so.

"People keep saying that these are rare natural hazards, but they are happening in the solar system even though we don't always see them," Luhmann added. "It's like with earthquakes -- it is hard to impress upon people the importance of preparing unless you suffer a magnitude 9 earthquake."

2012 solar storm points up need for society to prepare
A massive ejection of material from the sun initially traveling at over 7 million miles per hour that narrowly missed Earth last year is an event solar scientists hope will open the eyes of policymakers regarding the impacts and mitigation of severe space weather, says a University of Colorado Boulder professor.

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, he said.

Fortunately, the 2012 solar explosion occurred on the far side of the rotating sun just a week after that area was pointed toward Earth, said Baker, a solar scientist and the director of CU-Boulder's Laboratory for Atmospheric and Space Physics. But NASA's STEREO-A, satellite that was flying ahead of Earth as the planet orbited the sun, captured the event, including the intensity of the solar wind, the interplanetary magnetic field and a rain of solar energetic particles into space.

"My space weather colleagues believe that until we have an event that slams Earth and causes complete mayhem, policymakers are not going to pay attention," he said. "The message we are trying to convey is that we made direct measurements of the 2012 event and saw the full consequences without going through a direct hit on our planet."

Can we prepare?
"We have proposed that the 2012 event be adopted as the best estimate of the worst case space weather scenario," said Baker, who chaired a 2008 National Research Council committee that produced a report titled Severe Space Weather Events -- Understanding Societal and Economic Impacts. "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," Baker said. "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."

"The Carrington storm and the 2012 event show that extreme space weather events can happen even during a modest solar cycle like the one presently underway," said Baker. "Rather than wait and pick up the pieces, we ought to take lessons from these events to prepare ourselves for inevitable future solar storms."
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Story Source:  
  1. Materials provided by University of California - Berkeley, Ying D. Liu, Janet G. Luhmann, Primož Kajdič, Emilia K.J. Kilpua, Noé Lugaz, Nariaki V. Nitta, Christian Möstl, Benoit Lavraud, Stuart D. Bale, Charles J. Farrugia, Antoinette B. Galvin. Observations of an extreme storm in interplanetary space caused by successive coronal mass ejections. Nature Communications, 2014.
  2. Materials provided by University of Colorado at Boulder.  "2012 solar storm points up need for society to prepare." ScienceDaily.
  3. Materials provided by NASA.  C. E. DeForest, T. A. Howard, D. J. McComas. Inbound Waves in the Solar Corona: A Direct Indicator of Alfvén Surface Location. The Astrophysical Journal, 2014.
  4. Materials provided by Massachusetts Institute of Technology. B. M. Walsh, J. C. Foster, P. J. Erickson, D. G. Sibeck. Simultaneous Ground- and Space-Based Observations of the Plasmaspheric Plume and Reconnection. Science, 2014.
  5. Materials provided by University of Wisconsin-Madison, written by Terry Devitt. "Sun's magnetic field going to flip soon: 11-year solar cycle wimpy, but peaking." ScienceDaily.


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