Solar Storms: A Scary Near Miss!

January 29, 2016
Solar Flare

Most people noticed how hot July was back in 2012, but most people don’t realize how close we came to being really fried. A huge solar storm that could have blasted our electrical grid to ruins barely missed the Earth. Whew!

On July 22 and 23 2013, the Earth was nearly slammed by a huge solar storm. Source: NASA

A recent article in Nature Communications journal reported that the sun, which goes through cycles of storminess, had a particularly violent one during that period in July. The sun is made of gas, so the storm emitted a huge cloud of gas into space that passed through Earth’s orbit. The storm and gas (called a CME or Coronal Mass Ejection) flared out from a sunspot aimed at Earth only nine days earlier. Fortunately, the sun spins, so the sunspot moved and the gas shot out in a different direction and missed us.

The storm was huge—so huge that experts report it would have caused a CARRINGTON EVENT!

Huh? What’s that?

The electrical charge from a Carrington Event-sized solar flare could damage satellites, GPS, electrical grids and even pipelines. Source: NASA

Back in 1859, English astronomer Richard Carrington was studying a sunspot when he witnessed it explode with a solar flare that had the energy of 10 billion atomic bombs. Hours later, the gas from the storm hit the Earth. While the Earth’s magnetic field and outer atmosphere protected the globe from most of the impact, the powerful electrical surge from the storm reached the surface. Telegraphs failed, emitting sparks that shocked their operators and set small fires. The aurora from the storm was so bright that people could read by the blood red lights. People reported the sky was on fire as far south as Jamaica.

Fortunately, back then the world didn’t depend on electricity and cell phones. The same sized storm today would fry satellites, GPS, electrical grids and even pipelines, causing between $1 trillion and $2 trillion in damages.

That is what missed us 20 months ago!

Whew!

About This Blog

The column, “Weather Whispers,” is authored by James Garriss and Evelyn Browning Garriss, historical climatologists and weather addicts!  Whether you enjoy the science of weather or the fascinating folklore or just fun weather phenomena, it’s probably covered by these weather watchers!