Scientists: Earth Narrow Escaped Devastating 2012 Solar Storm

Wednesday, 30 Jul 2014 07:51 PM

By Cathy Burke

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A powerful solar storm's near-miss with Earth two years ago could have wreaked massive havoc, but businesses and government agencies are working on ways to cope with wild space weather — from protecting electric grids to rerouting flights, Vox reported Wednesday. 

The sun erupted with two big bursts of charged plasma on July 23, 2012, that hurtled toward Earth's orbit, but missed by about a week, Vox noted.

"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 Daniel Baker at the University of Colorado, who led a study of the storm in Space Weather, Space.com reports.

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Lloyd's of London, in an assessment published in The Washington Post, figures a massive solar storm could wreak as much as $2.6 trillion in damage in the Northeast — one of the places most at risk due in part to its aging power grid — leaving 20 million to 40 million people in the Northeast without power, perhaps for years.

The social consequences would be dire, the Lloyd's report added.

"The absence of such fundamental services could lead to major and widespread social unrest, riots, and theft," it warned.

But power utilities could take precautions if they had advance warning, including from satellites that can detect an incoming storm that's 30 minutes away, and in 2012, the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission issued an order to eventually require grid operators to prepare both operational and technological responses to a space weather event, Vox science writer Brad Plumer reported.

Wicked space weather can sometimes force flights to stay away from the poles, and even space travel can be affected.

"Radiation is a big issue for space travel — particularly once you get away from the Earth's magnetic field," Joseph Kunches, a scientist at the Space Weather Prediction Center, told Plumer in 2013.

Vox reported alert systems also need to be bolstered, like adding more spacecraft to study the sun and give advance warning.

"There's a real need for a truly operational, 24-hour-a-day, seven-day-a-week space weather observatory," Baker has said, Vox reported. "But right now, we don't see that coming from policymakers or the agencies that would have to step up."

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