In 2012, Earth narrowly escaped solar blast so powerful it could ‘knock civilization back to 18th century’

Back in 2012, the Earth narrowly escaped a solar storm “big enough to knock modern civilization back to the 18th century,” according to a report published by NASA.

“If it had hit, we would still be picking up the pieces,” University of Colorado Professor Daniel Baker said.

On July 23, 2012 a powerful coronal mass ejection (CME) erupted from the sun at speeds as fast as 3,000 kilometres per second. That’s four times faster than a typical solar blast. The CME tore through Earth’s orbit and narrowly missed the planet, NASA said in a statement Wednesday. Instead it hit the STEREO-A spacecraft — a solar observatory that is “almost ideally equipped to measure the parameters of such an event,” NASA said.

If the solar storm had struck just one week earlier, “Earth would have been in the line of fire,” Baker said. He co-authored a study of the storm that was published in the journal Space Weather. “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.”

Such a powerful CME would have interfered with GPS systems, caused widespread blackouts and could have caused electrical transformers to burst into flames. “Most people wouldn’t even be able to flush their toilet because urban water supplies largely rely on electric pumps,” NASA said.

The extreme storm was one of the strongest in recorded history and likely as powerful as the solar event behind the historic Carrington Event in September 1859. The powerful CMEs that struck the earth 155 years ago knocked out the “Victorian Internet” by causing telegraph lines and offices across the United States to spark and even catch fire. And the resulting geomagnetic storm ignited Northern Lights in Cuba.

“In my view the July 2012 storm was in all respects at least as strong as the 1859 Carrington event,” Baker said. “The only difference is, it missed.”

Physicist Pete Riley of Predictive Science Inc. has analyzed 50 years worth of solar records and concluded that there is a 12% chance that another Carrington-class storm will strike the Earth in the next ten years.

“Initially, I was quite surprised that the odds were so high, but the statistics appear to be correct,” he said. “It is a sobering figure.”

CMEs occur every day, but they are usually much smaller than the ones that shot out from the sun in 2012. If the Earth gets hit with such a powerful CME, the global economic impact could exceed $2 trillion, according to a study by the National Academy of Sciences.

“How many others of this scale have just happened to miss Earth and our space detection systems? This is a pressing question that needs answers,” Baker said. “We need to be prepared.”

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