• Reuters

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Fierce solar blasts that could have badly damaged electrical grids and disabled satellites in space narrowly missed Earth in 2012, U.S. researchers said.

The bursts would have wreaked havoc on the Earth’s magnetic field, matching the severity of the 1859 Carrington Event, the largest solar magnetic storm ever reported on the planet. That blast knocked out the telegraph system across the U.S., according to University of California, Berkeley, physicist Janet Luhmann.

“Had (the 2012 event) 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,” Luhmann said. A 2013 study estimated that a solar storm like the Carrington Event could take a $2.6 trillion bite out of the global economy.

Massive bursts of solar wind and magnetic fields that shot into space on July 23, 2012, would have been aimed directly at Earth if they had happened just nine days earlier, she said.

The coronal mass ejections carried southward magnetic fields and would have clashed with Earth’s northward field, causing a shift in electrical currents that could have caused electrical transformers to burst into flames. The fields also would have interfered with GPS satellites, Luhmann said.

The event, detected by NASA’s STEREO A spacecraft, is the focus of a paper that was released Tuesday in the journal Nature Communications by Luhmann, professor Ying Liu of China’s State Key Laboratory of Space Weather and colleagues.

Although solar blasts can occur several times a day during the sun’s most active 11-year cycle, they are usually small or weak compared to the 2012 and 1859 events, Luhmann noted.

She said scientists will be able to better understand the phenomenon and predict solar magnetic storms in the future by studying images from the sun-observing spacecraft. “We have the opportunity to really look closely at one of these events in all of its glory and look at why in this instance was so extreme,” Luhmann said.

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