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Solar ‘superstorm’ barely missed Earth in 2012; eruption would have wreaked havoc with electrical grid

In 2013, a study approximated that the cost of solar storm like the Carrington Event could be as much as $2.6 trillion worldwide.

According to a news release from UC-Berkeley, a solar “superstorm” barely missed our planet in 2012. A swift series of coronal mass ejections — massive bubbles of gas threaded with magnetic field lines that are jettisoned from the Sun over the course of several hours — sent a pulse of magnetized plasma screaming into space and through Earth’s orbit.

According to UC-Berkeley researchers, had the solar superstorm arrived nine days earlier, it would have slammed our planet, possibly causing destruction to our electrical grid, as well as disabling satellites and GPS.

The solar superstorm would have encircled Earth in magnetic fireworks rivaling the so-called Carrington event of 1859.

On September 1, 1859, Richard Carrington — a solar astronomer — saw “two brilliant beads of blinding white light” appear over a large group of sunspots. The next day, telegraph systems worldwide went haywire.

“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,” said UC-Berkeley research physicist Janet G. Luhmann in a statement.

In 2013, a study approximated that the cost of a solar storm like the Carrington Event could be as much as $2.6 trillion worldwide.

“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,” noted research physicist Ying D. Liu, a professor at China’s State Key Laboratory of Space Weather. “Therefore, it is paramount to the security and economic interest of the modern society to understand solar superstorms.”

The researchers determined that a large outburst on the Sun on July 22 pushed a magnetic cloud through the solar wind at a maximum speed of more than 2,000 kilometers per second. It ripped through Earth’s orbit but our planet and the other planets were on the other side of the Sun at the time. They also concluded that the massive outburst was the consequence of at least two almost simultaneous CMEs.

According to Luhman, the 2012 event generated an extremely long-duration, southward-oriented magnetic field. This orientation drives the biggest magnetic storms when they impact our planet because the southward field merges violently with Earth’s northward field — a process known as reconnection.

The event and its potential impacts had it hit Earth are described in greater detail in the journal Nature Communications.

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