Powerful Solar Storm Narrowly Missed Earth In 2012, But It Could Happen Again

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If the 2012 solar event had been directed toward Earth, it would have triggered the worst geomagnetic storm in more than four centuries.

A powerful solar storm erupted on the surface of the sun and narrowly missed Earth in 2012, but scientists believe a similar storm could occur again, seriously affecting the planet’s electrical networks, according to a new report.

If the solar storm on July 23 a couple of years ago had been directed toward Earth, it would have triggered the most devastating geomagnetic storm in more than four centuries, causing widespread power problems on the planet. Although the eruption eventually pointed away from Earth, scientists said the probability of a similar solar storm striking Earth in the next 10 years is quite high, Reuters reported.

“The July 2012 solar storm was a shot across the bows for policymakers and space-weather professionals,” U.S.-based solar researchers said in the journal Space Weather last October. “Had the storm occurred in mid-July, the Earth would have been directly targeted ... and an unprecedentedly large space-weather event would have resulted. There is a legitimate question of whether our society would still be picking up the pieces.”

In studying extreme solar storms, researchers employ as a benchmark a powerful storm that happened in 1859. The so-called Carrington Event, named after the British astronomer Richard Carrington who observed it first, caused a major coronal mass ejection, or CME, to travel directly toward Earth, damaging severely the new telegraph systems all over North America and Europe.

Pete Riley, a solar scientist at Predictive Science in San Diego, has carried out calculations indicating that the probability of a solar storm similar to the Carrington Event hitting the Earth in the next decade is around 12 percent.

If the 2012 solar storm had occurred a week earlier, a huge number of highly charged particles would have hit the Earth’s magnetic field at a speed of about 1,500 miles per second, which would have caused enough damage to the world’s electrical grids to leave hundreds of millions of customers without power for months or even years.

According to the U.S. National Academy of Sciences, it could take between four and 10 years to recover from the damages inflicted by a really powerful solar storm. It could also cost between $1 trillion and $2 trillion, 20 times the cost of Hurricane Katrina.

Scientists argue it is essential for the power industry and governments to better understand the impact powerful solar storms could have and to identify the systems that could be vulnerable to such events.

“In my view, the July 2012 storm was in all respects at least as strong as the 1859 Carrington Event,” Daniel Baker, a University of Colorado professor at its Laboratory for Atmospheric and Space Physics, told NASA. “The only difference is, it missed.”

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