Earth missed a potentially catastrophic encounter with a solar storm by one week in 2012, physicists report.
"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," physicist Daniel Baker of the University of Colorado said in a NASA Science online release. "If the eruption had occurred only one week earlier, Earth would have been in the line of fire."
On July 23, 2012, the sun unleashed two massive clouds of plasma that barely missed a catastrophic encounter with Earth's atmosphere. These plasma clouds, known as coronal mass ejections or CMEs, constituted a solar storm thought to be the most powerful in at least 150 years.
"If it had hit, we would still be picking up the pieces," Baker said.
Fortunately, the blast site of the CMEs was not directed at Earth. Had this event occurred a week earlier when the point of eruption was Earth-facing, the outcome could have been disastrous.
A CME double whammy of this potency striking Earth would probably cripple satellite communications and could severely damage the power grid. NASA offered this sobering assessment:
"Analysts believe that a direct hit … could cause widespread power blackouts, disabling everything that plugs into a wall socket. Most people wouldn't even be able to flush their toilet because urban water supplies largely rely on electric pumps. … According to a study by the National Academy of Sciences, the total economic impact could exceed $2 trillion, or 20 times greater than the costs of a Hurricane Katrina."