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Here’s How Close We Almost Came To Certain Doom (Or At Least The Loss Of Our Cell Phones)
March 20, 2014
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(Photo: AP Photo/NASA)

Do you remember what you were doing on July 22, 2012? Probably it was something normal — like not worrying about extensive damage to the world's technological infrastructure or the very well-being of humanity in general. Because at the time, that might have seemed like a weird thing to worry about. But this week, new information surfaced suggesting that on July 22, 2012, a massive magnetic solar storm narrowly grazed the Earth, just barely avoiding catastrophe.

New research from U.S. and Chinese scientists, published this week in the journal Nature Communications, outlined just how lucky we were two years ago. The solar blast would have greatly damaged the Earth's magnetic field, knocking out most of our telecommunications infrastructure and prompting blackouts that could have lasted, potentially, for months.

The findings compare the near-catastrophe to the Carrington Event in 1859, when the largest magnetic storm to ever hit the Earth (named after the astronomer who identified it) knocked out telegraph service across the United States. 

"Had [the 2012 storm] 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," Janet Luhmann a researcher at the University of California, Berkeley and a co-author of the study, said in a statement.

In fact, it's estimated that if a storm like the Carrington Event hit the Earth today, it would result in an almost $3-trillion loss to the global economy and would take upwards of 10 years to rebuild all the lost infrastructure. 

Events as large as the 2012 blast are rare, but solar emissions happen everyday on a smaller scale. It's such a real threat that the United States government released a report last year outlining the risks of solar blasts and is actively monitoring the situation — a process that, as The Verge points out, is complex, expensive, and incredibly important. 

“People keep saying that these are rare natural hazards, but they are happening in the solar system even though we don’t always see them,” said Luhmann. “It’s like with earthquakes — it is hard to impress upon people the importance of preparing unless you suffer a magnitude 9 earthquake.”

The solar blast was even captured by NASA's STEREO A observational spacecraft. Here's what it looked like from up above:


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