Solar Magnetic Storm That Narrowly Missed Earth in 2012 Could Have Been Catastrophic, Study Finds

Had the storm come nine days earlier, it could have wiped out Earth's technological systems, according to a new analysis of NASA data.

Solar Storm

What apocalypse?

The planet Earth dodged a bullet almost two years ago, scientists have found — a massive, magnetic bullet, that is, in the form of a barrage of solar blasts that could have cooked our technological infrastructure.

On July 23, 2012, a rapid-fire series of those blasts sent an enormous pulse of magnetized plasma through space, and through Earth's orbit, in what turns out to have been a very close call for the planet, according to a study out this week.

If the eruption had come nine days earlier, when the ignition spot on the sun was aimed at Earth, it would have hit our planet, researchers from University of California at Berkeley and their Chinese colleagues found.

If it had, it could have taken out much of our technological infrastructure as we know it, including our electrical grid, our satellites and GPS and more, they found.

Their findings, published Tuesday in the journal Nature Communications, were based on a study of NASA's own data on the magnetic storm collected from its STEREO A spacecraft.

  • WATCH video of the storm from STEREO A in the video player above, or here.

Earth is awfully lucky the storm didn't hit nine days earlier, but such catastrophes aren't unprecedented.

The so-called Carrington Event of 1859 knocked out the telegraph system across the United States and made the Northern Lights visible even in tropical latitudes. That magnetic storm was about as strong as the one that could have hit in 2012 — but the 2012 one would have been much worse.

"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 Berkeley research physicist Janet Luhmann.

A study last year found that if a storm like the Carrington Event hit today, it could cause $2.6 trillion worth of damage globally.

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