Solar Superstorm Could Have Knocked Earth Back To The 18th Century, Says Scientist

If you're reading this, you're probably doing so on a computer of some sort, and you're likely not too keen on the idea of going back to an 18th century lifestyle. Lucky for you, then, because two years ago Earth just avoided catching the brunt of a solar storm that could have knocked human technology back three centuries.

The news came by way of a paper from Daniel Baker and a number of his colleagues from NASA. Titled "A major solar eruptive event in July 2012," the paper described a coronal mass ejection that whipped through Earth orbit just over two years ago. The only reason you're reading this now, apparently, is that Earth wasn't there at the time. Lucky, that.

Earth to scale
A coronal mass ejection isn't just a great name for a decadent yellow velvet cake; it's also a massive eruption from the surface of the sun, the kind that could take out all of the technology you know and love. Image via The Westside Story.

A coronal mass ejection, or CME, consists of solar wind and magnetic fields that rise up above the surface of the sun and are then ejected into space. The last really, really big one to hit Earth happened in September of 1859 and was called the Carrington Event. That one was so powerful that it ignited the Northern Lights as far south as Cuba. What's more, telegraph lines around the world sparked and set fire to some telegraph offices.

Baker's paper posits that the July 2012 CME was at least as powerful as the Carrington Event, and the havoc it would have wreaked on our modern technological infrastructure would have been mind-boggling.

A study by the National Academy of Sciences estimated the potential economic impact of a Carrington-level CME hitting now would exceed $2 trillion. Humans would likely be knocked back to the 18th century in terms of what technology would still work. And we're not talking about 18th century living for just a few hours, days, or months. Multi-ton transformers, the type that we rely on to power our grid, could take years to repair.

Yep, we're screwed
A map showing the potential societal and economic impact of a massive solar storm. Colored areas show the places likely to suffer system collapse. Yes, that's just about every major metropolitan area in the continental U.S. About 130 million people would be affected. Image via NASA.

That means no phone, no lights, no motor cars. Not a single luxury. Fortunately for us, the 2012 CME missed Earth. Good stuff, and we're all safe, no?


Turns out the July 2012 solar storm was actually two coronal mass ejections separated by 10 to 15 minutes. According to some researchers, this sort of storm isn't too uncommon, and some scientists have estimated that the probability of a Carrington-class storm hitting earth in the next 10 years is about 12 percent.

In case you maybe thought we'd skipped a decimal point or something, here's that figure again: 12 percent.

So... We're screwed, right? It's a pressing question, as Baker notes. The only reason we knew about the 2012 storm is because we had a very fortuitously placed satellite out there in the dark of space. We really don't know how many storms of this magnitude occur regularly and just happen to miss Earth and our space detection systems.

So forget the super volcano and the polar shift and wayward comets. The real danger is the big ball of plasma we've spent our lives orbiting. It might knock out your Internet, and what would you do then?