The one where we survived a super solar storm

The one where we survived a super solar storm

On the midnight of 21st December 2012, people worldwide are on their toes glued to their news channel-

“New York, U.S. midnight of 21st: From the ABC News newsroom in New York City, we can confirm the world here has not ended.”  – ABC news in 2012.

Rumours of our world ending were on the tables throughout the year, as it was the end of a cycle of the Mayan calendar. It was actually not the end, rather just the end of a cycle and the beginning of another cycle. But misinformation and misinterpretations seem to travel faster. In the midst of this, we literally missed another disastrous event the same year… 

What did we miss in 2012? 

solar storm

In July, our Sun was in its 24th cycle, and the sunspots were at their maximum, which led to the ejection of a large amount of Coronal mass (plasma), a literal super solar storm. This solar storm was too strong and was ready to cause a major blackout on Earth and damage satellites in Earth’s orbit.

Although, luckily we missed this as we were a little ahead in orbit. If this CME had been ejected nine days earlier, we would have witnessed an unfortunate event- blazing towards us. This news didn’t get much coverage because I assume everyone was busy preparing for the upcoming Doomsday in December. A year later, in the journal Space Weather, a paper titled “A major solar eruptive event in July 2012” described the event in detail-

‘This event had the power to fail our power grids, affect our communication devices and cause a total communication blackout. The complete recovery would have cost around $2.6 trillion to the US alone! It could have taken 4-10 years to replace the damaged electronic parts and power grids.’

Similar events of the past

We have faced such solar storms in the past. Those were 1859’s Carrington event and 1989’s geomagnetic storm. The older one is the strongest solar storm on record. During the super solar storm, many people had observed the Northern lights up to the Caribbean islands, which was quite unusual. People at midnight got up after seeing these lights in the sky and thought that it was day, not realizing that a Geomagnetic storm had hit us causing these lights to appear with such intensity.

The most high-end communication devices of that time- The telegraphs were damaged, putting the operators in shock (literally). All telegraph lines were off, the so-called Victorian Internet was down, all only because of our very own Sun. Fast forward to 1989, where we have proper electricity grids in almost every city. Another geomagnetic storm caused a total blackout in the city of Quebec for hours. These kinds of super solar storms have dual effects; on one side, it causes beautiful auroras in the sky, while on the other, it breaks the communications lines. 

Recording of Magnetogram at Greenwich laboratory, 1859

But what is the difference between Solar flare, CME, and Geomagnetic Storms? And what is a super solar storm? 

What are the effects of these? How deadly are these?

A look into the Solar storms    

Due to the high amount of energy present in the Sun, electrons and the nucleus are separated, turning it into a hot ball of plasma. With a huge gravitational field, Sun also has a magnetic field. It is very well known that electricity and magnetism are interrelated- The magnetic field is the cause of electric current flow, but also electric current flow, in turn, generates a magnetic field.

In this case, the plasma and Sun’s magnetic field are related in the mentioned way, this interaction shapes the plasma and forms loops in the sun. This loop makes the magnetic field spread out and the plasma in a circular shape in the Sun. These magnetic field lines of the Sun travel a long way, and along with it, they bring light showers of plasma, called the Solar wind

As the interactions are very active, when the magnetic field gets disoriented and random due to the motion of plasma, bends of the magnetic field are created on the surface of the Sun. And when they bend snaps, a humongous amount of energy is released.

When a massive amount of X-ray and energy is released in all directions with the speed of light, they are called Solar flares. And when a large number of particles are ejected, it is called Coronal Mass Ejection (CME). If we are in the path of the CME, it will take around 1 to 3 days to reach Earth.

Both these events are pretty different, solar flares look like a flash of light, whereas CME looks like something is being thrown out of the Sun. When CME reaches Earth, it interacts with our magnetic field. They create beautiful Auroras on the North and South poles, this is pretty common. Things take a drastic change when an exceptionally large amount of energy is released, a Super solar storm occurs.

Before such a solar storm reaches Earth, we will know in advance through the observation of sunspots. When the emitted CME reaches Earth, it will cover up our magnetic field, forming a long tail on one side. Due to the humongous amount of energy, the magnetic field surrounding our Earth snaps, releasing it towards Earth; this is called a geomagnetic storm

Into the storm

Geomagnetic storms are not potentially harmful to the human body. But, the electrical and electronics are very much prone to get damaged. Even back in 1859, a not-so-complex instrument like the Telegraph was damaged. We can indeed imagine the damage to devices and electrical grids of today’s time.

We are very much dependent on electronic devices and are continuously surrounded by them; even you are reading this article on an electronic device. Without devices, we are literally helpless. This event can be termed as an ‘Electronic dystopia.’ no communication, electricity, and internet…  But you can look up in the sky to see the auroras, maybe just nature’s way of telling you to keep your phones down and look up in the sky.

But what if it comes again? Are we prepared for such an event?

Statistically, the probability of such a super solar storm to occur is 12% in this decade which increases to 50% in the next 50 years.

But, this time we will be knowing beforehand about the solar storm arriving, and all power grids can be informed about this. The engineers know very well how to prepare for such an event, and temporary blackouts and precautionary actions for a few hours can help us save billions of dollars and cause less chaos. We have many telescopes and observatories like NASA’s solar dynamic observatory that keeps an eye on the Sun.

So when was the most recent magnetic storm?

It occurred during our festival of Diwali! A Solar Deepawali indeed.  

An article from The Hindu


Indian scientists from CESSI, IISER Kolkata, using the data from NASA’s solar dynamic observatory and other similar data(s), predicted that auroras would appear on 4th November. Their predictions became true when NASA observed the incoming solar storm themselves. Unexpected auroras were seen in Ireland, Scotland, and some states of the US and none of these belong to the high latitude region. Although no major blackouts were reported this time, hence only bringing light to our lives. This prediction was very well appreciated and also tells us that we are prepared. 

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1 Comment

  • Refugio
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