Disaster Porn, For Once for Real

I usually tend to dismiss near-miss science and astronomy disaster porn, which usually comes in the form of asteroids that almost but didn’t slam into the earth and other related horrors. The Earth has been around for a few billion years and it’s been many millions of years since the planet suffered a true global catastrophe. So what are the odds, in this tiny sliver of decades at the leading edge of history, when we’re finally able to have some inkling of what’s going on in near space, that we’re actually finding out about some real global catastrophe that had any real chance of happening? Small, I’d say. Well, here may be the one exception that proves the rule. According to a NASA study, the Earth just missed what would have been not a civilization ending but a truly massive global catastrophe in 2012 because of a huge solar storm.

The first question that I asked was, ‘Well, wait, there are a lot of solar storms. Why would this one have been so bad?’ The rapid transformation of human civilization over the last two centuries can change our climate. But I’m pretty sure we’re not affecting the operation of the Sun. So why now?

The answer goes back to the same transformation of human civilization over the last couple centuries. What came close to happening in 2012 probably happens fairly frequently over the span of geological and even civilizational time.

Something like it appears to have happened as recently as 1859. The key is that it’s only now that most of the globe is criss-crossed with an electrical grid and various other electrical doodads that we’re massively dependent on. In other words, stuff like like this has probably happened many times over the course of human history – just no one noticed, except for some weird or cool looking lights in the sky. Now it would be a very, very big deal with the blackouts on a global scale which could have taken months or longer to fix. A National Academy of Sciences study estimated that the damage hit $2 trillion.

So, most of all of us would have lived. And we’d still have the same countries and all that. But we’re talking a major disaster of pretty immense proportions. And what’s more, this report says there’s a non-trivial chance (12%) that something like this will happen in the next decade.

More details and a video here.

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