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"Almost destroyed world"? Journalists planetwide report danger from the Sun

Scientists warn "we should waste no time" in learning from a powerful coronal mass ejection.

As translated by a NASA public-information release and accompanying four-minute YouTube video, the Space Weather journal article "A major solar eruptive event in July 2012" has drawn media attention worldwide, with some especially enthusiastic headlines for some inherently weighty news.

The paper's authors—D. N. Baker of the University of Colorado Boulder and six colleagues from NASA, Catholic University, and the University of New Hampshire—invoke a wide frame for their research: "A key goal for space weather studies is to define severe and extreme conditions that might plausibly afflict human technology." They continue:

On 23 July 2012, solar active region 1520 (~141°W heliographic longitude) gave rise to a powerful coronal mass ejection (CME) with an initial speed that was determined to be 2500 ± 500 km/s. The eruption was directed away from Earth toward 125°W longitude. STEREO-A [deployed solar observatory spacecraft] sensors detected the CME arrival only about 19 h later and made in situ measurements of the solar wind and interplanetary magnetic field. In this paper, we address the question of what would have happened if this powerful interplanetary event had been Earthward directed.

The authors found that, if Earthward-directed, the "23–24 July event would certainly have produced a geomagnetic storm that was comparable to the largest events of the twentieth century." They estimated the disturbance would have been "considerably larger than estimates for the famous Carrington storm of 1859." That solar superstorm caused disruption even in its technologically early time. Excerpts from the paper's discussion section revert to the wide framing:

* It is the opinion of the authors that our advanced technological society was very fortunate, indeed, that the 23 July solar storm did not occur just a week or so earlier. . . . In fact, there is very legitimate question of whether our society would still be "picking up the pieces" from such a severe event.

* We believe that [this] was a "shot across the bow" for policy makers and space weather professionals. . . . [W]e would argue that this July 2012 period should be adopted as quickly as possible as the prototypical extreme event scenario for emergency preparedness purposes. . . . We should waste no time in playing this extreme event through our technological "war game" scenarios.

Serious press attention to space weather is of course not new. A year ago, for example, as discussed in this venue, the Washington Post reported that solar storms present "the possibility of apocalypse." Among the other dramatic aspects of that coverage was an illustration showing four people fleeing from a huge sun, with the superimposed headline "When space weather attacks!" To what extent was all of that sensational, meant to provoke excited interest—and to what extent was it sensationalized, provoking excitement with inaccuracy and without sober judgment?

For the current news, NASA's public-information release plainly seeks to provoke excited interest. It begins:

If an asteroid big enough to knock modern civilization back to the 18th century appeared out of deep space and buzzed the Earth-Moon system, the near-miss would be instant worldwide headline news.

Two years ago, Earth experienced a close shave just as perilous, but most newspapers didn't mention it. The "impactor" was an extreme solar storm, the most powerful in as much as 150+ years.

"If it had hit, we would still be picking up the pieces," says Daniel Baker of the University of Colorado.

Another passage from the release spells out the danger:

Analysts believe that a direct hit by an extreme CME such as the one that missed Earth in July 2012 could cause widespread power blackouts, disabling everything that plugs into a wall socket. Most people wouldn't even be able to flush their toilet because urban water supplies largely rely on electric pumps.

Before July 2012, when researchers talked about extreme solar storms their touchstone was the iconic Carrington Event of Sept. 1859, named after English astronomer Richard Carrington who actually saw the instigating flare with his own eyes. In the days that followed his observation, a series of powerful CMEs hit Earth head-on with a potency not felt before or since. Intense geomagnetic storms ignited Northern Lights as far south as Cuba and caused global telegraph lines to spark, setting fire to some telegraph offices and thus disabling the "Victorian Internet."

A similar storm today could have a catastrophic effect. According to a study by the National Academy of Sciences, the total economic impact could exceed $2 trillion or 20 times greater than the costs of a Hurricane Katrina. Multi-ton transformers damaged by such a storm might take years to repair.

The NASA release goes on to report that the chance of a Carrington-class storm hitting Earth in the next 10 years has been calculated to be 12%. The release ends with this warning: "Says Baker, 'we need to be prepared.'"

But whatever is to be said about NASA's calibration and handling of inherently sensational news, excessively sensationalized headlines have appeared around the world.

The New York Daily News used "Earth almost blasted back to Stone Age by extreme solar storm in 2012: scientists." In Australia at the Sydney Morning Herald, environmental editor Peter Hannam's column carried the headline "'Pushed back to the Stone Age': massive solar storm missed Earth by just one week." In the UK, the Guardian went with "'Extreme solar storm' could have pulled the plug on Earth," and the Week exclaimed, "Solar super storm: near miss threatened life as we know it."

And finally, the New York Post used "Solar flare nearly destroyed Earth 2 years ago: NASA," echoing the Daily Beast's "Solar storm almost destroyed world."


Steven T. Corneliussen, a media analyst for the American Institute of Physics, monitors three national newspapers, the weeklies Nature and Science, and occasionally other publications. He has published op-eds in the Washington Post and other newspapers, has written for NASA's history program, and is a science writer at a particle-accelerator laboratory.

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