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17 February, 2009


In many ways, this article may seem a continuation of the last installment in this series because-- like part three-- it will deal quite a bit with the subject of Coronal Mass Ejections (CMEs for short) as well as other solar phenomena. I would ask, though, that you indulge me as I attempt to present another of the many theories held to by those who believe the year 2012 will spell mankind's doom... and explain why this is one theory perhaps we should all take a long look at before we dismiss it.

Just exactly what a CME is and how they occur was covered fairly well in the previous installment of this series, so it would be pointless to repeat that information here. What you do need to understand, however, is that CMEs are the product of solar flares. A solar flare is a massive, violent explosion that occurs in the atmosphere of a star, heating plasma to temperatures measured in the millions of degrees on the Kelvin scale and accelerating electrons, protons, and ions to velocities approaching the speed of light. Further, they are producers of all different kinds of radiation and mostly occur in the vicinity of sunspots (source: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Solar_flare).

It is interesting to note that solar physicists are predicting a peak in the sunspot cycle some time around 2011 or 2012 that could produce larger than normal solar flares and CMEs. It has been theorized that some of these may carry with them the capacity to interfere with power grids and satellites in orbit (including military equipment). In fact, it has long been known that solar flares and CMEs were a hazard to not only our technology but to us as well. The radiation risks posed by these phenomena are among the major concerns in discussions of manned missions outside near-earth orbit. These phenomena release a cascade of high energy particles that can pass through the human body, resulting in serious biochemical damage to our cells (source:

Despite the fact that there is a global warning system in place to attempt to mitigate any potential damage that could occur from such phenomena, very strong ejections can cover the distance from the sun to earth in a surprisingly short span; as little as a few minutes. That does not leave much room for error in a situation where the only real way to avoid the powerful surges that can overload transformers and integrated circuits is to shut down the electricity prior to the CME reaching earth.[1]

On March 13, 1989, a flare hit the North American continent and fried electric lines causing the failure of the Hydro-Quebec (Canada) power grid, effectively turning out the lights on more than six million people for several hours (source:
http://www.windows.ucar.edu/spaceweather/blackout.html). As if that weren't bad enough, many experts believe that this outage only remained within provincial borders because it did not occur during what would be considered a peak load time for the grid. Had this happened during the summer or winter's peak usage times, it could have spread across the northeastern United States possibly as far south as the Washington, D.C. area (source: http://www.agu.org/sci_soc/eiskappenman.html).

And then, in the latter part of 2003, a series of powerful flares fell upon northern Europe, resulting in vivid auroras and severely inhibiting both satellite technology and radio transmissions (source: ttp://www.space.com/scienceastronomy/power_outage_031031.html). A second series followed Hurricane Katrina in the fall of 2005 (source: http://www.space.com/scienceastronomy/050909_solar_flares.html).

But, neither of those examples even begins to approach the severity of an event that has come to be known as the “Solar Superstorm of 1859.” For several days leading up to September 1st of that year, numerous sunspots and solar flares were observed; the largest of these was witnessed by the British astronomer Richard Carrington and caused a massive CME to be hurled toward our planet. The result was the most powerful solar geomagnetic storm in recorded history that lasted for more than a day and caused telegraph systems all over Europe and North America to short-out, resulting in many fires (source: http://www.space.com/scienceastronomy/mystery_monday_031027.html). Auroras, typically thought of as being associated with the far north Arctic regions, were seen as far south as Italy and the Caribbean. In fact, the lights that appeared in the skies over the Rocky Mountains were so bright that they awoke gold miners, who began to prepare breakfast because they thought it was morning (source: http://www.sciam.com/article.cfm?id=bracing-for-a-solar-superstorm). Scientists today have been able to study the severity of this occurrence due to the fact that it left traces in the ice of Greenland (source: http://www.newscientist.com/article/dn7142).

The nightmare scenario with regards to all of this is to imagine what would happen if another solar storm with the ferocity of the one in 1859 were to hit us today. At the time that storm hit, the telegraph was a little over a decade old and was a technological marvel that had changed the world. Then this storm came along and brought it to its proverbial knees. Can you even imagine the level at which we-- with virtually every aspect of our daily lives wrapped-up in our tech-nology-- would be affected if a superstorm like the one in 1859 were to occur now? Let me tell you, it would be catastrophic.

Rolling blackouts would begin as they did in 1989, but they would not be limited to just one specific region. Without going into a great deal of technical detail, it is my understanding that the surges created would cause permanent damage to vital components such as transformers and even possibly the power generation apparatuses themselves, causing billions if not trillions of dollars in damages. But the real problem, as I understand it, is that the resources, parts, et cetera, needed to effect repairs on the fried components simply do not yet exist in the quantity required to affect such extensive repairs everywhere and at the same time. Quite simply, the lights would go out and they would stay out for a long, long time. Areas would have to be fixed and brought back online one-at-a-time over a period of not days, weeks, or months but instead years.

Imagine winters with no electric heating; no electrical appliances; running water being un-available in most areas due to no electricity to run the pumps; no way to preserve the food in your refrigerator and/or freezer or at the grocery stores either; no air conditioning in the summers - all of that and having to go to bed every night with the knowledge that it could be years before things are back to normal. The sad truth, I believe, is that the very threads of society would more than likely unravel themselves after just the first few weeks.

In closing, I should say that even though this scenario is by far the most plausible to me, I still struggle with it even being considered as a "Doomsday 2012" theory. The only thing linking the two is the forecast of the time around 2011 and 2012 representing the peak of the current sunspot cycle and even that prediction is not related to a specific date in any way. I suppose that if I had to lend credence to any of these theories, though, it would be this one as I believe it does represent a serious threat, 2012 or no 2012.

Print Reference

[1]Joseph, Lawrence E. (2007). Apocalypse 2012: A Scientific Investigation Into
Civilization's End. Morgan Road Books.


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