The Truth About 2012: Killer Solar Flares Are a Physical Impossibility

by Nancy Atkinson on December 13, 2012

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NASA is trying to make sure that no one is taking the 2012 doomsday nonsense seriously, and just put out this video today detailing how a gigantic “killer solar flare” just ain’t gonna happen. Dr. Alex Young from the Goddard Space Flight Center explains how the Sun’s regular 11-year solar cycle is expected to peak in 2013 and 2014, not on December 21 of this year. Plus, this current solar cycle has been kind of a dud as far as wild activity goes, and scientists are not expecting the peak of this cycle to even be as strong as the previous one, which was rather mild.

Solar prominence in H alpha, with Earth scale model. Credit: John Brady.

Not to mention, Earth’s atmosphere keeps us well protected here on Earth. The only thing we do have to be concerned with is how solar flares and coronal mass ejections (CMEs) can damage satellites and even impact the power grid on Earth; additionally astronauts in Space to have to be specially protected as they are outside of the protection of the atmosphere.

You can get more information in our detailed article “2012: No Killer Solar Flare.”

About 

Nancy Atkinson is Universe Today's Senior Editor. She also is the host of the NASA Lunar Science Institute podcast and works with Astronomy Cast. Nancy is also a NASA/JPL Solar System Ambassador.

Shootist December 13, 2012 at 6:11 PM

No, but an event large enough to, more or less, permanently destroy electrical generation capacity is.

Olaf2 December 13, 2012 at 6:17 PM

Rubbish.

We have been bombarded with solar flares in the last year.

It will only have local effects, not a world scale problem.

The Latinist December 13, 2012 at 6:34 PM

While Shootist is engaging in a bit of hyperbole, I think it is wrong to dismiss the possible effects of a massive coronal mass ejection on power grids. We’re not talking about the kind of solar flare that happens all the time, but the kind that happens roughly every 500 years or so. In 1859 the earth was hit by a coronal mass ejection that damaged telegraph systems all over Europe and North America. If we were hit by a similar CME today it could easily take out substations and damage transmission wires on a massive scale. Hurricane Sandy took out power in parts of New Jersey for over a month despite mobilization of electrical workers and equipment from all across the country. A CME like that of 1859 could cause damage on a nationwide scale and could damage components like transformers which would be very difficult to replace in the short term (lead times for the production of new transformers can be over a year). We’re not talking about a species-killing event, but such an extended and widespread outage would cause many deaths and massive economic disruption.

gopher652003 December 13, 2012 at 6:53 PM

The issue with such reasoning is that it assumes we’re blind to massive CMEs pointed straight at Earth. If we shut down our satellites and put the power grids in the affected regions into “safe mode” (so to speak) for only a few hours we’d avoid serious damage.

Since we have the sun under continuous observation, the likelihood of us *not* having 2 or 3 days notice of a major geomagnetic storm caused by a CME is essentially zero.

That isn’t to say we shouldn’t take precautions and harden our power-grid against damage (that’s just good sense, because limited regional damage can and will occur), it’s just to say that predictions of mass doom from a CME are rubbish.

Philip Wilson December 13, 2012 at 7:05 PM

Won’t work. Even with devices offline a Carrington Event induces currents in turned off electronics and wiring that destroys them. Only a Faraday shield or bypass diode high current grounding designs would be safe. And our stuff isn’t presently built that way. Mass doom would ensue.

The Latinist December 13, 2012 at 7:24 PM

In 1859 it took just 17 hours for the CME to reach earth. Nor will turning off or disconnecting things prevent damage; the electromagnetic disturbance can induce currents in basically anything made of metal, especially in transformers with their massive tightly-wound copper coils.

I’m not trying to be alarmist, but I think minimizing the threat as ‘rubbish’ is irresponsible.

Shootist December 13, 2012 at 7:15 PM

Perhaps hyperbole.

We know what an EMP will do.

We know how to calculate EM field strength.

We know other Suns, similar to our own, flare.

We know the field strength of those flares released by sun’s similar to our own.

We know that an EMP of sufficient strength could melt the internals of an electric motor (or generator), melt every high tension power line, and certainly destroy every integrated circuit not inside a Faraday cage.

A solar flare of sufficient strength acts just like (is) an EMP.

What happens if a flare fuses the internals of every generator/motor on the planet? Melts every high tension line? Destroys every IC and CPU? We will need a century?, a millennium?, to rebuild/rediscover/redevelop the tech necessary to create copper wires, to re-wind the generators to power the planet.

Three days after the power goes out, the cities will start to burn.

Olaf2 December 13, 2012 at 10:22 PM

An incoming CME is not a nuclear EMP.
Only long power lines are effected not short lines.

Shootist December 13, 2012 at 6:38 PM

Solar Flares that end civilization are are used in training scenarios right next to bolide impacts and nuclear war.

Ajai Dev Malik December 21, 2012 at 4:26 PM

I just happened to come across these comments by anonymous here…..

http://space.brevardtimes.com/

Maybe you are troubling someone out there….. I happened to talk to them…..

If people are stars…. then who is the sun ?….

http://space.brevardtimes.com/

Ajai Dev Malik December 21, 2012 at 4:29 PM

I just happened to come across these comments by anonymous here…..

http://space.brevardtimes.com/2012/10/suns-coronal-mass-ejection-to-reach.html

Maybe you are troubling someone out there….. I happened to talk to them…..

If people are stars…. then who is the sun ?….

Shawn Anderson December 13, 2012 at 9:23 PM

So they’ve been watching the solar cycle for about 15 times since they have been recording solar events. So if this is an accurate set of data you should be able to guess this weeks Powerball based on the last 15 pulls only? There are way too many variables in place to say one way or another if something is going to happen, and when it will occur.

Olaf2 December 13, 2012 at 10:35 PM

An incoming CME that gives problems is possible.
But it is not going to be on the doomsday because doomtards are very bad at predicting anything. Boy do they have a bad track record.

gopher652003 December 15, 2012 at 3:04 PM

You can see the results of CMEs in ice cores and a few other things, IIRC. So they can count the number of times a big CME (or a huge burst of radiation from another source) hit Earth for the past few few million years, and figure out how often it happens on average.

That’s doesn’t help predict exactly when a CME will come, but it does tell us that big CME-like events hit Earth once every few hundred years.

canada monster December 14, 2012 at 4:53 AM

astronauts are not in space, they are still protected by earth. if they went to the moon they would die

nick December 15, 2012 at 5:31 PM

Are you trying to say we never been to the moon? Yea aluminum foil will protect you

maria billingsley December 14, 2012 at 10:24 PM

How about the magnetic field. It is going through a reversal which I hear will weaken the field. Or did I just see that in a scify flick lately?:)

gopher652003 December 15, 2012 at 2:59 PM

It’s possibly that we’re going through a reversal (it’s too early to tell), but that doesn’t matter much to us. We actually aren’t protected from solar or deep space radiation by the magnetic field, but rather by the atmosphere. What the magnetic field does is protect the upper atmosphere from slow (very, very slowly) getting eaten away, like what happened on Venus.

Basically, if you don’t have a magnetic field, water molecules in the upper atmosphere gets occasionally split into hydrogen gas and molecular oxygen. The hydrogen then escapes into space, while the oxygen sinks back to the planet. Hydrogen is slowly lost (over billions of years), reducing the total amount of water that the planet has on its surface and in its atmosphere. If Earth hadn’t had a magnetic field for the past 4 billion years, we’d only have about half as much water in the biosphere as we do right now, due to these losses.

But even a few thousand years of weak or non-existent magnetic field during a pole reversal would do essentially nothing to our atmosphere.

The biggest effect a pole reversal would have on us is that we’d have to slightly increase the radiation shielding on some of our satellites, while decreasing the shielding on sats that orbit within the Van Allen radiation belts (the belts would quickly dissipate as the magnetic field lost strength, making that area slightly less damaging to satellites).

Field reversal isn’t a big deal. Don’t worry about it.

Ari Walker December 18, 2012 at 1:53 PM

Dec 21, 2012 is the Day the Judgement which is similar to how a Judge and Jury gives you your verdict. It is not the same day that you get the electric chair (or I should say Black Hole-Bottomless Pit in this case)…
The world will not end on that day; the end will come some time afterwards. If a species like Humanity has a projected path of going Viral in our Milky Way Galaxy, then it must be destroyed. This is the Law of a Healthy Body is to destroy infectious agents. What this means for you if you are Human, is that you will die, but do not blame the Milky Way. Blame the Fathers of Earth, for creating this Virus loving species where everyone wants to go Viral.

The Latinist December 18, 2012 at 3:35 PM

Hah! Thanks, I needed a little comic relief about now.

Yoshi Tokimasa December 18, 2012 at 3:33 PM

Exactly that’s why money is a false importance once the satallites come down all the rich will be in the same boat with the poor.

Guest December 18, 2012 at 10:29 PM

I think a shot back into the stone age would do everyone a favor these days… no electricity, no vehicles, or wireless devices, nothing. Want to go somewhere, talk to a friend? Walk, meet face to face. Want to eat? Grow or raise it yourself, or have something to trade for it. Money is useless without the economy. Maybe then people would actually realize the importance of sustaining life rather then worrying if the power will go out.

rpsgc December 20, 2012 at 12:30 AM

You’re an idiot.

G’day.

Guest December 21, 2012 at 6:03 AM

No, he has a point, yes scientists are saying that it won’t kill us instantly but has anybody concidered the long term effects of a substantial world wide power outage, everything runs by electricity these days. How would people get enogh food to support the economy as most countries import and that would no longer be possible. Hospitals would be shut down. Airplanes would not be able to land, initally immediantly after the solar flare hit earth massive loss of life would incur unless we took necessary measures to prevent it. There isn’t much these days that doesn’t run by electric. We would certainly have to learn fast how to cope without it, or face iminent death.

John Oxnard December 20, 2012 at 1:06 AM

Billy Corgan got his Doctorate?

Neo Rashen December 21, 2012 at 2:49 AM

Funny because dr.michio kaku says they thought the solar flares arent going to be strong but now they realised its going to be bigger than the rest we encountered so i dont know whos lying right now…. And the funnier thing is how can they make sure that its definetely not gona happen when they cant even predict earth quakes that happen right on EARTH!! So i personally dont believe everything they say but its up to yall…. Hopefully something good would happen at the end of this year

Ajai Dev Malik December 21, 2012 at 3:41 PM

I just happened to come across these comments by anonymous here…..

http://space.brevardtimes.com/2012/10/suns-coronal-mass-ejection-to-reach.html

Maybe you are troubling someone out there….. I happened to talk to them…..

If people are stars…. then who is the sun ?….

Ajai Dev Malik December 21, 2012 at 3:45 PM

I just happened to come across these comments by anonymous here…..

http://space.brevardtimes.com/2012/10/suns-coronal-mass-ejection-to-reach.html

Maybe you are troubling someone out there….. I happened to talk to them…..

If people are stars…. then who is the sun ?….

http://space.brevardtimes.com/2012/10/suns-coronal-mass-ejection-to-reach.html

Ajai Dev Malik December 21, 2012 at 3:47 PM

And Solar CMEs ain’t hurt him or the neighborhood ever….

golden December 23, 2012 at 1:15 AM

nasa claims a solar flare can not harm the earth. most scientists know that a solar flare can harm the earth

James Lee December 24, 2012 at 11:01 AM

From spaceweather:

“FARSIDE ERUPTION: No strong flares have issued from the sun in weeks, but solar activity might not be as low as it seems. The farside of the sun is increasingly restless. On Dec. 21st, multiple CMEs flew over the edge of the solar disk, and today NASA’s STEREO-A spacecraft observed a filament erupting on the farside. The blast site is circled in this extreme ultraviolet image taken on Dec. 23rd at 11:15 UT:

This activity suggests that the long-term forecast could be stormy. In one to two weeks, active regions currently on the farside will turn toward Earth, possibly sending some flares and CMEs our way. ”

Truth is we cant really predict these things, except a few days in advance, nor do we know how strong they can get.

gopher652003 December 13, 2012 at 8:01 PM

My understanding is that that isn’t true because a large current only builds up in long wires such as high voltage transmission lines.

On the other hand an EMP would induce a large current even in small electronics. But things that happen during a nuclear airburst aren’t directly translatable to even a large solar storm.

The big danger in a large solar storm is that an enormous amount of current builds up in high voltage lines (just like it did in telegraph wires in 1859) and blows out the transformers in a huge area. It would take months, maybe years to replace those transformers, leaving a huge region without electricity for that time. But simply (well, not simply, but do-able) unhooking the transformers and power plants from long transmission lines would mitigate the worst of the damage (though not completely prevent all damage).

Olaf2 December 13, 2012 at 10:28 PM

Wild claims no numbers.

How much current and how much volt would be introduced in your iPhone? Give us some numbers.

Olaf2 December 13, 2012 at 10:27 PM

Yes it is rubbish you have been waching too many SF movies.
But give us a number, how powerful would the CME be?

Give us some number for an 10 meter wire in a transformer that could be in your computer. I want numbers not wild claims.

Olaf2 December 13, 2012 at 10:33 PM

That is right. A EMP has a very short burst.

And incoming CME has a too low impulse to affect smaller electronics only longer wires and only because the high voltage wires carries a maximum load. Reducing the power transmitted over distance would actually prevent the voltage buildup. No need to shut it down.

The Latinist December 14, 2012 at 1:08 AM

I am not talking about damage to my personal computer. Nowhere did I mention small electronics or electronics of any size. I’m talking about damage to the nation’s power grid, including massive transformers that are subject to damage from stray magnetic flux if their cores saturate.

For instance in 2008 the National Academy of Sciences reported (http://www.nap.edu/openbook.php?record_id=12507&page=77 and following) that a study commissioned by the Electromagnetic Pulse Commission and FEMA estimated that a 4800 nT/min geomagnetic storm centered at 50° geomagnetic latitude (levels reached in a 1921 magnetic storm) could cause system collapse for most of the US east of the Mississippi as well as the northwestern US. This would be caused by permanent damage to up to 365 susceptible EHV transformers (a map of these transformers can be found on page 79 of the report I linked above). The lead time estimated for replacement of one of these transformers is up to 12 months. The study estimated that such an event could cause power outages to 130 million people with significant restoration times. They estimated the economic impact of such an event at $1-2 trillion dollars in the first year with 4-6 years required for full recovery, depending on the extent of damage.

Please note that 4800 nT/min is a significantly lower than the levels experienced in the Carrington Event of 1859. We are unsure of the exact size of that CME, but I’ve seen estimates that it was more than 50% stronger than the 1921 storm, placing it at 7500 nT/min or more

Was that enough numbers for you? Or would you like to hurl more insults and condescension at me?

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