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Science behind the 2012 Doomsday

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We could be in for a huge firework display in 2012. The Sun will be approaching the peak of its 11-year cycle, called "solar maximum", so we can expect a lot of solar activity. Some predictions put the solar maximum of Solar Cycle 24 even more energetic than the last solar maximum in 2002-2003.  According to one of the many Doomsday scenarios we have been presented with in the run-up to the Mayan Prophecy-fuelled "end of the world" in the year 2012, this scenario is actually based on some science. What's more, there may be some correlation between the 11-year solar cycle and the time cycles seen in the Mayan calendar, perhaps this ancient civilization understood how the Sun's magnetism undergoes polarity changes every decade or so? Plus, religious texts (such as the Bible) say that we are due for a day of judgment, involving a lot of fire and brimstone. So it looks like we are going to get roasted alive by our closest star on December 21st, 2012!

The Sun has a natural cycle with a period of approximately 11 years.


Composite image of multiple solar flares on the sun. Image credit: JAXA
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It happened before: Carrington Event

The most serious space weather event in history happened in 1859. It is known as the Carrington event, after the British amateur astronomer Richard Carrington, who was the first to note its cause: "two patches of intensely bright and white light" emanating from a large group of sunspots. The Carrington event comprised eight days of severe space weather. There were eyewitness accounts of stunning auroras, even at equatorial latitudes. The world's telegraph networks experienced severe disruptions, and Victorian magnetometers were driven off the scale.

At 11:18 AM on the cloudless morning of Thursday, September 1, 1859, 33-year-old Richard Carrington—widely acknowledged to be one of England's foremost solar astronomers—was in his well-appointed private observatory. Just as usual on every sunny day, his telescope was projecting an 11-inch-wide image of the sun on a screen, and Carrington skillfully drew the sunspots he saw.

On that morning, he was capturing the likeness of an enormous group of sunspots. Suddenly, before his eyes, two brilliant beads of blinding white light appeared over the sunspots, intensified rapidly, and became kidney-shaped. Realizing that he was witnessing something unprecedented and "being somewhat flurried by the surprise," Carrington later wrote, "I hastily ran to call someone to witness the exhibition with me. On returning within 60 seconds, I was mortified to find that it was already much changed and enfeebled." He and his witness watched the white spots contract to mere pinpoints and disappear.  It was 11:23 AM. Only five minutes had passed.

Just before dawn the next day, skies all over planet Earth erupted in red, green, and purple auroras so brilliant that newspapers could be read as easily as in daylight. Indeed, stunning auroras pulsated even at near tropical latitudes over Cuba, the Bahamas, Jamaica, El Salvador, and Hawaii.

Even more disconcerting, telegraph systems worldwide went haywire. Spark discharges shocked telegraph operators and set the telegraph paper on fire. Even when telegraphers disconnected the batteries powering the lines, aurora-induced electric currents in the wires still allowed messages to be transmitted.

"What Carrington saw was a white-light solar flare—a magnetic explosion on the sun," explains David Hathaway, solar physics team lead at NASA's Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Alabama.

Now we know that solar flares happen frequently, especially during solar sunspot maximum. Most betray their existence by releasing X-rays (recorded by X-ray telescopes in space) and radio noise (recorded by radio telescopes in space and on Earth). In Carrington's day, however, there were no X-ray satellites or radio telescopes. No one knew flares existed until that September morning when one super-flare produced enough light to rival the brightness of the sun itself.

"It's rare that one can actually see the brightening of the solar surface," says Hathaway. "It takes a lot of energy to heat up the surface of the sun!"

A modern solar flare recorded Dec. 5, 2006, by the X-ray Imager onboard
NOAA's GOES-13 satellite. The flare was so intense, it actually damaged the instrument
 that took the picture. Researchers believe Carrington's flare was much more energetic
than this one.

The explosion produced not only a surge of visible light but also a mammoth cloud of charged particles and detached magnetic loops—a "CME"—and hurled that cloud directly toward Earth. The next morning when the CME arrived, it crashed into Earth's magnetic field, causing the global bubble of magnetism that surrounds our planet to shake and quiver. Researchers call this a "geomagnetic storm." Rapidly moving fields induced enormous electric currents that surged through telegraph lines and disrupted communications.

"More than 35 years ago, I began drawing the attention of the space physics community to the 1859 flare and its impact on telecommunications," says Louis J. Lanzerotti, retired Distinguished Member of Technical Staff at Bell Laboratories and current editor of the journal Space Weather. He became aware of the effects of solar geomagnetic storms on terrestrial communications when a huge solar flare on August 4, 1972, knocked out long-distance telephone communication across Illinois. That event, in fact, caused AT&T to redesign its power system for transatlantic cables. A similar flare on March 13, 1989, provoked geomagnetic storms that disrupted electric power transmission from the Hydro Québec generating station in Canada, blacking out most of the province and plunging 6 million people into darkness for 9 hours; aurora-induced power surges even melted power transformers in New Jersey. In December 2005, X-rays from another solar storm disrupted satellite-to-ground communications and Global Positioning System (GPS) navigation signals for about 10 minutes. That may not sound like much, but as Lanzerotti noted, "I would not have wanted to be on a commercial airplane being guided in for a landing by GPS or on a ship being docked by GPS during that 10 minutes."

Another Carrington-class flare would dwarf these events. Fortunately, says Hathaway, they appear to be rare:

"In the 160-year record of geomagnetic storms, the Carrington event is the biggest." It's possible to delve back even farther in time by examining arctic ice. "Energetic particles leave a record in nitrates in ice cores," he explains. "Here again the Carrington event sticks out as the biggest in 500 years and nearly twice as big as the runner-up."

These statistics suggest that Carrington flares are once in a half-millennium events. The statistics are far from solid, however, and Hathaway cautions that we don't understand flares well enough to rule out a repeat in our lifetime.

And what then?

Lanzerotti points out that as electronic technologies have become more sophisticated and more embedded into everyday life, they have also become more vulnerable to solar activity. On Earth, power lines and long-distance telephone cables might be affected by auroral currents, as happened in 1989. Radar, cell phone communications, and GPS receivers could be disrupted by solar radio noise. Experts who have studied the question say there is little to be done to protect satellites from a Carrington-class flare. In fact, a recent paper estimates potential damage to the 900-plus satellites currently in orbit could cost between $30 billion and $70 billion. The best solution, they say: have a pipeline of comsats ready for launch.

Humans in space would be in peril, too. Spacewalking astronauts might have only minutes after the first flash of light to find shelter from energetic solar particles following close on the heels of those initial photons. Their spacecraft would probably have adequate shielding; the key would be getting inside in time.

No wonder NASA and other space agencies around the world have made the study and prediction of flares a priority. Right now a fleet of spacecraft is monitoring the sun, gathering data on flares big and small that may eventually reveal what triggers the explosions. SOHO, Hinode, STEREO, ACE and others are already in orbit while new spacecraft such as the Solar Dynamics Observatory are readying for launch.

Research won't prevent another Carrington flare, but it may make the "flurry of surprise" a thing of the past.

Authors: Trudy E. Bell & Dr. Tony Phillips | Editor: Dr. Tony Phillips | Credit: Science@NASA


Space storm alert: 90 seconds from catastrophe

by Michael Brooks

It is midnight on 22 September 2012 and the skies above Manhattan are filled with a flickering curtain of colourful light. Few New Yorkers have seen the aurora this far south but their fascination is short-lived. Within a few seconds, electric bulbs dim and flicker, then become unusually bright for a fleeting moment. Then all the lights in the state go out. Within 90 seconds, the entire eastern half of the US is without power.

A year later and millions of Americans are dead and the nation's infrastructure lies in tatters. The World Bank declares America a developing nation. Europe, Scandinavia, China and Japan are also struggling to recover from the same fateful event - a violent storm, 150 million kilometres away on the surface of the sun.

A fierce solar storm could lead to a global disaster on an unprecedented scale
(Image: SOHO Consortium / ESA / NASA)

It sounds ridiculous. Surely the sun couldn't create so profound a disaster on Earth. Yet an extraordinary report funded by NASA and issued by the US National Academy of Sciences (NAS) in January this year claims it could do just that.

Over the last few decades, western civilisations have busily sown the seeds of their own destruction. Our modern way of life, with its reliance on technology, has unwittingly exposed us to an extraordinary danger: plasma balls spewed from the surface of the sun could wipe out our power grids, with catastrophic consequences.

The projections of just how catastrophic make chilling reading. "We're moving closer and closer to the edge of a possible disaster," says Daniel Baker, a space weather expert based at the University of Colorado in Boulder, and chair of the NAS committee responsible for the report.

It is hard to conceive of the sun wiping out a large amount of our hard-earned progress. Nevertheless, it is possible. The surface of the sun is a roiling mass of plasma - charged high-energy particles - some of which escape the surface and travel through space as the solar wind. From time to time, that wind carries a billion-tonne glob of plasma, a fireball known as a coronal mass ejection (see "When hell comes to Earth"). If one should hit the Earth's magnetic shield, the result could be truly devastating.

The incursion of the plasma into our atmosphere causes rapid changes in the configuration of Earth's magnetic field which, in turn, induce currents in the long wires of the power grids. The grids were not built to handle this sort of direct current electricity. The greatest danger is at the step-up and step-down transformers used to convert power from its transport voltage to domestically useful voltage. The increased DC current creates strong magnetic fields that saturate a transformer's magnetic core. The result is runaway current in the transformer's copper wiring, which rapidly heats up and melts. This is exactly what happened in the Canadian province of Quebec in March 1989, and six million people spent 9 hours without electricity. But things could get much, much worse than that.

A fierce solar storm could lead to a global disaster on an unprecedented scale
 – it's time to heed the warnings

Though a solar outburst could conceivably be more powerful, "we haven't found an example of anything worse than a Carrington event", says James Green, head of NASA's planetary division and an expert on the events of 1859. "From a scientific perspective, that would be the one that we'd want to survive." However, the prognosis from the NAS analysis is that, thanks to our technological prowess, many of us may not.

There are two problems to face. The first is the modern electricity grid, which is designed to operate at ever higher voltages over ever larger areas. Though this provides a more efficient way to run the electricity networks, minimising power losses and wastage through overproduction, it has made them much more vulnerable to space weather. The high-power grids act as particularly efficient antennas, channelling enormous direct currents into the power transformers.

The second problem is the grid's interdependence with the systems that support our lives: water and sewage treatment, supermarket delivery infrastructures, power station controls, financial markets and many others all rely on electricity. Put the two together, and it is clear that a repeat of the Carrington event could produce a catastrophe the likes of which the world has never seen. "It's just the opposite of how we usually think of natural disasters," says John Kappenman, a power industry analyst with the Metatech Corporation of Goleta, California, and an advisor to the NAS committee that produced the report. "Usually the less developed regions of the world are most vulnerable, not the highly sophisticated technological regions."

According to the NAS report, a severe space weather event in the US could induce ground currents that would knock out 300 key transformers within about 90 seconds, cutting off the power for more than 130 million people (see map). From that moment, the clock is ticking for America.

First to go - immediately for some people - is drinkable water. Anyone living in a high-rise apartment, where water has to be pumped to reach them, would be cut off straight away. For the rest, drinking water will still come through the taps for maybe half a day. With no electricity to pump water from reservoirs, there is no more after that.

There is simply no electrically powered transport: no trains, underground or overground. Our just-in-time culture for delivery networks may represent the pinnacle of efficiency, but it means that supermarket shelves would empty very quickly - delivery trucks could only keep running until their tanks ran out of fuel, and there is no electricity to pump any more from the underground tanks at filling stations.

Back-up generators would run at pivotal sites - but only until their fuel ran out. For hospitals, that would mean about 72 hours of running a bare-bones, essential care only, service. After that, no more modern healthcare.

The truly shocking finding is that this whole situation would not improve for months, maybe years: melted transformer hubs cannot be repaired, only replaced. "From the surveys I've done, you might have a few spare transformers around, but installing a new one takes a well-trained crew a week or more," says Kappenman. "A major electrical utility might have one suitably trained crew, maybe two."

Within a month, then, the handful of spare transformers would be used up. The rest will have to be built to order, something that can take up to 12 months.

Even when some systems are capable of receiving power again, there is no guarantee there will be any to deliver. Almost all natural gas and fuel pipelines require electricity to operate. Coal-fired power stations usually keep reserves to last 30 days, but with no transport systems running to bring more fuel, there will be no electricity in the second month.

Nuclear power stations wouldn't fare much better. They are programmed to shut down in the event of serious grid problems and are not allowed to restart until the power grid is up and running.

With no power for heating, cooling or refrigeration systems, people could begin to die within days. There is immediate danger for those who rely on medication. Lose power to New Jersey, for instance, and you have lost a major centre of production of pharmaceuticals for the entire US. Perishable medications such as insulin will soon be in short supply. "In the US alone there are a million people with diabetes," Kappenman says. "Shut down production, distribution and storage and you put all those lives at risk in very short order."

Help is not coming any time soon, either. If it is dark from the eastern seaboard to Chicago, some affected areas are hundreds, maybe thousands of miles away from anyone who might help. And those willing to help are likely to be ill-equipped to deal with the sheer scale of the disaster. "If a Carrington event happened now, it would be like a hurricane Katrina, but 10 times worse," says Paul Kintner, a plasma physicist at Cornell University in Ithaca, New York.

In reality, it would be much worse than that. Hurricane Katrina's societal and economic impact has been measured at $81 billion to $125 billion. According to the NAS report, the impact of what it terms a "severe geomagnetic storm scenario" could be as high as $2 trillion. And that's just the first year after the storm. The NAS puts the recovery time at four to 10 years. It is questionable whether the US would ever bounce back.

"I don't think the NAS report is scaremongering," says Mike Hapgood, who chairs the European Space Agency's space weather team. Green agrees. "Scientists are conservative by nature and this group is really thoughtful," he says. "This is a fair and balanced report."

Such nightmare scenarios are not restricted to North America. High latitude nations such as Sweden and Norway have been aware for a while that, while regular views of the aurora are pretty, they are also reminders of an ever-present threat to their electricity grids. However, the trend towards installing extremely high voltage grids means that lower latitude countries are also at risk. For example, China is on the way to implementing a 1000-kilovolt electrical grid, twice the voltage of the US grid. This would be a superb conduit for space weather-induced disaster because the grid's efficiency to act as an antenna rises as the voltage between the grid and the ground increases. "China is going to discover at some point that they have a problem," Kappenman says.

Neither is Europe sufficiently prepared. Responsibility for dealing with space weather issues is "very fragmented" in Europe, says Hapgood.

Europe's electricity grids, on the other hand, are highly interconnected and extremely vulnerable to cascading failures. In 2006, the routine switch-off of a small part of Germany's grid - to let a ship pass safely under high-voltage cables - caused a cascade power failure across western Europe. In France alone, five million people were left without electricity for two hours. "These systems are so complicated we don't fully understand the effects of twiddling at one place," Hapgood says. "Most of the time it's alright, but occasionally it will get you."

The good news is that, given enough warning, the utility companies can take precautions, such as adjusting voltages and loads, and restricting transfers of energy so that sudden spikes in current don't cause cascade failures. There is still more bad news, however. Our early warning system is becoming more unreliable by the day.

By far the most important indicator of incoming space weather is NASA's Advanced Composition Explorer (ACE). The probe, launched in 1997, has a solar orbit that keeps it directly between the sun and Earth. Its uninterrupted view of the sun means it gives us continuous reports on the direction and velocity of the solar wind and other streams of charged particles that flow past its sensors. ACE can provide between 15 and 45 minutes' warning of any incoming geomagnetic storms. The power companies need about 15 minutes to prepare their systems for a critical event, so that would seem passable.

However, observations of the sun and magnetometer readings during the Carrington event shows that the coronal mass ejection was travelling so fast it took less than 15 minutes to get from where ACE is positioned to Earth. "It arrived faster than we can do anything," Hapgood says.

There is another problem. ACE is 11 years old, and operating well beyond its planned lifespan. The onboard detectors are not as sensitive as they used to be, and there is no telling when they will finally give up the ghost. Furthermore, its sensors become saturated in the event of a really powerful solar flare. "It was built to look at average conditions rather than extremes," Baker says.

He was part of a space weather commission that three years ago warned about the problems of relying on ACE. "It's been on my mind for a long time," he says. "To not have a spare, or a strategy to replace it if and when it should fail, is rather foolish."

There is no replacement for ACE due any time soon. Other solar observation satellites, such as the Solar and Heliospheric Observatory (SOHO) can provide some warning, but with less detailed information and - crucially - much later. "It's quite hard to assess what the impact of losing ACE will be," Hapgood says. "We will largely lose the early warning capability."

The world will, most probably, yawn at the prospect of a devastating solar storm until it happens. Kintner says his students show a "deep indifference" when he lectures on the impact of space weather. But if policy-makers show a similar indifference in the face of the latest NAS report, it could cost tens of millions of lives, Kappenman reckons. "It could conceivably be the worst natural disaster possible," he says.

The report outlines the worst case scenario for the US. The "perfect storm" is most likely on a spring or autumn night in a year of heightened solar activity - something like 2012. Around the equinoxes, the orientation of the Earth's field to the sun makes us particularly vulnerable to a plasma strike.

What's more, at these times of year, electricity demand is relatively low because no one needs too much heating or air conditioning. With only a handful of the US grid's power stations running, the system relies on computer algorithms shunting large amounts of power around the grid and this leaves the network highly vulnerable to sudden spikes.

If ACE has failed by then, or a plasma ball flies at us too fast for any warning from ACE to reach us, the consequences could be staggering. "A really large storm could be a planetary disaster," Kappenman says.

So what should be done? No one knows yet - the report is meant to spark that conversation. Baker is worried, though, that the odds are stacked against that conversation really getting started. As the NAS report notes, it is terribly difficult to inspire people to prepare for a potential crisis that has never happened before and may not happen for decades to come. "It takes a lot of effort to educate policy-makers, and that is especially true with these low-frequency events," he says.

We should learn the lessons of hurricane Katrina, though, and realise that "unlikely" doesn't mean "won't happen". Especially when the stakes are so high. The fact is, it could come in the next three or four years - and with devastating effects. "The Carrington event happened during a mediocre, ho-hum solar cycle," Kintner says. "It came out of nowhere, so we just don't know when something like that is going to happen again."

When hell comes to Earth

Severe space weather events often coincide with the appearance of sunspots, which are indicators of particularly intense magnetic fields at the sun's surface.

The chaotic motion of charged particles in the upper atmosphere of the sun creates magnetic fields that writhe, twist and turn, and occasionally snap and reconfigure themselves in what is known as a "reconnection". These reconnection events are violent, and can fling out billions of tonness of plasma in a "coronal mass ejection" (CME).

If flung towards the Earth, the plasma ball will accelerate as it travels through space and its intense magnetic field will soon interact with the planet's magnetic field, the magnetosphere. Depending on the relative orientation of the two fields, several things can happen. If the fields are oriented in the same direction, they slip round one another. In the worst case scenario, though, when the field of a particularly energetic CME opposes the Earth's field, things get much more dramatic. "The Earth can't cope with the plasma," says James Green, head of NASA's planetary division. "The CME just opens up the magnetosphere like a can-opener, and matter squirts in."

The sun's activity waxes and wanes every 11 years or so, with the appearance of sunspots following the same cycle. This period isn't consistent, however. Sometimes the interval between sunspot maxima is as short as nine years, other times as long as 14 years. At the moment the sun appears calm. "We're in the equivalent of an idyllic summer's day. The sun is quiet and benign, the quietest it has been for 100 years," says Mike Hapgood, who chairs the European Space Agency's space weather team, "but it could turn the other way." The next solar maximum is expected in 2012.



Here are two more contributing factors to the possibility of the Doomsday in 2012.

Global Warming and Sea Level Rising

The warming of Earth's surface and oceans over the past century is very well documented, and climate research shows that most of the warming in the past half century results from manmade greenhouse gases.

Two millennia of mean surface temperatures according to different reconstructions, each smoothed on a decadal scale. The unsmoothed, annual value for 2004 is also plotted for reference. Source:

Global warming is expected to cause changes in the overall distribution and intensity of events, such as changes to the frequency and intensity of heavy precipitation. Broader effects are expected to include glacial retreat, Arctic shrinkage, and worldwide sea level rise. Other effects may include changes in crop yields, addition of new trade routes, species extinctions, and changes in the range of disease vectors.
"As a result of the acceleration of outlet glaciers over large regions, the ice sheets in Greenland and Antarctica are already contributing more and faster to sea level rise than anticipated," says Eric Rignot of the University of California in Irvine and NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory.
Because modelling how the Greenland and Antarctic ice sheets will react to rising temperatures is fiendishly complicated, the IPCC did not include either in its estimate. It's no small omission: the Greenland ice cap, the smaller and so far less stable of the two, holds enough water that if it all melted, it would raise sea levels by 6 metres on average across the globe.

Edgar Cayce described a new era of enlightenment and peace when divinity within humans would be manifested on the earth. But before this "kingdom of God" would rule the world, Cayce foresaw world events that can only be described as apocalyptic, a period of purification involving natural disasters that will dramatically alter the surface of the earth, wars, economic collapse, and socio-political unrest. These visions of the future agree with what is known about prophecies from NDEs.

Iceland Volcano eruption halted air traffic in Europe. Thousands of flights were cancelled.

On April 14, 2010, the volcano beneath Iceland’s Eyjafjallajokull glacier erupted, pushing a cloud of ash and particles 6-9,000 metres into the air. A mountainous plume of ash generated by an Icelandic volcano is costing the global airline industry US$200 million a day in lost revenue, with no clear estimate on when regular service will resume that figure is expected to rise. Concerns the microscopic particles could cause aircraft malfunctions shut down air space over Britain, Ireland, France, Denmark, Norway, Sweden, Finland, Belgium and other countries. Eurocontrol, the European air traffic agency, said airline service was cut by more than half, with only 11,000 flights expected to operate in Europe - compared to the usual 28,000.

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Subject Related Resources: Books, Magazines, DVDs

How to Survive the End of the World as We Know It: Tactics, Techniques, and Technologies for Uncertain Times  by James Wesley Rawles

The definitive guide on how to prepare for any crisis--from global financial collapse to a pandemic.
It would only take one unthinkable event to disrupt our way of life. If there is a terrorist attack, a global pandemic, or sharp currency devaluation--you may be forced to fend for yourself in ways you've never imagined. Where would you get water? How would you communicate with relatives who live in other states? What would you use for fuel?
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13 Things That Don't Make Sense
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The book, published in August 2008, explores 13 anomalies, the things that science can’t explain, and uses historical examples to show how these anomalies are likely to lead us to the next scientific revolutions. The purpose of this website is to provide a discussion forum for the issues raised. Scientific evidence is ever-changing, and the web provides the perfect place to keep up to date with the latest evidence and ideas about these topics.

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Rocks from Space: Meteorites and Meteorite Hunters
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Comet and Asteroid Impact Hazards on a Populated Earth: Computer Modeling
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DVD Endgame: Blueprint for Global Enslavement (2007)

DVD The Book of Eli (2010)

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The True Story of the Bilderberg Group

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Science behind 2012 doomsday: explore the real danger of solar flares and its impact on our modern technology.
Solar Cycle 24 and 2012 doomsday. Keywords: space weather, solarmax, peak, 11-year cycle, solar maximum, solar activity, flares,
solar max, Solar Cycle 24, doomsday, apocalypse, 2012, catastrophy, carrington event