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
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
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,
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
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
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
"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
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
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
A fierce solar storm could lead to a global disaster on an
(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
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
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
– 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,
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
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
Neither is Europe sufficiently prepared. Responsibility for
dealing with space weather issues is "very fragmented" in Europe,
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
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
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
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
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.
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
The definitive guide on how to
prepare for any crisis--from global financial collapse to a
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?
Survivalist expert James Wesley, Rawles, author of Patriots and
editor of SurvivalBlog.com, shares the essential tools and
skills you will need for you family to survive
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.
Eli walks alone in
post-apocalyptic America. He heads west along the Highway of
Death on a mission he doesn't fully understand but knows he must
complete. In his backpack is the last copy of a book that could
become the wellspring of a revived society. Or in the wrong
hands, the hammer of a despot. Denzel Washington is Eli, who
keeps his blade sharp and his survival instincts sharper as his
quest thrusts him into a savage wasteland... and into explosive
conflict with a resourceful warlord (Gary Oldman) set on
possessing the book. "We walk by faith, not by sight," quotes
Eli. Under the taut direction of the Hughes Brothers (Menace II
Society), those words hit home with unexpected meaning and
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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