Just as California is waiting for the big earthquake, so now Mother Earth—or at least her passengers—may need to brace for a rock 'em, sock 'em solar blast bigger than the flares that blew by or pummeled us in January and March.
A report released earlier this year by a group of solar physicists posits that the sun could disgorge a giant blob of plasma sometime between now and 2020 that would hurl itself at the earth at 4 million mph, causing damage to the tune of trillions of dollars and taking 10 years to recover from.
It’s part and parcel of what the sun does as a matter of routine. Such a discharge would not affect the sun; it sluffs off tons of plasma the way we drop spare change. Every 11 years the sun enters a period of increased kinetic activity. The latest cycle, now upon us, will peak in 2013.
But what does this mean exactly? More solar flares? An increase in sunspots? Giant plasma storms that wipe out communication? A reversal of Earth’s polarity? An epic cataclysm?
Apocalyptic prophesiers foretell blue comets, massive asteroid attacks and the end of the calendar, which they associate with doomsday. Not all of them, though, think or talk about the sun’s role in all this. Most of us are so busy worrying about what humans are doing to the planet that we aren’t training our eyes to the sky—at least not the part that could do some serious harm.
Forget about asteroids hurled at us from the galaxy’s nether regions. Today, with our overreliance on power and intangibly transmitted data, we should worry more about damage from Helios that no amount of sunscreen will prevent. An X-class solar flare like the ones that occurred at the end of January and in early March, slamming at just the right moment at just the right angle into Earth’s magnetic field, could take out huge portions of our planet’s power grid, disrupt radio and satellite communications and cause general havoc. There could potentially be $2 trillion in damages and a recovery time of at least 10 years, the National Academy of Sciences recently determined.
There is a 12 percent chance that such a storm could hit Earth before 2020, according to an analysis done recently by Pete Riley, a space physicist and senior scientist at Predictive Science in San Diego. He published his predictions, which he told Wired magazine surprised even him, in the journal Space Weather on February 23. Such an event last happened in 1859 and is known as the Carrington Event, named for astronomer Richard Carrington, who witnessed the flare.
According to Wired, the resultant solar storm jolted us so hard that telegraph operators’ lines were overflowing with electric current, “so they unplugged the batteries connected to their machines, and kept working using just the electricity coursing through the air.”
Of course, we’ve got much more going on these days than telegraph machines. Even the Carrington event caused a mere 1.5 hours of business disruption, and spectacular aurora seen all the way to Havana, Wired said. In 1989 a solar flare took out much of the electrical grid in Quebec, causing 6 million people to lose power for more than nine hours.
The next couple of years could very well prove or disprove the sun’s power over the world’s electronic infrastructure. Whether it will also demonstrate that traditional knowledge, in the form of millennia of carefully recorded solar history, can predict the outcome of these events, is another matter entirely.
Many religions allude to a moment that will transform everyone. Buddhists speak of an impending evolution in consciousness. In the Bible, we find this passage in 1 Corinthians 15:52: “In a moment, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trump: for the trumpet shall sound, and the dead shall be raised incorruptible, and we shall be changed.”
Consider, too, the end of the Mayan Long Count calendar. Many interpret it to mean the end of time or of the world as we know it. On the other hand, it may be nothing more than the equivalent of flipping the calendar from December to January, as NASA puts it.
David Courchene, the winner of Canada’s National Aboriginal Achievement/Indspire Award for Heritage, Culture and Spirituality, said he has spoken with a higher authority about the end times.
“I never hear the spirit give any specific date,” he told Indian Country Today Media Network. But he did say that human beings reap what they sow. “We’ve created such an imbalance,” he said. “We can’t continue to support practices that destroy life. That is not the truth.”
Meanwhile, in the near term, the increased solar activity will continue through 2013 or even 2014, scientists say. And rather than bringing a cataclysm, the activity is more likely to stop at spectacular northern lights displays that could dance as far south as the Great Lakes. So just sit back, enjoy the show and don’t worry too much—at least not yet.