The year 2012 brings along predictions for all tastes: Huge solar storms that will lash the Earth, the mystery planet that will crash against our planet, the comet that will pass quite close to the Earth orbit, the great earthquake, or the change in our planet’s magnetic polarity –which will cause various natural disasters. In line behind bars are the common suspects led by Nostradamus, John’s Apocalypse from our bibles, misinterpreted Dr. Sitchin and his planet X, the Egyptians, and a special guest: The Mayas.
The truth is that most of the abovementioned prophecies don’t have a scientific basis, except for one… that of the solar storms.
Let’s imagine we’re in 2012, at night, and we’re going out. Something draws our attention. We look up and see a series of brilliant flares filling up the sky with light. While we are marveled, or scared, by this sight, the light bulbs start to flicker, then turn unusually bright just to turn off for good. In less than 90 seconds, the city, the country, the continent, the planet are left with no electric power and are sunken in the dark. Months later, the planet is still without electric power and millions of people die due to different causes related to this problem: Hunger, violence, illness, etc. The reason? The solar storms generated more than 150 million kilometers away from Earth, and with the capacity to fry our electrical network for ever.
The consequences of the lack of energy caused by these solar storms would be devastating. Anything needing electricity won’t work. Hospitals, food companies, oil pipes, subways, trains, water plants, all of them will be paralyzed. The power transformers which supply our planet with electricity would have to be replaced and, considering the manufacturing process of one of these transformers could take about a year, the situation would be beyond complicated.
This is the most scientific prediction about 2012 and it is based on many reports –particularly on one financed by NASA and prepared by the U.S. National Academy of Sciences titled “Severe Space Weather Events–Understanding Societal and Economic Impacts”– as well as on the research of scientists like Dieter Broers.
If we go back in time looking for evidence, we’ll find that the worst solar storm known of happened on September 2, 1859. It was known as “The Carrington Event” and caused the collapse of most of the telegraph networks worldwide. The consequences were minor because, back then, electric power was beginning to be used. The damage that solar storms of such magnitude could cause nowadays is unthinkable.
According to the report financed by NASA, a solar storm like that of 1859 would need 1.5 minutes to leave, only in the U.S., three hundred high-capacity power transformers useless. In less than 1.5 minutes, more than 130 million U.S. citizens would be sunken in the dark, without electric power.
This report highlights the existences of two core problems. The first one is that modern electrical networks are specially vulnerable to this type of solar storms. The second is the interdependency of these power centrals with the basic systems that support our existence –like water supply, food and goods transport, financial markets, telecommunications networks, etc.
This report also states that, if there was enough time, electricity companies could take precautions, like adjusting voltages and loads in networks in order to avoid cascading faults. However, what kind of alert system do we have against solar storms? These days, our best alert system is the ACE (Advanced Composition Explorer) satellite.
The ACE satellite could warn us of the imminent arrival of a plasma discharge, caused by solar storms, 15 to 45 minutes in advance. And, in theory, 15 minutes is the time an electricity company needs to get ready for an emergency situation. However, the ACE is still operating after 11 years, having exceeded the period of activity it was designed for. This becomes evident in the sometimes-imperfect functioning of its sensors, which would become saturated in case of such an event. The worst thing is that there are no plans to replace it.
The U.S. Air Force expects to launch the replacement of the ACE, called Deep Space Climate Observatory, by December 2013.