The sane and rational people at Nasa have likened distress about what might happen towards the end of 2012 to the predictions of impending doom in 1999/2000 – it’s just not going to happen.
So what are we to make of it when those same sane and rational people say that, in fact, the end of the world as we know it might come just a year later, in 2013? As an eschato-sceptic, you’d probably think they’ve been smoking something. But they haven’t, and they’re serious.
That is the year in which the next solar maximum – the period of greatest solar activity in the solar cycle of the sun – is expected. Solar maxima, and their associated solar storms, come around, on average, every 11 years, and the previous one was in 2001. So why worry now?
Because, as Richard Fisher, the head of Nasa’s heliophysics division, told a US forum on space weather recently, we are more reliant than ever on hi-tech systems that are vulnerable to eruptions of plasma and magnetic fields on the sun.
“The sun is waking up from a deep slumber, and in the next few years we expect to see much higher levels of solar activity. At the same time, our technological society has developed an unprecedented sensitivity to solar storms,” Fisher said.
Coronal mass ejections, as they are known, result from the release of energy stored in the sun’s magnetic field, and if they head in our direction at speeds of 1000km/s or more and are magnetically charged in direct opposition with Earth’s magnetic fields, they can disrupt anything that relies on hi-tech electronic and electrical systems, such as power grids, satellite navigation, air travel, computers, financial services, and mobile and satellite communications.
On September 1 1859, Earth was battered by the fiercest solar storm on record, shorting out telegraph lines in Europe and the US and causing auroras normally confined to the polar regions to be seen as close to the equator as Italy, Cuba and Hawaii. In 1989, a solar storm caused Toronto’s power grid to collapse for more than nine hours, according to Nasa, and in 1994 a similar event caused two communications satellites to malfunction, disrupting newspaper, TV and radio services in Canada.
A report by the US National Academy of Sciences’ Space Studies Board, titled Severe Space Weather Events: Understanding Societal and Economic Impacts, warns that the costs of another “perfect space storm” would eclipse the estimated 100bn-plus cost of Hurricane Katrina in 2005, which was the costliest natural disaster in US history.
Fortunately, technology exists to warn us in advance of solar storms, giving us the chance to shut down satellites and protect power grids before they hit.
But if the Mayan calendar is right, we won’t have to worry about any of this anyway.
O’Grady is a drummer by night, a journalist by day, and an internet and gadget geek every chance he gets in between.