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Mar 19, 2014 10:56 AM EDT

Giant Solar Superstorm Narrowly Missed Earth 2 Years Ago, Electrical Damage Would Have Been Catastrophic


Although in the clear now, new research shows Earth to have missed a massive electric storm two years ago by about a week.

According to a press release, University of California - Berkeley researchers noticed "a rapid succession of coronal mass ejections" from the sun on July 23, 2012. Should these extremely intense ejections occurred nine days earlier, they would have been aimed directly at Earth and could have caused damage to satellites, GPS and disrupted the globe's electric grid.

The massive electric storm would have matched the severity of "the Carrington event" in 1859. At the time of the telegraph, several U.S. operators were simultaneously shocked while the Northern Lights were visible across the nation, as far south as Hawaii. Today, cell towers, landlines and much more could have been disabled, knocking out several forms of communication.

The UC - Berkeley team published their paper Tuesday in the journal Nature Communications.

"Had it hit Earth, it probably would have been like the big one in 1859, but the effect today, with our modern technologies, would have been tremendous," study co-author Janet G. Luhmann, a UC - Berkeley research physicist, said in the release.

A previous study, conducted last year, on a hypothetical event like Carrington estimated the damage today would total about $2.6 trillion worldwide.

"An extreme space weather storm - a solar superstorm - is a low-probability, high-consequence event that poses severe threats to critical infrastructures of the modern society," study researcher Ying D. Liu, a UC - Berkeley postdoctoral fellow. "The cost of an extreme space weather event, if it hits Earth, could reach trillions of dollars with a potential recovery time of 4-10 years. Therefore, it is paramount to the security and economic interest of the modern society to understand solar superstorms."

The researchers found that the storm did travel through Earth's orbit, but it was after the planet had already moved around to the other side of the sun. The researchers stressed that these kinds of solar flares and events happen more than many people realize.

"Observations of solar superstorms have been extremely lacking and limited, and our current understanding of solar superstorms is very poor," Liu said. "Questions fundamental to solar physics and space weather, such as how extreme events form and evolve and how severe it can be at the Earth, are not addressed because of the extreme lack of observations."

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