Science Writing

The (Near) Extinction of 2012

The predicted 2012 extinction was a lot closer then most people think.

Do you remember the Mayan-predicted extinction of 2012?

The Mayan calendar ended and this supposedly meant the end of all life on Earth. There were many theories as to how it would happen, there was even a movie made about it (in the movie neutrinos suddenly gain mass and start heating up the Earth’s core…I think, it was pretty confusing).

But what a lot of people don’t know is that Earth had a near-miss that year. An event that could have, if not caused an extinction, created widespread destruction and disaster throughout the world.

On July 23rd, 2012, the Earth was narrowly missed by a huge Coronal Mass Ejection (CME).

This CME was the largest recorded since 1859, and if it had of hit Earth it would have blew through our protective magnetic field and wiped out almost anything plugged into a power point at that time. Widespread blackouts and panic ensue as the Earth is reduced to a time before electricity all within a few days.

Nine days were all that separated Earth from this particular CME.

And now you might be wondering if, and when, there will be another?

In 2014 a study published in Space Weather determined that the likely hood of Earth being hit by a CME of similar size to the one in 2012 is 12%.

That might not seem like a lot but it means that in the ten years following 2014, there is more than a one in ten chance that Earth may be hit by another huge CME.

And each year without a CME of that size coming near us, the chance grows.

The sun is not a static celestial body. It is a constantly changing object that throws out light and matter at almost unbelievable rates. It also goes through its own period of down time.

Every eleven years or so the Sun begins to ramp up its activity. The poles flip and it throws out flares and CME’s like they are running out of fashion. This is called the Solar Maximum and is predictably followed by a period of quieter activity known as the Solar Minimum.

2012 was the peak of the Solar Maximum and Earth was lucky to avoid being hit. We can only detect flares and CMEs that come towards us, or one of our solar probes, it isn’t known how many miss us that we fail to detect.

And as you probably have guessed the Sun is ramping up once again and entering a period of heightened activity.

This doesn’t mean that we will definitely be hit by a CME of significant size that it would do damage, after all, we are constantly bombarded by cosmic radiation and usually the only effect it has is to cause the stunning Northern and Southern Lights.

That 12% chance is only an estimate, and there were about 150 years in between large CME events.

Don’t panic, but if you do hear on the news that a CME is coming towards us, maybe unplug your laptop.

Further Reading/References:

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