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WI: The Solar Storm of 2012 hits the Earth?

SinghSong

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On July 23 2012, an unusually large and strong coronal mass ejection (CME) event took place. The strength of the solar eruption was comparable to the 1859 Carrington event, which caused damage to electrical equipment (mostly consisting of telegraph systems at the time) and caused visible auroras around the world, even at lower latitudes very close to the equator, such as in Colombia. Those over the Rocky Mountains in the U.S. were reportedly so bright that the glow woke gold miners, who began preparing breakfast because they thought it was morning, with people in the northeastern United States able to read a newspaper by the auroras' light. Estimates of the storm strength range from −800 nT to −1750 nT.

However, we were fortunate- this coronal mass ejection missed the Earth with a margin of approximately nine days, with the rotation of the Sun on its axis ensuring that the region which produced the outburst wasn't pointed directly towards the Earth at that time. The eruption did tear through Earth's orbit though, striking the STEREO-A spacecraft, which survived the encounter (being far enough away from the Earth not to be exposed to the strong electrical currents which would've been induced in the event that it had hit Earth's magnetosphere) and provided data on the event- confirming that the eruption consisted of two separate ejections, which were able to reach exceptionally high strength because the interplanetary medium around the Sun had been cleared by a smaller CME four days earlier. If it had indeed hit the Earth, it's believed that the Solar Storm of 2012 would have inflicted serious damage to electronic systems on a global scale, just as the Carrington Event did in 1859. A 2013 study estimated that the economic cost to the United States alone would have been between US$600 billion and $2.6 trillion, 3.6%>15.5% of its GDP; whilst Ying D. Liu, professor at China's State Key Laboratory of Space Weather, estimated that the global recovery time from such a disaster would have been about four to ten years.

So then, what if the CME event had indeed occurred 9 days earlier, and struck the Earth directly on July 15th-16th 2012 (effectively fulfilling the infamous 2012 phenomenon doomsday prophecy, but several months ahead of schedule- or, alternatively, lending credence to the prospect of total global destruction on the 21st December as prophesied, the geomagnetic reversal theory in particular)? There'd have been a window of roughly 17hrs, at most, for astronomers to see the CME, work out its trajectory, realize it was on course to hit the Earth, and warn everybody about it- how much would any of the world's governments have been able to do about it before it hit? And how much of a global impact would it have had- who'd have been hit the hardest, and who'd have had the easiest time recovering from it? How radically different from our own TL might this TL's world look by the time it recovers from the solar storm (at least 4yrs later, with a distinct possibility that they still wouldn't have been able to do so by the present day, since it's still been less than ten years since it happened)?
 
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Charles EP M.

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@AndyC touched on this sort of thing in a recent vignette (and panicked discussion on the Pub forum when everyone was reminded "oh yeah, Carrington Events, they'd suck"). To nick from those discussions, a seventeen hour warning could mean key infrastructure (i.e. power plants), the military and so forth are protected, if everyone's at work and can rush through it. Though quoth vignette, admittedly looking at Worst Case Scenario:

In the vast majority of cases, though, people were merely advised to unplug computers and electrical devices.

This proved to be absurdly ineffective. As with the 1859 Carrington Event, the induced charge in unplugged electrical equipment was enough to power unplugged devices (telegraph operators in 1859 reported being able to send telegrams using unpowered telegraphs; others received electric shocks from their equipment). The low voltage and current requirements for computer systems meant that only microchips that had been hidden inside a full-on Faraday's Cage had any chance of surviving.
All our 'just in time' structures get knocked out for... however long. Too long and affected countries have the issue of "how do we feed cities".

Assuming most countries come out of this mostly intact and populated, I'd expect a big outcome is those 'just-in-time' systems are going away for fear of another global event that causes the problem. (Then they'll slowly come back over the years that doesn't happen) A lot of money will be spent on stockpiling for the next event (and then slowly run down when it doesn't happen).
 

AndyC

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One of things that causes concern is things like this:

(Admittedly Texas, but they were relying on blackstart that hadn't been tested and turned out to be ineffective)

(And in the UK a bunch of backup systems hadn't been tested in ages and were unserviceable)
 

SinghSong

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So, delving into a few other elements which might be worthy of consideration- in May 2012 IOTL, a couple of months earlier, an Ipsos poll of 16,000 adults in 21 countries had found that 8% had experienced fear or anxiety over the possibility of the world ending in December 2012, while an average of 10% agreed with the statement "the Mayan calendar, which some say 'ends' in 2012, marks the end of the world". This was as high as 20% in China; where up to 1,000 members of the Christian cult Almighty God, aka Eastern Lightning, described by Chinese media as the nation's "most dangerous cult", were arrested IOTL immediately prior to the date (21st December), after claiming that it marked the end of the world, and that it was time to overthrow Communism.

The authorities accused them of causing riots and even crimes around China, including the school stabbings of a teacher and 23 children. Shoppers were reported to be hoarding supplies of candles in anticipation of coming darkness, bookings for wedding ceremonies on 21 December 2012 were saturated in several cities, and online retailer Taobao sold tickets to board Noah's Ark to customers, with academics in China attributing the widespread belief in the 2012 doomsday in their country to a lack of scientific literacy and a mistrust of the government-controlled media (along with the performance of the disaster movie 2012 in the Chinese box office). How much greater a factor might this wind up being in the aftermath of the massive solar storm-induced EPMs wrecking all the world's electronics (incl. Chinese state surveillance)- Might the PR of China find itself actually facing those mass riots to overthrow the communist government that they'd feared, rather than just using them as a pretext for mass arrests?

This was also as high as 13% in Russia, Turkey, Japan and the Koreas, and 12% over in the United States- where the first season of Doomsday Preppers had finished airing on Nat Geo in April, and the Republican Primaries for the 2012 Presidential Election had just wrapped up, with Romney having been confirmed (albeit not yet formally declared) as their Presidential candidate to oppose Obama, who was running for his 2nd term in office. How much of a task would Obama have had on his hands, trying to handle the crisis (with delaying the Presidential Election being utterly politically untenable)? And how would Romney, and the Republicans, have reached to the natural disaster- would they have set aside partisanship, coming together in the spirit of national unity, to help with the relief and rebuilding efforts in the aftermath of the catastrophic event? Or would they have gleefully seized the opportunity for all it was worth, prioritizing ousting Obama and the Democrats from power first and foremost? What do you reckon?
 

Charles EP M.

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I think most of the Republicans - and other opposition parties - would put aside (or downplay) partisan issues for the first part of the crisis because of exactly what happens if people go "we died by the truckload because of your partisan shit". Best to get past the initial crisis and then talk about how your rival did this, that, and the other wrong in the long term (realistically Obama would get a rally-around-the-flag bump but not forever).
 

SinghSong

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Lots of smug "the world will end in 2012" conspiracy theorists who then get annoyed that they can't get on the internet to tell people how clever they were.
Come to think of it, would there even still be an internet afterwards? Or would the web, along with all the data on it, be wiped out by the electromagnetic storm?
@AndyC touched on this sort of thing in a recent vignette (and panicked discussion on the Pub forum when everyone was reminded "oh yeah, Carrington Events, they'd suck"). To nick from those discussions, a seventeen hour warning could mean key infrastructure (i.e. power plants), the military and so forth are protected, if everyone's at work and can rush through it. Though quoth vignette, admittedly looking at Worst Case Scenario:

All our 'just in time' structures get knocked out for... however long. Too long and affected countries have the issue of "how do we feed cities".

Assuming most countries come out of this mostly intact and populated, I'd expect a big outcome is those 'just-in-time' systems are going away for fear of another global event that causes the problem. (Then they'll slowly come back over the years that doesn't happen) A lot of money will be spent on stockpiling for the next event (and then slowly run down when it doesn't happen).
Read that- seemed pretty interesting. On the downside though, the other thing to think about, with the seventeen hour warning period (or, rather, window of opportunity between seeing the coronal mass ejection and actually having it hit the Earth- you'd imagine that it'd take at least a couple of those hours to work out and confirm its trajectory, and to put out press releases)? While it could enable the damage to key infrastructure, the military and so forth to be minimized wherever possible, if everyone's at work and can rush through it, it'd also give traders on any of the world's stock markets, which are unfortunate enough to be open when the news comes out, that same amount of time to react as well.

And in a world where so much money's already digitized credit, which still hadn't quite recovered from the 2008 stock market crash, you have to wonder- just how much (/little) money would actually be left afterwards, to try and spend on emergency relief, recovery and rebuilding efforts? That short grace period could well slightly reduce the direct economic damage and human cost inflicted by the storm itself (with the 2013 study, which estimated that the economic cost to the United States alone would have been between US$600 billion and $2.6 trillion, 3.6%>15.5% of its GDP, only having estimated the costs of the infrastructure damage from the EMPs); but it could also greatly increase the net economic damage, and long-term human costs, of the event...
 
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Charles EP M.

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I've got a sneaking suspicion that if that looked like a risk in the run-up to an apocalypse, some grim-faced soldiers with guns would enter the various stock exchanges and say they're closed now.
 

SinghSong

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I've got a sneaking suspicion that if that looked like a risk in the run-up to an apocalypse, some grim-faced soldiers with guns would enter the various stock exchanges and say they're closed now.
And if/when they did so, as well as in however long it'd take for them to mobilize and do so, how many investors, particularly online stock traders, would have already made a mad rush to sell all their stocks and shares (especially in software companies), driving their valuations off a cliff? And with a rush on the banks to withdraw savings before the storm hits, how would the banking sector cope? And if grim-faced soldiers with guns did indeed march into all of the various stock exchanges around the world, and say they were closed now (for the foreseeable future), how would the media, and the general public, and the 2012 conspiracy theorists (who let's not forget, potentially comprised up to 10% of the world population) react to that? Wouldn't it be practically guaranteed to induce mass hysteria?
 
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Charles EP M.

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Well that depends on how much of that can be shut down in advance, which could be more than we think if a government wants to do it. (You can't easily withdraw from a bank if the branches aren't open and the website's down)
 

SinghSong

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Well that depends on how much of that can be shut down in advance, which could be more than we think if a government wants to do it. (You can't easily withdraw from a bank if the branches aren't open and the website's down)
Which, again, wouldn't go down too well with the media (do you think they'd be trying to reassure their viewers to remain calm, and calling for order, or being as alarmist as possible, running around reporting upon any outbreaks of panic and chaos they can find until the storm hits to knock them off the air? I know which one I'd put my money on, especially when it comes to the US media) and the general public; and would certainly lend the "world-ending apocalypse by the end of this year" conspiracy theorists a great deal more credence.

And of course, given the damage which the solar storm itself would inflict, it'd be anyone's guess as to how long it'd take for any of the stock and commodities markets to be opened back up again. Whilst regarding the banks, which of course would be shutting down their branches and websites ASAP, that'd also add greater urgency to the question "how do we feed cities", given that there'd be a severe shortage of cash to pay for food and other essentials with, and that people wouldn't be able to withdraw any from their credit or debit accounts for a while...
 

Alex Richards

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Which, again, wouldn't go down too well with the media (do you think they'd be trying to reassure their viewers to remain calm, and calling for order, or being as alarmist as possible, running around reporting upon any outbreaks of panic and chaos they can find until the storm hits to knock them off the air? I know which one I'd put my money on, especially when it comes to the US media) and the general public; and would certainly lend the "world-ending apocalypse by the end of this year" conspiracy theorists a great deal more credence.

And of course, given the damage which the solar storm itself would inflict, it'd be anyone's guess as to how long it'd take for any of the stock and commodities markets to be opened back up again. Whilst regarding the banks, which of course would be shutting down their branches and websites ASAP, that'd also add greater urgency to the question "how do we feed cities", given that there'd be a severe shortage of cash to pay for food and other essentials with, and that people wouldn't be able to withdraw any from their credit or debit accounts for a while...
I mean it's actually pretty simple really. The Government simply activates the same sort of emergency response as occurs after a terrorist attack or major natural disaster, with the added benefit that they're able to do these before the incident.

So step 1: Scientists tell government they've got 15 hours [lets say] before the solar flare hits.

Step 2: Government orders immediate contact to all airports telling them a no-fly order is in effect and to ground all planes currently in the air.

Step 3: Government tells the stock markets 'you are closed', shortly followed by the banks.

Step 4: Head of Government uses the emergency alert system to announce of a press conference in 1 hour

Step 5: Stay at home order issued for the next 48 hours at said press conference.

The biggest risk is, actually, going to be runs on petrol, food, toilet paper etc.

Second biggest risk is that not everyone reacts at the same rate- the international stock markets will generally issue close of trading pretty much as soon as the first closes, but you could easily see somewhere doing the later steps a couple of hours later and getting things badly wrong.

Of course a lot could depend on exactly where on the planet the arc hits. Worst case would be sweeping across from Asia to North America. Best case is essentially the inverse of @AndyC's idea which sees the Pacific get the brunt of it.

Assuming a 12-14 hour exposure, I think the most interesting possibility if you were going to go for a narrative is probably something like 90th Meridian West to 60th Meridian east. Essentially the East coast of the US escapes, Chicago is just on the edge and will see the second order effects from their grid being affected but the city itself not being in the direct line of fire, everything West of the Mississippi (more or less) gets hit, as does Australasia, Japan, China, South East Asia, the Indian Subcontinent and all of Russia east of the Urals. The Middle East just misses things, Europe and Africa have the least impact. There's a bit of leeway in that- an hour or so later and the North American effects move to only being everything west of the Rockies, but you end up just short of Moscow and lose Iran, Iraq, the Caucasus and the Saudi Oil Fields. An hour or so earlier and you could put it as New York and Washington just escaping on one side, and Pakistan and Mumbai just escaping on the other. Perhaps even go a tad further and get to just about Delhi and Bengaluru escaping.

I think apart from China, the impact of Japan getting this barely a year after the Tohoku earthquake and Fukushima would be probably some of the psychologically traumatic.
 
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