Last week's Weird Science Roundup included a NASA-funded report warning if a glob of the sun's plasma were to escape and enter the earth's magnetic shield, it could disrupt our entire power grid... and basically cause the end of the world as we know it. So just how credible is this theory? We asked our own Phil Plait for his thoughts on the matter, which, alarmingly, did not include it being a totally bogus possibility. Here's what he had to say:
Actually, while they play up the worst cases, what they say is not totally out of bounds. I'm not sure about the number of deaths quoted, but the scenarios are plausible. Our grid is running nearly at capacity, and a huge DC current dumped into them from a geomagnetically induced current could overload a huge number of transformers. The 1989 Quebec event was a taste of how that could happen. From what I understand, North America is more sensitive to this because of the huge granite slab that composes most of the continental plate; it sets up huge currents underground when the magnetic field of the Earth gets slammed from a CME from the Sun, and that induces current in the gird, and bang. I think 2012 is unlikely for big solar events, though not impossible. The biggest solar events tend to happen a year or two after the peak of the cycle, and the peak should be in 2012 though maybe later; this cycle seems to be having a hard time getting started. Probably not the answer you want, but there you go. A lot of folks are trying to get the power companies and governments aware of this. I don't know what their progress has been.
Well, on the bright side, it makes the economy seem a bit less worth worrying about. Image: SOHO Consortium / ESA / NASA