The forecasts for 2012 are coming out, and among the predictions: the end of the world. The truth? The world’s not scheduled to end in 2012, at least not according to the Maya. That said, things could start to seem downright apocalyptic if a solar flare wipes out a power grid in your region or an atmospheric river bears down on California in a superstorm.
While there’s a chance these scenarios will play out, they may not. All we know for sure is that the phenomenon known as “atmospheric rivers” exists, and that storms on the sun will get progressively more intense in 2012.
An intense year in space weather
According to Joseph Kunches, a space weather scientist at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, the sun goes through 11-year cycles in which the storm activity intensifies, peaks, and slowly dies down to its lowest level.
“We’re just coming out of the low point called the ‘solar minimum phase,'” Kunches says. “We’re going up on the roller coaster now. We think the maximum’s going to be in another year and a half or two years. It’s a front-loaded cycle; generally speaking, it goes up faster than it comes down.”
Increased solar activity means more solar flares and eruptions known as coronal mass ejections, which are the lightning and thunder of solar storms. All this makes for an intense year in space weather, according to Kunches.
“To make a terrestrial weather analogy, we’ll be in hurricane season big-time next year,” Kunches says. “We’ll really be smack-dab in the season for more eruptive kind of space weather.”
A two-week window to watch
The big question is, what exactly will all this solar storming mean for us people down here on earth?
“That’s where it’s hard,” Kunches says. “It could be very little. It could be one of those, ‘I wish these people would quit talking about this stuff because it never has any impact on me’ things.”
The sun’s own rotation is about 27 days, and one side of the sun has more sun spots, or regions of solar storms, than the other. Hence, we have about two weeks where the eruptive side faces Earth.
“Let’s suppose the sun produced a whopper, and it had a big flare and a big coronal mass ejection,” Kunches says. “And the whole earth’s magnetic field and the whole upper atmospheric system gets pounded with all this extra energy.”
Havoc on a power grid?
No, this won’t have any effect on your personal computer or your cell phone. The biggest concern is the havoc it could wreak on the electric power grid.
“A very strong magnetic storm can cause unwanted currents to flow into the power grid itself, and left unattended, it can actually bring the whole thing down. The Draconian scenario is, you have a big magnetic storm that damages critical transformers that can’t be replaced very easily, so it could be a prolonged three- to six-month blackout for large groups of the population of North America. Or anywhere in the world.
“That’s the other swing of the pendulum,” he says. “It could be ‘Oh my God, we’re going to freeze in the dark here!’ That’s why it’s so difficult to tell people a priori, ‘Well, look, this is coming. And it’s like, ‘Well, it could be nothing, or it could be the worst thing that ever happened to you.'”
The possibility of a California superstorm
Another terrifying possibility is something known as a “superstorm,” which could carry tropical moisture from the South Pacific and dump as much as 10 feet of rain all over California and cause as much as $300 billion in damage. Such superstorms, scientists now know, come from what they refer to as “atmospheric rivers.”
In a research paper titled “Storms, Floods, and the Science of Atmospheric Rivers,” U.S. Geological Survey scientist Mike Dettinger and NOAA scientist F. M. Ralph explain it this way:
Imagine a stream of water thousands of kilometers long and as wide as the distance between New York City and Washington, D.C., flowing toward you at 30 miles per hour. No, this is not some hypothetical physics problem; it is a real river, carrying more water than 7 to 15 Mississippi Rivers combined. But it is not on land. Its a river of water vapor in the atmosphere. Atmospheric rivers are narrow corridors of water vapor transport in the lower atmosphere that traverse long swaths of the Earths surface as they bind together the atmospheric water cycle.
Matthew Larsen, the USGS Associate Director for Climate and Land Use Change, explains that these masses of moist air “stretch all the way from the California coast to well out past Hawaii.” And if an atmospheric river storm, also called an ARk storm, hits California, it could do more damage than a large earthquake, endangering the water supply system, as well as the agriculture that’s currently a rich source for the country’s fruits and vegetables.
The end of the world? Probably not. But it sounds like early 2012 is a good time to restock your disaster supplies and invest in disaster insurance.
Lisa Hix is a freelance writer and a former Yahoo! editor who’s been published in the San Francisco Chronicle, Glamour, and Bust. She’s currently an associate editor at Collectors Weekly and a KQED Arts blogger. Find her on Twitter.