Fact or fiction? The hype surrounding solar storms

No power. No lights. Your smart phones won't work and the world as we know it will come to a grinding halt. Talks of violent solar flares destroying the Earth are one of the many of the apocalyptic rumors that surround 2012.

While critics chalk up such predictions to a bunch of mumbo jumbo, many scientists confirm that the sun's activity in the upcoming years could very well destroy our current way of life.

Solar flares are bright spots of energy on the sun that often result in light waves, gamma rays, X-rays, or coronal mass ejections, explosions of radiation from sun spots, caused by intense magnetic disturbances. Flares are graded on an energy scale of A, B, C, M, or X, with each class possessing a peak flux ten times more powerful than the last.

A coronal mass ejection (CME) can take anywhere from less than 24 hours to four days before it hits the Earth. An X-class flare could potentially cause relentless radiation storms and planet wide radio black-outs.

Since the mid-1700s, sunspot activity has been monitored in 11-year cycles, and we are currently barreling towards the end of cycle number 24.

A large number of sunspots during the end of the activity cycle or solar maximum could translate into devastation for nuclear plants, power grids and have a destructive trickle down effect on our means of survival.

If a sunspot has a coronal mass ejection, the everyday things that are accomplished through our interconnected web of technology, such as wireless internet and online banking, would cease.

Electrical engineer Carl Luetzelschwab, who attended Purdue University, has studied sunspot activity since the mid-nineties.

He said that solar flares could potentially pose a threat to Earth, but the 2012 predictions are overly-exaggerated.

"I know there's talk of gloom and doom in this. I'm aware of the Mayan calendar running out in 2012, but the calendar just resets. Some people think the world is going to end. I don't subscribe to that," Luetzelschwab said.

In fact, scientists from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration believe that the peak of cycle 24 won't be as active as others in the past.

"If our prediction is correct, Solar Cycle 24 will have a peak sunspot number of 90, the lowest of any cycle since 1928 when Solar Cycle 16 peaked at 78," NOAA panel chairman Doug Biesecker said.

However, a cycle with fewer sunspots is not indicative of danger-free space weather. There has already been powerful solar activity in this cycle, including two X-grade flares from sunspot 1302 as recently as September 24, but they have not affected Earth.

"It is tempting to describe such a cycle (current cycle 24) as ‘weak' or ‘mild,' but that could give the wrong impression," according to a NASA Science publication.

In fact, the most disastrous cycle occurred about 200 years ago during a below-average solar cycle, similar to the one scientists predict for 2013.

Luetzelschwab said it's the strongest solar storm on record.

"In a huge solar storm back in 1859, telegraph offices worldwide were hit, transmission cable failures were reported, some telegraph operators reported electric shocks, the telegraph systems malfunctioned, and things caught on fire."

The historic solar storm, referred to as the Carrington event, affected North America and parts of Europe.

If a similar solar storm hit Earth today, it could have a crippling effect on our communications. A solar flare also has the potential to damage transformers on electric grids.

While it's a bit presumptuous to say what the world would look like if a repeat of the 1859 Carrington event happened, there would surely be some type of long-term damage.

Medical technology, navigational systems for airlines, communication systems and television are a few of the satellite-reliant luxuries that could be destroyed in a solar storm.

Emergency transformers may or may not survive radiation; generators could help, but likely would not be able to endure the demands of our industrial society.

The aftermath from a major solar event would be comparable to the effects of a natural disaster like Hurricane Katrina, but with the potential to cause devastation on a much grander scale.

Websites dedicated to solar storm catastrophes have come up with their own predictions foreshadowing a rather harrowing time of a civil anarchy. Many believe that millions will migrate out of cities in search of food and water in dangerous conditions, in an unpredictable period where the populace will be desperate and primal.

Depending on the extent of the damage, NASA said it would cost $1 trillion to $2 trillion and take up to a decade to put the pieces back together.

In spite of all the space weather forecasts, no scientist can say with certainty whether a dangerous solar cycle climax will wreck havoc on our planet.

Solar flare predictions have evolved or been flat out wrong in the past, and are not exempt from changing in the future.

"It's a roll of the dice what will happen," Luetzelschwab said. "But the sun will do what it wants to do, and if it wants to deliver a good blow, it'll happen."

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