OMFG In an attempt to defuse internet hysteria regarding the purported end of the world next year as the Mayan calendar long-count completes, NASA has stated that next year's solar maximum will see solar flares which are "a problem the same way hurricanes are a problem".
That's a very big problem, then. As the US National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) will tell you, Hurricane Katrina alone devastated three major US cities, killing hundreds of people. The Galveston hurricane of 1900 killed thousands.
NASA-funded studies have previously warned of a "Space Katrina" flare or coronal mass ejection that would devastate modern civilisation, bringing down power grids and frying satellites en masse. Food would rot, trains wouldn't move, traffic would be gridlocked, phones and the internet wouldn't work, the financial markets would be devastated, planes and ships would be lost and wrecked.
But it's not all doom! This statement issued today from NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center, in which we are told of hurricane-like solar flares coming, also adds reassuringly:
There simply isn't enough energy in the sun to send a killer fireball 93 million miles to destroy Earth ... even at their worst, the sun's flares are not physically capable of destroying Earth.
[Solar flares are] a problem the same way hurricanes are a problem. One can protect oneself with advance information and proper precautions. During a hurricane watch, a homeowner can stay put ... or he can seal up the house, turn off the electronics and get out of the way.
So the planet may survive, but you may not, seems to be the message. However it may be reasonable to take some of the solar-flare doomsaying of recent years with a pinch of salt. As NASA notes, anyone older than 11 has already lived through at least one solar maximum of the sort coming up: and furthermore these maxima have been steadily decreasing in intensity, not increasing, over recent decades.
Some eminent solar physicists believe that in fact the Sun may be headed into a long period of inactivity in which no sunspots appear and no or very few flares occur, perhaps lasting many decades – like the so-called Maunder Minimum seen in the 17th and 18th centuries, which was accompanied by a "mini Ice Age" of very cold winters.
It may not be time to wrap all your electronics in tinfoil just yet. ®