No, the earth didn't nearly get taken out by Carrington class coronal mass ejection

It's a shame people talked nonsense about a dangerous solar coronal mass ejection because the risk is real

You can't believe everything you read on the Internet -- Abraham Lincoln

I found an app quite some time ago that fascinates me. It's called 3D Sun and it's published by the NASA Heliophysics Group. The app alerts you to sunspot activity and other interesting and significant events such as coronal mass ejections or CMEs.

CMEs are explosions on the sun that release clouds of billions of tons (yes, you read that right, billions of tons) of charged particles. Depending on the level of solar activity CMEs can occur as often as three times per day or as infrequently as once every five days and a CME can travel at speeds of up to 4.5 million miles per hour reaching earth in about 21 minutes hours.

CMEs can leave the sun in any direction and when they are powerful enough and come in our direction, they can damage satellites, cause auroras and, if they're really strong and penetrate the atmosphere, can even damage electrical systems on the earth's surface. In short, CMEs are awesome and potentially very dangerous to modern civilization.

Now, while most CMEs don't do much more than trigger the Northern Lights there have been rare CMEs that have affected power grids, for example, in 1989 a CME rated as an X15 event caused a blackout of the entire province of Quebec, Canada.

While that was impressive the most intense CME in modern history occured in 1859 when the earth was hit by a CME so powerful it melted telegraph cables and caused electrical machinery to continue working even after being switched off. The solar flare that presaged the CME was observed by the British astronomer Richard Carrington and as a result the most powerful events of this type are called Carrington-class coronal mass ejections. The one in 1859 has been estimated to be an X45, roughly 33 times more powerful than most CMEs seen recently.

Luckily Carrington-class coronal mass ejections are rare occurring roughly once every 500 years but yesterday the 'Net was a-buzz with the news that we had recently missed being hit by one. This information came first, as far as I can tell, from the "Washington Secrets" section of the Washington Examiner in a post titled Massive solar flare narrowly misses Earth, EMP disaster barely avoided.

The article discussed how, during a panel on the threat of an electromagnetic pulse (or EMP) from nuclear weapons and CMEs, the possibility of a Carrington-class CME had come up. The piece also reported that: 

Two EMP experts told Secrets that the EMP flashed through earth's typical orbit around the sun about two weeks before the planet got there.

You can watch the video of the panel below where some statements about CMEs are made; the most definitive is at 23:53 when Ambassador Henry F. Cooper, Chairman of the Board of High Frontier (a group that was established to advocate for the Strategic Defense Initiative) says:

We had a near miss of a solar emission within the last several months, is it? ... which went by us in the orbit of the earth."

Former Cliton-era Director of Central Intelligence, James Woolsey confirmed the question.

Unfortunately for Cooper and Woolsey (and the Washington Examiner), no such event had happened and, according to NASA and other sources including The Weekly (a "Preliminary Report and Forecast of Solar Geophysical Data" issued by the NOAA/National Weather Service Space Weather Prediction Center) solar activity was very low to moderate over May, June and July. 

Curiously the Washington Examiner's "misunderstanding" of the issue entered the Internet blogosphere's echo chamber and voila! It became "fact" (as of writing I get 903 results for the search term "a Carrington-class coronal mass ejection crossed the orbit of the Earth and basically just missed us").

It seems the Washington Examiner is not averse to a little hyperbole and the blogosphere is obviously willing to be credulous which is sad not just because of the gullibility on display but because the possibility of a seriously intense CME is real and this makes it look risable. The fact is we have virtually no plans for dealing with an event that could take out the national power grid, satellites, data centers, computers, and everyday electronics in a few minutes.

That all sounds like some kind of summer blockbuster disaster movie doesn't it but it's one that you don't want to see and neither did Abraham Lincoln.

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