Meltdown! A solar superstorm could send us back into the dark ages - and one is due in just THREE years
By Michael Hanlon
Last updated at 11:24 PM on 19th April 2009
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The catastrophe, when it comes, will be beautiful at first. It is a balmy evening in late September 2012. Ever since the sun set, the dimming skies over London have been alive with fire.
Pillars of incandescent green writhe like gigantic serpents across the skies. Sheets of orange race across the horizon during the most spectacular display of the aurora borealis seen in southern England for 153 years.
And then, 90 seconds later, the lights start to go out. Not the lights in the sky - they will dazzle until dawn - but the lights on the ground.
Within an hour, large parts of Britain are without power.
By midnight, every mobile network is down and the internet is dying. Television - terrestrial and satellite - blinks off the air.
Radio is reduced to a burst of static.
By noon the following day, it is clear something terrible has happened and the civilised world has plunged into chaos.
A year later, Britain, most of Europe plus North America is in the grip of the deepest economic catastrophe in history.
By the end of 2013, 100,000 Europeans have died of starvation.
The dead go unburied, the sick untreated.
It will take two decades or more for the first green shoots of recovery to appear - recovery from the first solar superstorm in modern history.
This catastrophe is not some academic one-in-a-million chance scenario.
It is a very real threat which, according to a report in the latest issue of New Scientist, remains one of the most potent, yet least recognised, threats to the future of human civilisation.
Solar activity: The sun, seen through a NASA telescope
Moreover, it is something that has happened before - not that long ago - and indeed has the potential to arrive every 11 years.
So what actually is it?
Solar storms do not normally cause much concern. Swarms of electrically charged subatomic particles from the Sun periodically buffet the Earth and its surroundings, causing health worries for astronauts and the owners of satellites, whose delicate electronics can be fried.
But down on the surface, cocooned under an ocean of air, we rarely notice more than the pretty lights in the sky, created as the electrically charged particles from the Sun sweep into the Earth's own magnetic field to generate the Northern and Southern Lights.
But every now and then, the Sun is convulsed by a gigantic tempest: 50,000-mile-wide eddies of boiling hydrogen plasma on its surface ejecting a billion-tonne, malevolent blob of crackling-charged gas into space at a million miles an hour.
And, very occasionally, one of these mighty coronal mass ejections, as they are called, smacks into the Earth head-on.
This last happened on the morning of September 1, 1859.