Tuesday's solar flare went unnoticed by most of Earth's inhabitants, but NASA says that might not be the case in 2013 when a peak in solar activity could cause trillions of dollars in damage to high-tech infrastructures.
Earlier this week the Sun had a massive solar flare shooting a bunch of radiation in our planet's direction. While the Earth isn't expected to be directly in the flare's path, it could agitate the planet's electromagnetic field on Thursday, possibly disrupting radio and satellite transmissions - not to mention creating some spectacular auroral light displays for those in the north.
NASA is calling this week's flare "medium-sized" and says its the biggest one seen in the last five years, but it's nothing compared to the "Carrington Event." In 1859, a huge solar flare set telegraph machines on fire and produced an auroral glow in many parts of the world bright enough to read by.
Even when telegraph operators disconnected their batteries, "aurora-induced electric currents in the wires still allowed messages to be transmitted," according to a NASA historical account.
Solar weather runs in cycles, and the current cycle is expected to peak in 2013. During that time experts say we are most vulnerably to a "Carrington Event" type occurrence. The only problem is that if such an event happened today, it would cause much, much more damage than it did in the 19th century.
"The sun is waking up from a deep slumber, and in the next few years we expect to see much higher levels of solar activity," Richard Fisher, head of NASA's Heliophysics Division, said last year. "At the same time, our technological society has developed an unprecedented sensitivity to solar storms."
In short, if the sun were to bombard the Earth with massive amounts of electromagnetic radiation it could knock out the backbone of our digital civilization, taking power grids, satellites and other communications systems offline for hours, possibly even days.
But there are precautions, such as back-up systems, that can be put in place, and solar weather watchers have been urging politicians to do so through conferences and other efforts over the past few years. Whether the Earth will be ready when the solar "Big One" comes remains to be seen, but scientists say it's not an apocalyptic scenario.
It could just be another Y2K.