2012, Seriously

03/18/2010 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

As author of "Apocalypse 2012: An Investigation into Civilization's End" (Broadway/Random House, 2007) I am frequently asked what I thought of "2012," the Columbia Pictures film directed by Roland Emmerich. I enjoyed it. "2012" is a page-turner, less a message movie than a popcorn express of CGI thrills and chills -- down goes the Vatican, next stop, Vegas--plus some laughs, a tear or two, and hardly any blood. For the record, I do not believe, as portrayed in the movie, that the Earth's crust is going to melt, causing the Yellowstone supervolcano to erupt, tsunamis to inundate the Himalayas, all the continents to squish together and human civilization to go down the crapper. But it was all kind of fun to watch.

What I do fear for 2012 or thereabouts is the collapse of our electrical power grid. According to the National Academy of Sciences , the power grid is gravely vulnerable to blasts emanating from the Sun, blasts which, by overwhelming scientific consensus, will next climax in frequency and ferocity late in 2012 or early 2013. Founded by Abraham Lincoln during the Civil War, the National Academy of Sciences (NAS) is the closest thing to a Supreme Court of scientific opinion for the United States and much of the rest of the world. Their considered opinion is that UP TO 130 MILLION PEOPLE IN THE UNITED STATES ALONE MAY WELL BE FORCED TO GO WITHOUT ELECTRICITY FOR MONTHS OR YEARS if we are hit by a major blast, known as a coronal mass ejection (CME), from the Sun.

Potable water distribution (would be) affected within several hours; perishable foods and medications lost in 12-24 hours; immediate or eventual loss of heating/air conditioning, sewage disposal, phone service, transportation, fuel resupply and so on. These outages would probably take months to fix, straining emergency services, banking and trade, and even command and control of the military and law enforcement,

according to Severe Space Weather Events: Understanding Societal and Economic Impacts, a 152-page NAS report, December, 2008.

Over the past 150 years the Earth has been pummeled by at least two CME's, the Carrington event of 1859 and the Great Magnetic Storm of 1921, powerful enough to devastate our way of life were the equivalent to hit today . Those blasts caused no real problems back then because there was no real power grid. Even in 1921, most cities had their own generators; the grid was minuscule, used just for back-up where it existed it all. Nothing like the megavoltages that whizz around the continent today, begging to be derailed.

What happens is that the CME literally shocks the Earth's surface. Some of that current comes back up from the ground and fuses the copper windings of the transformers that hold the grid together. This problem can't be fixed on site; usually the whole thing needs to be replaced. No one produces such transformers in the United States any more; on the world market there's a one to three year waiting list.

Some scientists might tell you not to worry, that solar activity is so low these days that the 2012-2013 climax will probably be a dud. But while it's true that the deepest minimums, such as the one we are now experiencing, produce fewer blasts, the CMEs that do escape can be enormous.

A repeat of the [1859] Carrington Event seems unlikely from our low vantage point in a deep solar minimum - but don't let the quiet fool you. Strong flares can occur even during weak solar cycles. Indeed, the Carrington Event itself occurred during a weak cycle similar to the one expected to peak in 2012-2013.

writes Tony Phillips, the NASA solar scientist, in "Geomagnetic Megastorm".

This is going to happen, if not in 2012, then soon. With each passing year the power grid becomes more and more overloaded and therefore more and more vulnerable to being shorted out by the Sun. We've already slept through two wakeup calls, a March, 1989 CME that knocked out power to a few million users in Quebec for several hours, and also one that hit on Halloween 2003 that whacked the region close to the South Pole, frying 14 transformers in South Africa, which has struggled horribly to rebuild its electrical infrastructure ever since.

Normally, the Earth's magnetic field protects us from solar blasts, either by repelling them entirely or at least diminishing the impact of monster CME's such as 1859 or 1921. But the shields are down, Scotty. In mid December, 2008, THEMIS, a squadron of five NASA research satellites discovered an unbelievably large, pole-to-equator hole in the field. Scotty. The THEMIS discovery stood astrophysics on its head:

When I tell my colleagues, most react with skepticism, as if I'm trying to convince them that the sun rises in the west... This completely overturns our understanding of things... This could result in stronger geomagnetic storms than we have seen in many years,

says THEMIS project scientist David Sibeck of the Goddard Space Flight Center in "Giant Breach in Earth's Magnetic Field Discovered."

This ain't no joke. This is an emergency, and a problem we can solve. Surge suppressors, placed between ground and transformer can keep the grid from shorting out. The retrofit should take two to three years and requires no dramatic technological advances, just several hundred washing machine-sized surge suppressors strategically placed throughout the grid. Costs should run between $300 million and $500 million (not "billion," not AIG bailout money).

The greatest obstacle is the lack of political will. The power grid sprang up haphazardly, and today is a crazy patchwork of public and private utilities, and authorities that cross state and even national borders, as in upstate New York and Quebec. No one owns the grid, and there's no real grid "czar" with anything like the power needed to mandate that level of change. To overcome the crazy political and legal logistics, we need leadership from the top and a groundswell from the rest of us to get those surge suppressors installed before the coming solar climax of 2012/2013.