Page 1: How a Solar Storm Two Years Ago Nearly Caused a Catastrophe on Earth

BY JASON SAMENOW July 23 at 3:48 pm

How a solar storm two years ago nearlycaused a catastrophe on Earth

On July 23, 2012, the sun unleashed two massive clouds of plasma that barely missed a

catastrophic encounter with the Earth’s atmosphere. These plasma clouds, known as

coronal mass ejections (CMEs), comprised a solar storm thought to be the most

powerful in at least 150 years.

“If it had hit, we would still be picking up the pieces,” physicist Daniel Baker of the

University of Colorado tells NASA.

Via NASA: “This movie shows a coronal mass ejection (CME) on the sun from July 22, 2012 at 10:00 p.m. EDT until

2 a.m. on July 23 as captured by NASA’s Solar Terrestrial RElations Observatory-Ahead (STEREO-A). Because

CME captured by NASA July 23, 2012 (NASA)

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Page 2: How a Solar Storm Two Years Ago Nearly Caused a Catastrophe on Earth

the CME headed in STEREO-A’s direction, it appears like a giant halo around the sun. NOTE: This video loops 3

times.” Credit: NASA/STEREO

Fortunately, the blast site of the CMEs was not directed at Earth. Had this event

occurred a week earlier when the point of eruption was Earth-facing, a potentially

disastrous outcome would have unfolded.

“I have come away from our recent studies more convinced than ever that Earth and its

inhabitants were incredibly fortunate that the 2012 eruption happened when it did,”

Baker tells NASA. “If the eruption had occurred only one week earlier, Earth would

have been in the line of fire.”

Video overview of July 23, 2012 solar storm

A CME double whammy of this potency striking Earth would likely cripple satellite

communications and could severely damage the power grid. NASA offers this sobering



Analysts believe that a direct hit … could cause widespread power blackouts,

disabling everything that plugs into a wall socket. Most people wouldn’t even be

able to flush their toilet because urban water supplies largely rely on electric pumps.

. . .

According to a study by the National Academy of Sciences, the total economic impact

could exceed $2 trillion or 20 times greater than the costs of a Hurricane Katrina.

Multi-ton transformers damaged by such a storm might take years to repair.

CWG’s Steve Tracton put it this way in his frightening overview of the risks of a severe

solar storm: “The consequences could be devastating for commerce, transportation,

agriculture and food stocks, fuel and water supplies, human health and medical facilities,

national security, and daily life in general.”

Solar physicists compare the 2012 storm to the so-called Carrington solar storm of

September 1859, named after English astronomer Richard Carrington who documented

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Page 3: How a Solar Storm Two Years Ago Nearly Caused a Catastrophe on Earth

Jason Samenow is the Capital Weather Gang's chief meteorologist and serves as the

Washington Post's Weather Editor. He earned BA and MS degrees in atmospheric science from

the University of Virginia and University of Wisconsin-Madison.

881 Comments Discussion Policy

the event.

“In my view the July 2012 storm was in all respects at least as strong as the 1859

Carrington event,” Baker tells NASA. “The only difference is, it missed.”

During the Carrington event, the northern lights were seen as far south as Cuba and

Hawaii according to historical accounts. The solar eruption “caused global telegraph

lines to spark, setting fire to some telegraph offices,” NASA notes.

NASA says the July 2012 storm was particularly intense because a CME had traveled

along the same path just days before the July 23 double whammy – clearing the way for

maximum effect, like a snowplow.

“This double-CME traveled through a region of space that had been cleared out by yet

another CME four days earlier,” NASA says. ” As a result, the storm clouds were not

decelerated as much as usual by their transit through the interplanetary medium.”

NASA’s online article about the science of this solar storm is well-worth the read.

Perhaps the scariest finding reported in the article is this: There is a 12 percent chance

of a Carrington-type event on Earth in the next 10 years according to Pete Riley of

Predictive Science Inc.

“Initially, I was quite surprised that the odds were so high, but the statistics appear to

be correct,” Riley tells NASA. “It is a sobering figure.”

It’s even more sobering when considering the conclusion of Steve Tracton’s 2013

article: Are we ready yet for potentially disastrous impacts of space weather? Tracton’s

answer: “an unequivocal, if not surprising, no!”

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And a little research finds there's a chance of even greater 'cosmic ray events' coming from outside our galaxy.Thanks to the InterNet, I may never be able to sleep again...

8:58 AM GMT+0200JoeStrange

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Bring it on! It would do us good in the long term to get hit by a massive CME. The bigger the better. We need someserious restructuring on this planet. The majority of humans need to experience pain and suffering before theyeven consider changing their ways.

6:24 AM GMT+0200Erik Jacobsen

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8:35 AM GMT+0200


Lets start with you.


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2:24 AM GMT+0200david mike

All Comments Newest First

Page 4: How a Solar Storm Two Years Ago Nearly Caused a Catastrophe on Earth


On the other hand…In March of the same year (2012), the Earth took a direct hit from an X-5 CME which couldhave caused serious problems. (“X”-class is the category for measuring the largest solar flares; it has nine sub-divisions.) During the 3-day event, the Earth’s thermosphere was hit with 26 trillion watts of energy per hour.However, as NASA stated, the CO2 and NO in the upper atmosphere repelled 95% of the energy back into space.Afterwards, NASA concluded that CO2 helps cool the Earth—not warm it. Are you wondering why you never heard this? You should.

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2:58 AM GMT+0200


As I said the first time you posted this, you misunderstood the papers. CO2 does not have any effect inreflecting x-rays, and it certainly does not cool the Earth. CO2 blocks some light coming from the Sun from reaching the surface, but at the same time it blocks somelight being emitted from the surface from reaching space. Since the Sun is hot, it radiates mostly in the visiblerange. Since the Earth is the temperature it is, it radiates more in the infrared. The net effect of more CO2 is tokeep more heat in the Earth system.


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8:59 AM GMT+0200




The ionosphere protects earth from solar flares by greatly attenuating their intensity. For a complete overview Irecommend reading this Wikipedia entry:

12:30 AM GMT+0200w8sdz

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2:50 AM GMT+0200

While CMEs are often related to solar flares, they are different phenomena. A flare is a peak in intensity of light,often energetic light such as x-rays. A CME is an ejection of particles from the Sun, ionized atoms. It also is adisturbed region of magnetic field. A flare often occurs at the time a CME is launched. Flares of course travel atthe speed of light, reaching Earth in 8 minutes. A CME may travel at a range of speeds, but takes on the orderof a few hours to reach Earth orbit. The cloud of particles travels out from the Sun, generally in the plane of the Solar system. When it encountersthe magnetic field of a planet, it disturbs that field. Disturbances of the field can induce large voltages in longconductors. The high-energy ions also are a type of radiation that can cause damage. The atmosphere protects us from most radiation (not just the ionosphere), but in a large event, somepenetrates to ground level, particularly at the poles. What the ionosphere protects us from best is ultravioletlight. The Sun puts out a lot of ultraviolet light even when relatively quiet. That is why the ozone (a component ofthe ionosphere) hole is a problem, and until we listened to the scientists and did something about it, it lookedlike it was becoming a much bigger problem.


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If you take the position as I do that there are so many significant life-threatening issues and potential events,where would the science-minded and objective folks place this risk in order of priorities? Just off the top of myhead we have the already imminent (in the southwest and parts of Africa, and looming in other parts of the world)drought and water supply problems, seriously aging infrastructure in western countries (all types -- transportation,utilities, etc.); aging demographics with resultant impacts on abilities of societies to care both for themselves andthe next generations; multiple medical problems involving cancer, plagues, AIDS, etc; clean-up of legacy pollutionproblems (probably China's greatest problem); energy and power generation for the increasing electricitydemands of the future, and forecast or predicted long term effects of increased CO2. Any and all of these arguablyrequire more investment than advanced western let alone all societies can afford. Prioritizing everything meansassessing relative risk going forward and assessing the severity of an event that, despite being low probability,can have catastrophic consequences. Where do folks believe this need resides within the long and undoubtedlyincomplete list I put forth?

7/25/2014 10:58 PM GMT+0200Illinoistim

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Page 5: How a Solar Storm Two Years Ago Nearly Caused a Catastrophe on Earth

7/25/2014 11:29 PM GMT+0200


You are right, it is difficult to assess risks for all the possible and very different types of events. This one,however, is pretty clearly something that we can and should do more to address. That is because the cost ofdoing something that would protect pretty well against a fairly likely, and very expensive event is not very high.In the meantime, there are lots of smaller events for which we can prevent all damage with the sameprecautions. Otherwise those small events would cost us something. This one is a lot like earthquakes in risk assessment. Small ones happen frequently, large ones more rarely,and very large ones will happen sometime in a century or so. When a large CME hits, however, the risks willbe on a much larger geographic scale, practically global, than an earthquake. I think we can justify at least as much effort spent on CME preparedness as on earthquake preparedness. ButI think it fortunately won't actually cost as much as we do spend on earthquakes. Numbers thrown aroundrange from a few billion to a few hundreds of billions. Cost estimates can quickly get very technical, and I onlyknow about what I have heard from experts in talks. Papers published on the subject probable include thekeywords "space weather" and "risk assessment", if you want to search. There are people who spend all their time assessing various risks; many of them work for insurers. Theirperspective is a little different from the average citizen, of course. Some problems we already have, andspending is about cleaning them up. Some are about gradual things where something catastrophic willhappen without some expense, such as deterioration of bridges, for those the calculation is prettystraightforward. Some, like this, are events that will occur, but are unlikely in any given year or so, and we don'tknow how big a big one will be and when. Those are the hardest to cost. In addition, the knowledge aboutthese events is spread across many fields.


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9:01 AM GMT+0200


Global warming is actually the result of the heat generated by me never getting laid. Please help...


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CME's causing massive ion storms in our upper atmosphere are beautiful wondrous things I have seen as farsouth as Louisville, Ky. Thankfully, high velocity ions entering a magnetic field turn so we do not get them on us infull force. Plasma however is a different story when it gets as far as Earth. Everything that works because of acomputer can die easily, and all telecom works are computer based. All automobiles are computer based too. Allelectricity supply is computer based now. If a really big one hits, we have nothing we do not provide for ourselvesthrough hard manual labor. No trucks haul groceries to stores. You walk or ride a bike to get around. If you havefood to cook it's over a wood fire. You may have shelter where you are, but no water in the pipes, no electricity inthe walls, and no heat or AC. And the most important is no sanitation. Only the hunters and farmers eat.

7/25/2014 8:37 PM GMT+0200Mr. H.

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7/25/2014 8:54 PM GMT+0200


Yes, aurorae are beautiful. You are generally correct. I point out, however, that plasma is actually the same ashigh velocity ions. It is subject to magnetic fields. So whatever vulnerabilities there are, radiation as well asvoltage spikes, increase toward the magnetic poles. Spacecraft orbiting at lower latitude are less vulnerable, though not invulnerable. Power grids in Canada aremore vulnerable than those in Mexico, though the high degree of interconnection even across national bordersmay introduce vulnerability.


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Coronal mass ejection is very similar to an EMP. There was a Congressional study in the last decade (and thereport is available to be read/downloaded); but, little has been done - outside of some military hardening of theirfacilities. We can give billions away to other countries, but can't harden out own electric grid? WHY? What willhappen if we lose most of or the entire electrical grid? Is everyone aware of the damage done to the electrical sub-station in San Jose a couple of years ago? It almost took down the western grid.

7/25/2014 8:16 PM GMT+0200 [Edited]


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7/25/2014 8:27 PM GMT+0200

Government has many priorities. Dan Baker's research, and this article, are steps to modifying the priorities a


Page 6: How a Solar Storm Two Years Ago Nearly Caused a Catastrophe on Earth

little. While I think that the danger of CMEs is much more important than the emphasis it has received wouldindicate, I would not say that it should supersede, for example, all foreign aid, which is also given for variousimportant reasons. Fortunately, we are wealthy and can do a lot of things at once. In fact some efforts are being made, although only at the glacial pace that most infrastructure improvementshave in the present political environment. Dan's research, for example, like almost all science research, isgovernment funded.

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7/25/2014 8:39 PM GMT+0200 [Edited]


Some experts have said that for $1-2B, we could harden the nat'l grid. My point was that is for about whatwe send to just ONE country in ONE year, we can get basic protection. If we don't protect ourselves, howwill be able to help any other countries that are not sufficiently protected. And compared to theconsequences (which I agree are realistic expectations) you pointed out, it is a small investment forsignificant returns.



7/25/2014 8:47 PM GMT+0200

I think that estimate is low, based on my reading. But as pointed out at length by my creepy stalker, I am anexpert on CMEs, not on electrical engineering. As a space physicist, I can give information about how bigand how often events are expected. Politicians and engineers have to work out how much to spend onwhat preparation.



7/25/2014 9:54 PM GMT+0200

How much do you think we need? Provide some links if handy.

Curious about solar storm


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7/25/2014 10:08 PM GMT+0200

CME is essentially an EMP.


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7/25/2014 10:08 PM GMT+0200

Jayc1, I just wanted to say I've appreciated your posts on this over the past couple of days. Newspapers thesedays are woefully understaffed on science issues, so any experts chipping in to add to the discussion arehelpful. Thanks.


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3:00 AM GMT+0200

I appreciate your saying so.




it's not a matter of if, but when.

7/25/2014 7:48 PM GMT+0200ignatius ibsage

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7/25/2014 7:32 PM GMT+0200 [Edited]


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Page 7: How a Solar Storm Two Years Ago Nearly Caused a Catastrophe on Earth

We need Jack Bauer. Now. We're running out if time.

7/25/2014 7:32 PM GMT+0200tcu93

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If there ever is an end of humans it will be a result of something like this...or a plague. And not much we can do about either.

7/25/2014 7:21 PM GMT+0200MadMan0433

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7/25/2014 7:27 PM GMT+0200


In both of those cases we can do, and are doing, a great deal about it. We can't stop it, but we can take manyrelatively low-cost steps to avoid and mitigate damage. We can't do anything about some things, or at least not in the foreseeable future, such as a very large meteorstrike. We may not be able to do very much about human stupidity and cupidity either, but we can try (notcalling you stupid). Fortunately a very large meteor strike is very unlikely in any human time frame. Somesmaller strikes will happen, as they have already. Stupidity is inevitable, but at least it is somewhat self-limiting.


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7/25/2014 7:53 PM GMT+0200 [Edited]


Thanks for all of your input Doc. I just came back to this article after posting some basic objectivequestions yesterday when there were only 20-30 posts. Well over 800 posts now!! I agree with you that if there are inexpensive emergency procedures that could be planned which mightprevent hundreds of millions of dollars of expense later, and hundreds of thousands of lives, why notmake some plans? Like you I am clueless as to why some folks choose to be antagonistic rather than prudent. Isn't thedefinition of being conservative to reduce risk?



7/25/2014 10:18 PM GMT+0200

It's a good question, johnnyboy4, about why some are so antagonistic. I suspect they are right wingers, forwhom *anything* the government does when the "wrong" party is in the White House is an anathema tothem. It's childish, self-destructive, and downright psychotic, but they have convinced themselves and eachother that it's somehow their "patriotic duty" to trash our civilization just as much as they can manage to. Today's "conservatives" are anything but, yes. They are betting they know more than scientists do, and thestakes are just the well being of civilization. That is the very opposite of conservative in my book.



7/25/2014 7:48 PM GMT+0200

or more likely, an asteroid strike.

ignatius ibsage

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If it happens every 150 years who cares? It is like worrying about meteorites, they are very rare events and youcan't stop them, it's much less investment to just clean it up afterwards if and when it happens.

7/25/2014 7:17 PM GMT+0200gsboy286

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7/25/2014 7:20 PM GMT+0200


Page 8: How a Solar Storm Two Years Ago Nearly Caused a Catastrophe on Earth


That is true for the size of meteorites that occur on the order of once in 150 years. It is not true for the size ofCMEs that hit the Earth on the order of once in 150 years. The cost of preparation will be much less than thecost of cleaning up afterwards.

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7/25/2014 7:25 PM GMT+0200

I don't know where you get your figures about the cost of hardening our grid from but note that what justhappened did not happen to us, because it was not pointed at us. You might have to reach backthousands of years for that to have happened, I don't know. When was the last major meteor event,Tunguska in 1908? In an isolated area that describes about 99.9% of the earth's surface. How would youtake measures against that? You don't, because you can't and even if you could you have to ask whether itis worth it. I think things like hacking and use of electro-magnetic-pulse weapons are a much greater risk to our grid.



7/25/2014 7:33 PM GMT+0200


No, the Carrington event 150 years ago, mentioned in the article, would have been a major problem for ourcurrent systems. We have had damage from smaller events. I am not saying that a meteor strike cannot be a disaster, but a civilization-ending size strike is not likely inany given year. Even the recent Russian event would have been worse over a more densely populatedarea. A very large CME, on the other hand, which can cause a huge amount of damage, is more frequent.That is what looking at the 2012 event shows, something about the character and frequency of such largeevents. Measures taken to protect against a CME would have some effect against EMP attacks, if that is what youworry about. On the other hand, some of the CME defense would require more remote and automatedcontrol of systems, which might enhance vulnerability to hacking. Fortunately, we are aware of thatproblem, and can work on and maintain some protections.



7/25/2014 7:37 PM GMT+0200


Because the last time it happened was 150 years ago.


Like Reply

7/25/2014 7:42 PM GMT+0200


And whether or not one occurred recently or long ago, the probability that one will occur next week is stillsignificant enough to worry about.



7/25/2014 7:46 PM GMT+0200

I love the example in the NASA article of a solar event affecting a grid: 1989 Hyrdo Quebec, a sub-standard gridat a northern latitude with extremely long runs, no monitoring capability, and low trip voltages. The grid wasback up and fully functional in 9 hours, and since then the deficiencies have been corrected. It is indeed a shame that jayc1 can't stick to his area of expertise! It is also interesting to note that, while highlypublished, he is "currently seeking employment" according to his page here: Sorry to wax "Ad Hominem" on you, Dr. Cummings, butyour alarmist cries for our need to research this and do something about it seems to be self-serving. And do stop it with the "unplug the appliances" bit. Appliances weren't damaged in droves during the outage ofHydro Quebec in 1989; they merely sat idle for 9 hours and resumed working when the grid came back up!

Joe Dick

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7/25/2014 8:10 PM GMT+0200

That was an example of what a much smaller event can do. It was not a worldwide disaster, but it costmoney. It is prudent to spend a relatively small amount of money now to avert a very, very large cost when alarge event does hit. Hydro Quebec agrees, that is why they put measures in place to protect againstevents, unfortunately after they had already suffered some damage. The only way to know if measures are adequate to protect against events that are likely to occur is to studyhow large events get, and how frequently they happen. The study mentioned in the article shows that they


Page 9: How a Solar Storm Two Years Ago Nearly Caused a Catastrophe on Earth


how large events get, and how frequently they happen. The study mentioned in the article shows that theycan get much larger than the 1989 event, and that they occur often enough to worry about. I can't rival you in creepiness, but I contend that your stated qualifications in this subject area, inAeronautical Engineering, are inferior to my own in Solar Particle Physics.


7/25/2014 8:43 PM GMT+0200

Appliances would probably be fine, except that more and more basic items include microelectronics,which are often vulnerable to even rather small fluctuations. A lot of expensive stuff should at least be onsurge protectors, to protect against thunderstorms if nothing else. But a large CME could produce voltage spikes at the plug that are larger than experienced in such storms,except maybe for nearby lightning strikes (a very nearby lightning strike can fry even non-electronic stuff;that however is not a disaster except for a few people). Ordinary hardware-store surge suppressors mightnot be sufficient if the local power connections don't have safeguards. Better than nothing though. I repeat, however, the most costly vulnerabilities are to the nationwide power grid and satellites. Butfortunately, solutions to the vulnerabilities can be implemented throughout. There will always be somelocal vulnerabilities, but those we should probably just plan to repair afterward.



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Could have, The ski is falling, the ski is falling, said chicken samenow, could have,should have, must be a lib,

7/25/2014 6:27 PM GMT+0200cliffe

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7/25/2014 7:02 PM GMT+0200


It would seem that all scientists and engineers are liberals, and all business and law practitioners areconservative. Let's hope the conservatives are smart enough to dig us out of the environmental hole theliberals have dug for us. Maybe a decrease in taxes for the top 1%? And an end to government regulations.


Like Reply

7/25/2014 10:24 PM GMT+0200

Here's a better idea. Let's just end "government regulations" where they pertain to the well being of"conservatives" (I put that in quotes because the modern breed of this type of vermin is anything butconservative by the dictionary definition, and by your posts). I look forward to watching you all drink coal-industry polluted West Virginia water, take quack medical cures and get killed in accidents in vehicleswhich corporations just made however they wanted to, knowing there were no consequences. All becauseyou thought the EPA, FDA and NTSB and other "big bad gubmint" agencies were such superfluous liberalnuisance. Hate to be wishing you all ill like this (I really do), but I'm increasingly convinced that letting you all self-exterminate through your spectacular ignorance and arrogance might be the best thing for all involved.




As all Republicans and FOX News know, President Obama was responsible for this event. He is, after all, soft onsolar flares. A John McCain or Ted Cruz would never let the sun mess with the earth.

7/25/2014 6:25 PM GMT+0200trp

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7/25/2014 6:27 PM GMT+0200

Why is it Dems have to be so stupid?


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7/25/2014 7:12 PM GMT+0200

Take your comment to someone who has passed eighth grade English and have them explain it to you.


Page 10: How a Solar Storm Two Years Ago Nearly Caused a Catastrophe on Earth



7/25/2014 7:30 PM GMT+0200

John Kerry was actually for solar flares before he was against them.


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7/25/2014 10:27 PM GMT+0200

No no no trp. The CME was caused by Obamacare. Bill O'Reilly and company are fast at work preparing theirconvoluted explanation for how the sun decided to throw it out because... something something BenghaziObamacare.


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God help us if Al Gore gets wind of this. We will be inundated with heart wrenching photos of sun burned PolarBears. Al of course wil offer to save the bears by selling you solar flare credits.

7/25/2014 6:12 PM GMT+0200bluesdoc70

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