In early September, a coronal mass ejection hit the earth broadside with one of the largest geomagnetic bodyslams ever recorded. Now known as "the Carrington Event," the results were... well, incredible.
Needless to say, both the northern and the southern lights were beyond belief. They were bright enough to read by according to newspaper accounts, and were visible as far from the poles as Cuba and Hawaii. From the September 3, 1859 Baltimore American: "Those who happened to be out late on Thursday night had an opportunity of witnessing another magnificent display of the auroral lights. The phenomenon was very similar to the display on Sunday night, though at times the light was, if possible, more brilliant, and the prismatic hues more varied and gorgeous. The light appeared to cover the whole firmament, apparently like a luminous cloud, through which the stars of the larger magnitude indistinctly shone. The light was greater than that of the moon at its full, but had an indescribable softness and delicacy that seemed to envelop everything upon which it rested. Between 12 and 1 o'clock, when the display was at its full brilliancy, the quiet streets of the city resting under this strange light, presented a beautiful as well as singular appearance."
Scary stuff. Scary because if it happened today, it would be a civilization-ending event. The power grid would be toast for years which would mean an instant return to the 19th century... No more lights, no more TV or radio, no more air conditioning, no more hair dryers or electric shavers. No more gasoline because the pumps are all electric, and your iPad, your computer, and your cellphone will all wither and die. All the satellites will be fried too, of course, so kiss GPS goodbye, and when the trucks stop rolling into town, so do your groceries... Great masses of people would be simply unable or unwilling to cope, and so great masses of people would die.
Well, here's the punch line: A "Carrington class" solar superstorm erupted on July 23, 2012; the geomagnetic blast just happened to miss us that time. Sooner or later, it'll happen again, and with our beautiful blue marble squarely in the crosshairs.
There will be a 'next time' -- the sun is acting very strange right now -- and nobody seems to be doing a damn thing about it. (Let's hope the Chinese and the Russians aren't either.)