One of the things that I want to see before I die is the Aurora Borealis (or its Antarctic equivalent, the Aurora Australis). But if the folks at NASA and the New Scientist are correct, seeing them may be the last thing I do, at least before my and everyone else's world falls apart.
Here's the scenario:
It is midnight on 22 September 2012 and the skies above Manhattan are
filled with a flickering curtain of colourful light. Few New Yorkers
have seen the aurora this far south but their fascination is
short-lived. Within a few seconds, electric bulbs dim and flicker, then
become unusually bright for a fleeting moment. Then all the lights in
the state go out. Within 90 seconds, the entire eastern half of the US
is without power.
year later and millions of Americans are dead and the nation's
infrastructure lies in tatters. The World Bank declares America a
developing nation. Europe, Scandinavia, China and Japan are also
struggling to recover from the same fateful event - a violent storm,
150 million kilometres away on the surface of the sun.
To understand how and why millions of us are going to die, first a primer: however peaceful and happy the Sun looks from 93 miles away, it is, as your science teachers told you, a giant ball of burning gas that ejects billions of tons of electrically charged particles every few hours, a.k.a. the solar wind.
The best-case scenario: every day about 1000 tons of these particles reach Earth, where most of them are deflected by our blessed magnetic field (magnetosphere) and "dragged through the atmosphere towards the
poles." There, the particles collide with oxygen and nitrogen to produce the green and red lights of the aurora.
(Note, I said "most," not all. Some of the particles do get through. There's no end of speculation about their effects: everything from dropped cell phone calls to cancer to the genetic mutations that drive evolution has been linked by someone to these particles.)