Physics Question #4515

Neil O., a 31 year old male from Oshawa asks on January 14, 2009,

What can you tell me about the likelihood of a major solar storm in or around 2012, and how it would affect us here on earth? Also, when is it most likely that the Earth will cross the Galactic Plane? Should we be concerned about the fate of Earth? What sorts of things are the Earth and our people likely to experience as a result of this?

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The answer

Donald J. Barry answered on January 14, 2009

The year 2012 will be near the maximum period of the 11 year solar activity cycle, so significant solar storms are more likely then than at other times. But there is nothing special about 2012 that would make particularly intense solar storms more likely than at any other solar maximum period, nor do we know of any reason to suspect that this upcoming solar maximum should be anomalous. Intense solar storms may occur. They may not. Beyond that, we cannot say.

The Earth, as part of our solar system, orbits our Milky Way galaxy about once every 250 million years. If you were to construct a mathematical average plane that defined the halfway point of mass in the Milky Way galaxy, then the Earth would cross that plane twice per orbit. But in fact our Milky Way is thick -- several thousand light years thick -- and the solar system's orbit around the galaxy stays within that thickness. Thus the concept of a "plane crossing" is irrelevant and artificial for discussions of the Earth. It does have relevance for members of our galactic family that orbit the galaxy with much greater tilts, so that they spend much of their time outside the thick plane of the Milky Way and cross that plane at high velocity (with respect to other items in the plane) -- but that is not us. We could not even determine the time of our crossing of that mathematical artifice of the infinitely thin plane to better than a few tens of millions of years, so naming 2012 as such a time is an act of random hubris.

It is easy to browse about on the Internet and see that some non-scientific communities have tried, as they periodically do, to name 2012 as a year of forecast catastrophe, supporting their arguments with a mixture of hokum, bunkum, flapdoodle, and balderdash (a phrase I lift from the inimitable David North) as presumably a way of gaining attention and adherents. As a scientist, I cannot make sense of, much less engage their arguments, which mix up scientific sounding words in entirely unscientific and unserious ways.

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