What is it?
Ok, i've read some really impressive predictions on this one. Basically, the idea is that on December 21st, 2012, the Earth will begin to pass "through" the the absolute centre of the "Dark Rift" of the Milky Way. The proponents of this prediction say that this passing will cause the sun to go crazy and throw off a bunch of solar flares, which will disrupt the Earth's communication and power infrastructures - basically all our modern day high tech gadgets - and cause damage, effectively "plunging us into darkness" for years, until the damage can be repaired.
Why did the chicken cross the Galactic Equator?
Firstly, i covered the whole idea of the Earth crossing through some mega-powerful centre of the universe in a previous post, which you can view here. Basically, the idea that the Earth will begin to pass through the absolute centre of this "Dark Rift" on December 21, 2012 is a vague statement that doesn't have any basis in science. For one thing; if it's in the centre of the universe, how do we pass "through" it? No, the only thing that may happen is that the sun will appear to cross through the Dark Rift (from our point of view on this lovely little rock) on December solstice this year. By the way, the sun takes about 36 years to do this, and the midpoint of the crossing happened in 1998. Now maybe i'm not giving humanity enough credit, but i always thought that the universe was a huge place which doesn't care about what appears to intersect with what from our bedroom window...
Now, you may or may not have heard, but there has been a bunch of solar activity lately. According to the NASA website, this is because the sun is approaching its solar maximum. Don't panic, this happens every 9-14 years. A solar maximum is a period of increased solar activity, consisting of sunspots, CME's and solar flares. I might be underestimating humanity again here, but it seems that believers of the whole "Death By Solar Flare" scenario envisage these things as a tongue of fire reaching from the sun to earth, and burning us all to a crisp. Not so. All of the phenomena i mentioned are very closely related, and consist of releasing increased amounts of radiation into space. Of course, radiation is dangerous, but only if you happen to be going into space. Our planet is constantly bombarded by radiation from space, and our atmosphere does a very good job of protecting us from it. Below are some potential hazards of increased solar activity:
"Proton storms (caused by CME's) cause all kinds of problems. They interfere with ham radio communications. They zap satellites, causing short circuits and computer reboots. Worst of all, they can penetrate the skin of space suits and make astronauts feel sick." NASA
"This process can cause particularly strong aurorae in large regions around Earth's magnetic poles. These are also known as the Northern Lights (aurora borealis) in the northern hemisphere, and the Southern Lights (aurora australis) in the southern hemisphere. Coronal mass ejections, along with solar flares of other origin, can disrupt radio transmissions and cause damage to satellites and electrical transmission line facilities, resulting in potentially massive and long-lasting power outages." Wikipedia
Well, that first one doesn't look so bad, unless you're an astronaut. Or a ham radio enthusiast. But aren't massive and long lasting power outages bad? It has been theorised that a really bad solar storm could overload power grids in our interconnected society. Are electric utilities completely oblivious to this? No. They have complex systems for dealing with varying supply and demand. Whether or not it would be enough to weather this solar storm, that may or may not come, remains to be seen. Just bear in mind that these guys are a multi-billion dollar industry that survive on supplying power, and they don't want any interruptions. Humanity can be pretty ingenious when survival is at stake. And any facility that would suffer from a power outage has backup generators and circuit breakers.
What this means for you, and your Christmas vacation:
Solar flares happen. In fact, we've had a couple of big CME's so far this year. Did you notice? Me neither. This activity is linked to the Solar Maximum, which happens every 9 to 14 years, and not to a pseudoscientific "alignment". Worst case scenario: a solar storm unlike any we've seen in the past century will damage our power grid, although this is just as likely to happen now as it was in 2000, or 1989, or will be in 2023. The fact that this has been pinned to the arbitrary 12/21/2012 date only seems to undermine its validity. I would also like to point out that, contrary to the claims made by some doomsayers, NASA has NOT issued a "SOLAR STORM WARNING".
And to all you astronauts and ham radio enthusiasts, take care out there.
(Seriously though, astronauts endure serious risks of radiation exposure in space every day they're out there. Hats off to them, folks.)