Monday, July 28, 2014

Apocalypse Almost?

This story is fascinating. One of the more obscure risks to civilization is a massive solar “Carrington Event,” This is a solar flare (coronal mass ejection) that hits the earth’s magnetosphere and causes all electronic equipment to malfunction. One of these hit the earth in 1859, before the entire world was electrified. It caused significant disruption, but as we learned earlier, progress did not really begin until 1870.
On September 1–2, 1859, the largest recorded geomagnetic storm occurred. Aurorae were seen around the world, those in the northern hemisphere even as far south as the Caribbean; those over the Rocky Mountains were so bright that their glow awoke gold miners, who began preparing breakfast because they thought it was morning.People who happened to be awake in the northeastern US could read a newspaper by the aurora's light.The aurora was visible as far from the poles as Cuba and Hawaii. 
Telegraph systems all over Europe and North America failed, in some cases giving telegraph operators electric shocks. Telegraph pylons threw sparks. Some telegraph systems continued to send and receive messages despite having been disconnected from their power supplies.

Ever since people have wondered what if one of these happened today rather than 1859, with our hyper-connected globalized world and our utter reliance on technology. It sort of hangs over modern technological civilization like the proverbial sword of Damocles. Everything from our entire economy to our water and food production is dependent upon just in time electronics.

Well, apparently, there was a very close near-miss that would have been TEOTWAWKI a couple of years ago:
The date of 23 July 2012 could have been the day the lights went out, along with suddenly not-so-smart phones, computers, satellite transmissions, GPS navigation systems, televisions, radio broadcasts, hospital equipment, electric pumps and water supplies. 
On that day an "extreme solar storm" did its best to end life on Earth as we know it. The sun forced out one of the biggest plasma clouds ever detected at a speed of 3,000km per second, more than four times faster than a typical solar eruption. Fortunately it missed. 
"If it had hit, we would still be picking up the pieces," said Daniel Baker, of the Laboratory for Atmospheric and Space Physics at the University of Colorado. "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. If the eruption had occurred only one week earlier, Earth would have been in the line of fire." 
With colleagues from Nasa and other universities, Baker has been studying the disaster that wasn't. If the coronal mass ejection (CME) had hit the Earth, it would have disabled "everything that plugs into a wall socket". 
There would have been major disruption to all satellite communications and electrical fluctuations that could have blown out transformers in power grids. Most people wouldn't have been able to turn on a tap or flush a toilet because urban water supplies largely rely on electricity. 
Nasa has calculated that the cost would have been 20 times the devastation caused by hurricane Katrina, at $2tn.
'Extreme solar storm' could have pulled the plug on Earth (Guardian)

I find the date particularly fascinating. As you may recall, certain people were expecting the world to end on June 20, 2012. This event was only about a month later! And, according to NASA, if it had happened just one week earlier, earth would have been in the line of fire and hit with a blast even more severe than the Carrington event.

Was this what the Mayans were predicting? Given the scale of time, one could be forgiven for being less than a month off. Did they somehow see this coming and try to warn us, and we just got lucky? I imagine if this had happened, that prophecy would have loomed large, instead of being consigned to the dustbin of history. The Mayan paranoiacs could have claimed vindication. Even though June 20, 2012, went down in history as Nothing Happened Day, we now know how close we were to chaos.

Just as scary is the fact that there is a twelve percent chance of this occurring again in the next ten years. So what are we doing? Well, everything in our power to become even more reliant on electronics, thanks to the "Internet of Things," and the smart-everything stuff that Corporate America and Silicon Valley are flogging in their never-ending quest for novelty to shore up profits. So in ten years, when the Internet of Things has been fully deployed, we can look forward to not being able to drive our cars, get into our house, or even open our refrigerator in addition to having our bank accounts wiped and our phones disabled.
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 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.” 
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.”
How a solar storm two years ago nearly caused a catastrophe on Earth (Washington Post)

What If the Biggest Solar Storm on Record Happened Today? (National Geographic)


  1. Either that, or ebola.
    Which dark horse are YOU betting on?

  2. Replies
    1. The risk will seem less obscure when you consider that our nuclear power plants rely on an outside source of electricity, not only because most are not designed for a cold shutdown, but also because we've over-stuffed the spent fuel pools which now require electric power for cooling by constant water circulation. Typically nuclear power plants have 8 hours of battery power and one week of diesel generator fuel on site. After that ... See the "400 Chernobyls" article by Matt Stein to connect the dots between solar flares and nuclear power.

  3. *cough* Nothing Happened Day was December, not June, 2012 *cough*

    I guess the Mayanoids would have been well p'd off if the world ended 6 months early ;-))

    1. Ah ,yes, my mistake, I was thinking of the *summer* not winter solstice. Oh well, what's six months in the grand scheme of things?


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