NASA warns of 'space Katrina' radiation storm
Ill solar winds blow nobody any good
A study funded by NASA has flagged up yet another terrible hazard for those no longer able to get excited about nuclear war, global pandemics, terrorism, climate change, economic meltdown and asteroid strike. Top space brainboxes say that even if the human race survives all those, there is a serious risk of civilisation being brought crashing to its knees by a sudden high-intensity solar radiation storm.
Beware the space equivalent of Hurricane Katrina.
The new study, carried out for NASA by the US National Academy of Sciences, might tickle the palate of even the most jaded disaster connoisseur.
"Whether it is terrestrial catastrophes or extreme space weather incidents, the results can be devastating to modern societies that depend in a myriad of ways on advanced technological systems," says Professor Daniel Baker of Colorado Uni, an expert in atmospheric and space physics who led the report's authors.
In essence, the report, which can be downloaded in pdf here (free registration required) says that sooner or later there will be a solar storm much more powerful than any seen so far in the age of high technology. Such events have occurred in the past, but as the human race then had very basic electrical power grids (or none at all) and made no use of satellites, it didn't matter.
The next space radiation biggy, however, will hit a human civilisation which is becoming more and more dependent on satellites for essential communication and navigation tasks, and whose electrical grids are much more widespread and heavily stressed. The impact of a bad geomagnetic spike would be somewhat as though an unbelievably powerful electromagnetic pulse bomb - of the sort favoured by movie villains but not yet available - had gone off:
While a severe storm is a low-frequency-of-occurrence event, it has the potential for long-duration catastrophic impacts to the power grid and its users. Impacts would be felt on interdependent infrastructures, with, for example, potable water distribution affected within several hours; perishable foods and medications lost in about 12-24 hours; and immediate or eventual loss of heating/air conditioning, sewage disposal, phone service, transportation, fuel resupply, and so on ...
Open access on the transmission system has fostered the transport of large amounts of energy across the power system in order to maximize the economic benefit of delivering the lowest-cost energy to areas of demand. The magnitude of power transfers has grown, and the risk is that the increased level of transfers, coupled with multiple equipment failures, could worsen the impacts of a storm event ...
In summary, present U.S. grid operational procedures ... are unlikely to be adequate for historically large disturbance events.
The impact on satellites would be even more severe, as spacecraft have less shielding from the Earth's atmosphere - and in some cases from the magnetosphere. In particular, the present Global Positioning System (GPS) sat constellation, used by almost every navigation system in the world, is regarded as highly vulnerable to a solar event - though new satellites are to go up shortly equipped with a backup signal which will allow errors to be bowled out.
In general, however, the assembled brainboxes considered that a solar event was a much greater threat to essential space infrastructure than any evil foreign power - for instance - could possibly be. The US military has previously warned of the risk of a "space Pearl Harbour" - a devastating surprise attack against America's space presence, which could leave the world's sole superpower blinded and crippled. According to the National Academy, though, the USA should forget about a space Pearl Harbour and worry instead about "a space Katrina, a storm that we should have been prepared for but were not".
The report mentions technological solutions to most of these possible ills, but says that they mostly aren't in place (apart from the GPS alterations). According to Richard Fisher, head of NASA's Heliophysics division:
"To mitigate possible public safety issues, it is vital that we better understand extreme space weather events caused by the sun's activity." ®
falling temps and solar minimums
1: Falling temps due to reduced solar output will give us a litttle extra time to try and mitigate greenhouse gas levels (IF it happens long term, we don't have enough data to know if the next few solar cycles will be weak or not. I work with various researchers who look at the sun and THEY don't know one way or the other yet)
2: Even with reduced solar flare activity, the issue isn't how many or how big they are - it's if one ends up hitting us directly. Thankfully this is a fairly rare occurance but the issue is lack of robustness and forward planning in the power and communications networks.
Two words...SOLAR MINIMUM
As someone else has already pointed out, ALL evidence points to the next few solar cycles being incredibly weak. Currently estimates show the next cycle's maximum pushed back to 2013 at the earliest. Estimates of it's overall sunspot peaks range from a maximum of 120 to well below 80. As the sunspot cycle's energies are (more or less) exponential in nature...the odds of any major flares AT ALL are extremely low.
It's not all good news though, between the solar minimum and the recent change in the Pacific Decadal Oscillation (ocean currents taking 50-60 years to cycle between highs and lows, dragging global temperatures with them) ... temperatures will most likely fall below 1970's levels within a decade.
Self Sufficiency is the Answer
Brainboxes? That is a flippant description for some of the most educated people in society, don't you think? The article, in a sarcastic sort of way, seems almost apologetic for not performing the mainstream media function of helping us tune out and dumb down.
To comment on the subject itself: Disaster happens. It is not a matter of if, but when. The group I feel most sympathy for in a disaster scenario of any kind are those who rely on medications they will no longer be able to obtain for conditions that would otherwise prove life threatening (the twin epidemics of asthma and diabetes come to mind, for instance).
The second thing I take away from this news is that centralization is perhaps the worst idea modern man has dreamt up. The greatest irony about modern civilization, seemingly, is this: The more technology and transportation improves, the less the average person is capable of living independently. Economic problems, as this past year has shown us, no longer remain isolated and discrete; centralization of information, technology, transportation, economies and power have carved massive channels allowing one part of the world's problem to spill over into another. So when the going is good, it is very, very good. But when the going gets tough, it comes in worldwide busting proportions. You do the math. Does this sound like a sustainable form of economic, political and social organization?
The same "small world effect" that causes public health officials to fear bird flu pandemic jumping the oceans on a jet liner in a matter of hours is the same mechanism by which entire societies are at risk be it an Act of God or political unrest. Didn't our ancestors warn against such logic in that trite little cliche which holds: "Don't place all of your eggs in a single basket"? This is the most basic of human principles but our modern age and relative prosperity and good fortune in the latter half of the 20th Century has seduced us into forgetting that truism. So it is that much of the developed world relies on technologies and services, particularly transportation of food, water, medicine and fuel, that take place hundreds if not thousands of miles away. Essentially we have "gone soft" as a civilization and don't have the ability to self sustain the way prior generations did. Whether a Katrina-like Solar Storm materializes or not, this is an issue we are going to have to confront. If we refuse, Mother Nature or economic collapse will have a way of forcing the issue, I fear.
Didn't the Black Death kill primarily people who were centralized in cities, whereas the rural dwellers, growing their own food and limiting their exposure to overcrowded conditions were mostly spared? NOT that everyone can or should live in a countryside. At minimum, however, every city or town ought to have some food growing and water purification capacity. That would be a good start whether the threat stems from terrorism, war, Mother Nature or a freak accident. If our technology has accomplished so much, it should be capable of being engineered in such a way that millions of people are no longer vulnerable to the smallest of hiccups. In this respect, it ought to be a no brainer: Compartmentalization and redundancy of key industries and services are not hallmarks of waste or inconvenience, they are systems of self preservation in the event of the unthinkable.
The lessons of history have not changed. What has changed is our assumption that nothing can or will disrupt modern societies on a mass scale. But the truth is, governments, like power grids, won't function well if they are overly centralized. Whereas the 20th Century paradigm was industrialization and globalization, the 21st Century paradigm should be technology and information in service to local and individual self sufficiency. And that's not exactly an impossible goal. To the contrary, it amounts to knowing your local resources, and implementing technology to expand capacity to sustain community residents. Victory Gardens, for instance, became commonplace in the US during World War II. We need more of that kind of back-to-the-fundamentals thinking and less assumption that our technology is some sort of insulator against reality.
None of this is to say that we ought to spurn global trade or high technology. Rather, it is a reminder that striking a "happy medium" between two seemingly contrary goals is the wiser form of infrastructure and commerce. Whereas the 20th Century assumed that globalization would solve all of our problems, the 21st Century may prove for once and for all that we took a good concept and expected far too much from it (in terms of economic prosperity, safety or just about any other promise we thought the "small world concept" would deliver upon).
Bottom line? This sort of news it can be brushed off as Chicken Little warning that the sky is falling, or it can serve as an opportunity to think out far enough ahead to not only survive but capitalize on new economic, political and technological realities. Here is our choice when confronted with such realities: Look to our recent past and promise ourselves that nothing ever changes, or look to the future and bank on the fact that it will. Personally, I feel denial is a reaction that stems from helplessness (the "flight" response), whereas gearing ourselves up mentally and spirituality for new possibilities is the healthy and positive way of adapting to change (the "fight" response). Fight vs. flight. The choice is ours. Are we going to prepare, or say it ain't so?