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Science experts: Isn't this a Problem?

by Captain Future Thu Mar 9th, 2006 at 10:54:24 PM EST

It seems to me this is an important story, even if Keay Davidson at the San Francisco Chronicle is one of the few who noticed it. There are solar storm clouds on the horizon, and I'd be interested to know if those more versed in the applicable sciences share my concern.

Because we could be in for a near-term future that  challenges how our global society and economy currently functions.  And that's on top of Everything Else.

We've had solar storms before, but scientists said this week we haven't seen anything since the 1950s, and before that the 1700s, like what's approaching. Why is that a problem?  It affects radio waves, satellites and electrical grids.  And we happen to be more dependent on all of these than ever before.  


This week scientists from NASA, the National Science Foundation, the National Center for Atmospheric Research and other agencies announced that the earth is about to be bombarded by radiation from the sun, in what may be the most intense sunspot cycle since the 1950s.

Computer models show it could begin as early as this year, but almost certainly will peak in 2012. The cycle typically lasts 11 years. This radiation can disrupt electrical power and radio waves, knock satellites and spacecraft out of orbit, and bathe certain areas of the upper atmosphere with radiation at potentially dangerous levels.

If all this proves out, there are a couple of aspects that will be different this time than in the 1950s or the 1700s, the last time it was nearly this intense.

The first is the rise of microwave and satellite communication, and our growing dependence on them. Much of the onrush into this dependence has been without planned redundancy (systems that will work when they don't), although there is some redundancy still existing just from inertia (i.e. people like me who still use land line telephones. However, satellites are often still involved.)

As for satellites, the weaker solar storms of the 1970s are suspected to have forced the U.S. Skylab space station to fall out of orbit prematurely.

Then there are power grids, and again a lesser storm knocked one out that cut off power to Quebec.

So if an 11 year period of solar storms could disrupt electrical power, cell phones, satellite links and global GPS, it seems to me we ought to be thinking about the possible consequences. We have no previous experience of the extent, because the current level of radio and microwave dependence is new. There was nothing like it in the 1950s.

The key word there for me is dependence.

The second factor that to my knowledge no one is yet considering is the chemical makeup of the atmosphere, especially in terms of greenhouse gases and ozone depletion.  I don't know how relevant this is--that's where those more literate in chemistry and biochemistry etc. could commment.  But these are different conditions from those that existed during the last intense solar storm period.

I hope somebody is paying attention to this.  So much depends on global communications these days, and the economy of every small town depends on webs of global trade and other economic relationships.  

Then there are disruptions that affect safety--not just airliners but medical communications and even medical devices.  Not to mention the military.  How many more nuclear powers will there be in 2012?  

Safety systems in nuclear plants?  Not to mention all the daily information now dependent on satellites.

How will this affect efforts to deal with the Climate Crisis, which will likely to be obvious in its effects by 2012?    

In a sane society, people would be thinking about this, planning ahead. But then, our leaders apparently don't believe in a global phenomenon that is already well underway. What chance do we have of getting ahead of one that's yet to come?

The difference could be that people now making money might lose money if they don't plan ahead for the solar storms. Whereas in the case of global heating, the people who might make money from building the technology and infrastructure necessary to begin dealing with it, may not be the people making the big money now.  Why they don't seem to want to be the businesses of the future is yet another mystery.

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Well, to put it bluntly, we no longer have the political or economic systems capable of addressing this kind of threat.

(I can comment a bit on the telco side of the issue, maybe Nomad has something to say about the chemistry of the atmosphere.)

Given the minor disruption caused by sunspot activity to various elements of the communications network in 2002-3 then upcoming solar storms of a larger magnitude should be considered a serious potential problem.

How to get action on this? I have no idea. In a world where politics is run for short term gain and corporations breathe from quarter to quarter there is very little hope I can see.

by Metatone (metatone [a|t] gmail (dot) com) on Fri Mar 10th, 2006 at 06:58:49 AM EST
Cool! we'll get northern lights as far south as London for the 2012 olympics!


A society committed to the notion that government is always bad will have bad government. And it doesn't have to be that way. — Paul Krugman
by Migeru (migeru at eurotrib dot com) on Fri Mar 10th, 2006 at 07:26:21 AM EST
I saw northern lights in Budapest (49°30'N; London: 51°30'N) 20 November 2003. Civilisation didn't collapse.

*Lunatic*, n.
One whose delusions are out of fashion.
by DoDo on Fri Mar 10th, 2006 at 04:01:21 PM EST
[ Parent ]
Given the date, are you sure it was northern lights and not the ghost of Franco?

A society committed to the notion that government is always bad will have bad government. And it doesn't have to be that way. — Paul Krugman
by Migeru (migeru at eurotrib dot com) on Fri Mar 10th, 2006 at 04:10:39 PM EST
[ Parent ]
Generalissimo Francisco Franco is still dead!

*Lunatic*, n.
One whose delusions are out of fashion.
by DoDo on Fri Mar 10th, 2006 at 04:27:47 PM EST
[ Parent ]
...I won't worry too much. I mean, if the beam of a gamma ray burst hits us, we'll be toast quite rapidly. And there will be no advance warning whatsoever, just one sudden spike, and wham. Now that must be comforting...

But solar flares are a reality, I think. I'm not an astrophycist, perhaps DoDo could pitch in here? This is more his turf than it's mine. The spectacular 2003 flares (a "recording" of one here) was a nuisance for air traffic and satellite phone, but did not end in noticable calamities. Well, that's enough for politics: if it didn't end in disaster, it's all right. It just works that way, and sometimes that's the best approach. If solar flares become an increasing problem, there'll be solutions, I'm sure... In the meantime, just sit tight.

One thing I personally wondered about (but do not have the answer on) is the earth's ozone. Since ozone is formed through ultraviolet photons (as produced in a flare) hitting oxygen molecules, I would expect that an increased solar activity would end up in a larger concentration of ozone. Surprisingly, I see this thought confirmed in the Wiki graph on the Ozone hole.

There's a dent in the ozone hole size for 2003, for 2000 and 1989, all years with high sun spot activity, but whether that's just coincidental, I've no clue whatsoever...

by Nomad on Fri Mar 10th, 2006 at 01:28:29 PM EST
you were a below-ground type of chappie ;-)

You can't be me, I'm taken
by Sven Triloqvist on Fri Mar 10th, 2006 at 03:46:50 PM EST
[ Parent ]
Well, you should know by now that the Dutch grab any excuse to get in higher atmospheres...
by Nomad on Sat Mar 11th, 2006 at 04:49:09 AM EST
[ Parent ]
But solar flares are a reality, I think. I'm not an astrophycist, perhaps DoDo could pitch in here? This is more his turf than it's mine. The spectacular 2003 flares (a "recording" of one here) was a nuisance for air traffic and satellite phone, but did not end in noticable calamities.

Exactly that's what I'd expect. "Not seen since 1950" sounds spectacular, but it just means an increased frequency of an existing phenomenon.

*Lunatic*, n.
One whose delusions are out of fashion.

by DoDo on Fri Mar 10th, 2006 at 03:55:34 PM EST
[ Parent ]
I don't know how good their predictions are, but solar flares can be much larger than any we've seen in living memory:

NASA: Solar Superstorm

 ...what occurred on Earth and in the heavens almost a century-and-a-half ago could happen again.

...the occurrences of September 1-2, 1859, are the star stuff of legend. Even 144 years ago, many of Earth's inhabitants realized something momentous had just occurred. Within hours, telegraph wires in both the United States and Europe spontaneously shorted out, causing numerous fires...

In March 1989, a solar storm much less intense than the perfect space storm of 1859 caused the Hydro-Quebec (Canada) power grid to go down for over nine hours, and the resulting damages and loss in revenue were estimated to be in the hundreds of millions of dollars.

Solar Superstorm

I don't think we're ready for a repeat of 1859.

Words and ideas I offer here may be used freely and without attribution.

by technopolitical on Fri Mar 10th, 2006 at 10:41:08 PM EST
[ Parent ]
There have been solar storms in the last 15 years stronger than that March 1989 one, which didn't cause anywhere near that much damage on Earth. A main reason is the use of space weather forecast.

I note Northern lights were seen from Cuba during the 1989 solar sorm. But a better crude indicator of strength is the time it takes for the ions to reach Earth - I found figures of 19 hours for the strongest of the October 2003 events and just over 17 hours for the 1859 event.

Even NASA scientists can be sensationalist. (But while it promotes their research, it isn't useless: a lot more could be done in the field of prevention, especially on satellites.)

*Lunatic*, n.
One whose delusions are out of fashion.

by DoDo on Sat Mar 11th, 2006 at 07:17:56 PM EST
[ Parent ]
I don't think solar activity will cause any real damage. With forecasting and observation much better than 50 and 30 years ago there will be ample warning. Satellites can be turned away from the particle stream to reduce harm.

I think the power grid is also more resistant than in the past. There may be some problems with satellite-based services like TV and radio while there is solar activity, but those services have lots of interruptions anyway.


Policies not Politics
---- Daily Landscape

by rdf (robert.feinman@gmail.com) on Fri Mar 10th, 2006 at 03:04:13 PM EST
Interesting to note that I have been using 2012 as the year it all comes to a head, since 1993.

I usually seminar that the exponentially increasing rate of innovation will lead, in 2012, to a situation where inventions as radical as the wheel will be happening every hour, every minute, and then every second as WE pass into the Age of Light.

I am simply being provocative, of course. But I had noticed over a period of years, that 2012 kept cropping up in predictions such as the interpretation of Mayan and Hindu records, and some more obscure ones where the date predicted may be less easy to ascertain.

But certainly the Mayan prophecies speak of a 52,000 year Baktun which ends in 2013 by the Earth passing through a giant intergalactic beam of radiation which changes the speed at which cell clocks operate. Which means that the speed at which all living cells divide changes. Which in turn leads to mutation. (change the clock speed and you change the organism).

So, according to a people who knotted their history, we are soon to go one more step up the evolutionary ladder.

I, for one, can't wait. ;-)

(Seems much more plausible, and positive, than the Armaggedon of the Bible)

You can't be me, I'm taken

by Sven Triloqvist on Fri Mar 10th, 2006 at 04:00:38 PM EST


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