Sunday, November 04, 2012

We're not prepared for a big solar storm; Internet services could crumble or shrink; more on hospitality

Although a lot has been written about the ability of utilities, particularly Con-Ed, to prepare for hurricanes and protect generating stations in coastal areas, and much has been written about the safety of nuclear plants in earthquake or even tsunami-exposed areas, much more attention needs to be paid to the ability of the domestic power grid to protect itself against large solar geomagnetic storms, conceivably one on the scale of the 1859 “Carrington Event”.  I’ve reviewed booklets on this problem on my Book reviews blog  (Aug. 9, 2012 by National Academy of Sciences, Oct. 20, 2012 by Oak Ridge National Laboratory).

It would appear that in many cases the world would have about three days’ notice that a crippling magnetic pulse was going to occur.  Worst case estimates, according to Oak Ridge, suggest that up to 70% of the United States would be affected, with some areas taking several months to recover.

How would the media (especially the weather channels and 24 hour news stations like CNN) hype an event like this?
Elsewhere I’ve also documented sources that discuss the possibility of a terrorist electromagnetic pulse (EMP) attack  (Books blog, July 20).  Although this provides a good reason to keep nuclear weapons out of the hands of Iran, the full scale scenario (as in the book “One Second After” reviewed in July) is much less likely that an extreme solar storm.  However, EMP events in small areas could be triggered by certain non-nuclear devices now in possession of the military only.

Although, after Sandy, the country probably will return to “normal” in most areas of the Northeast in a couple weeks (maybe not in the most exposed coastal areas), it could not do so after an extreme solar event. 

It’s hard to believe that the big Internet companies to which we are accustomed could continue operating as they have after such an event, at least in many affected areas.  And even once power were restored everywhere, business models might be so badly affected that the predication on user-generated content might no longer exist.  Parties might not be able to publish and connect in an unsupervised, low revenue manner as they have in the past.  Downstream liability concepts might become stricter.

Public policy ought to place a lot of emphasis on hardening the power grid against magnetic damage now.  Neither Romney nor Obama has said anything about it.  Obama has often talked about general spending on infrastructure, whereas Romney has discussed only specific opportunities (like oil and gas pipelines).  Moderators of debates have not brought this up. 

It’s also not clear which candidate is the most sympathetic to spontaneous free speech on the web.  The Obama administration seemed to want to hide behind blaming an anti-Muslim video for attacks in Libya and elsewhere for a while, and the GOP quite properly spoke out for free speech.  Both parties have been concerned that Facebook’s opposition to anonymity could hinder legitimate protest movements  around the world.  But all of this becomes secondary if the global power grid has massive prolonged disruptions because of space weather we are not prepared for.

Much has been written about citizen preparedness for survival.  There’s also a “social cohesion” issue. In most disasters, families want to stay as close to home as possible.  In a few cases, where there is total destruction, an area might not be rebuilt for a long time.  After Katrina, many people never came back to New Orleans.  The willingness of others in neighboring states to personally house people actually became an issue, as many families went to Texas, and a few came to this areas.  That sort of issue could occur again.  

There’s a good question as to how quickly the corporate building industry can respond in replacing homes with manufactured housing, since this can be more efficient than having volunteers from local groups and churches work.  I know of volunteer groups that went down to New Orleans to work and were not allowed to do so because of mold.  The  LDS Church (Mitt Romney) was unusually effective in helping with the Katrina recovery because of its own internal welfare program. 
I recall, back in 1980, there was a call for people in Dallas (particularly the LGBT community) to be willing to house some of the Cuban refugees.   This did not work out very well, as few people had any grip on what could be involved in expecting this kind of "radical hospitality" (see Oct. 30).  I’ve had only one experience with housing someone, and that was in Dallas in 1980, someone local, and that did not go particularly well.  

Is this a call for "survivalism" or more social capital?  I hope it's a warning to take protecting our infrastructure much more seriously.  It's the most important policy issue we have. 

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