Sunday, July 27, 2014

Recent NASA report on "near miss" with massive solar storm in 2012 makes us apprehensive about our "dependence" on technology (from electricity); a call for "Amish values"?

NASA has a paper, published July 23, by Tony Phillips, in Science News: “Near Miss: The Solar Superstorm on July 2013, link here.   CBS News included this paper as a link for a surprising news story July 25 prompted by comments from Daniel Baker of the University of Colorado, link here.  I reviewed a video about a conference at the University of Colorado on my “cf” blog late Friday, with the report having been made public in Boulder in April 2014, almost two years after “the Event”.  Surprisingly there has been little media coverage, although it was mentioned on CNN late Friday July 25.
The report concerned a two-part coronal mass ejection (CME) that followed a solar flare, that missed the Earth by a week.  The worst case interpretation is that had the Earth passed through it, the CME could have fried all of the Earth’s electronics and sent civilization suddenly back to the 19th Century, much like an EMP (electromagnetic pulse) from a terrorist or enemy could be.

If such an interpretation is possible, which NASA seems to acknowledge now, why wasn’t it covered before?

I’ve covered a few times (most recently May 13, 2014 on my Issues Blog) and visited at least two locations of companies in Virginia that manufacture transformers.  There is a lot of concern that large transformers cannot be manufactured quickly in the US or imported if many were damaged.  There are vague suggestions that there are steps electric utilities could take to protect equipment (starting with blackouts) if warned of a coming massive CME, but’s not clear how much warning can be given or what can be done.  Literature on the Internet is spotty (example) , but there have been efforts in some states, including Virginia, to require some standards of preparedness be met.
One official at NASA wrote that we have a 12% chance of a major incident within the next decade.  Then how have we gotten so far?
The Sun rotates at varying speeds, ranging from 24-38 days.  The Earth could conceivably pass over an unusually active zone on the Sun every 24 days, but it sounds unlikely that one area remains dangerous that long.  To hit Earth, a super CME would have to go out on the same plane as the Earth’s orbit when the Earth is transiting in the “right” place. 
Bur if it’s really true that we could be sent back 100 years at any time by a solar storm, you would think major media would cover it.  “They just aren’t telling us.”  This sounds like climate change denial, but is potentially much graver.

What makes this problem unique is that in past centuries people were not technology-dependent.  This situation has crept up on us in the past half-century.  (But, what, “they” really didn’t know during the Cold War, or when we put a Man on the Moon, or survived the Cuban Missile Crisis?)

I wouldn’t be of any use in a world without technology.  The moral implications of that statement are cannon fodder for another day.  But coercion can teach us a lot and test our commitment to individual freedom. Most of us wouldn't voluntarily choose Amish values.   

Actually, a sermon that I heard today "Worth Working For" by Aaron Fulp-Eickerstaedt at the Immanuel Presbyterian Church in McLean VA seems relevant.   A technological civilization allows us to seem more independent, to be picky about the imperfections in people before we will love them.  You can put it all together. 

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