Thursday, April 18, 2024

#109 / And Now, Terrifying Solar Storms


The New Yorker magazine recently published an article titled, "What A Major Solar Storm Could Do To Our Planet." Candidly, if (or when) one of these solar storms occurs, the problems associated with such a solar storm would dwarf the kind of problems caused by the kind of million-acre wildfires I mentioned yesterday. Such wildfires might well seem like a minor inconvenience. 

Below, I am quoting a few words on solar storms from the article by Kathryn Schulz (she calls them "space weather"). Schulz seems to be The New Yorker's disaster specialist. If you haven't yet read her unforgettable article from 2015, about the likelihood of a major earthquake in the Pacific Northwest, click the following link to read, "The Really Big One." 

Here, though, more recently, is Schulz outlining the damages that a major solar storm could cause: 

Science can take a long time to make inroads into public awareness, let alone public policy, so space weather remained a mostly marginal subject until 2008, when the National Academy of Sciences convened a group of experts to assess the nation’s capacity to endure its terrestrial effects. Later that year, the N.A.S. published a report on the findings, “Severe Space Weather Events: Understanding Societal and Economic Impacts.”

The title was dry; the contents were not. The report noted that the Earth hadn’t experienced a Carrington-size storm during the space age, or, for that matter, during the age of widespread electrification, and that much of the country’s critical infrastructure seemed unlikely to withstand one. Extensive damage to satellites would compromise everything from communications to national security, while extensive damage to the power grid would compromise everything: health care, transportation, agriculture, emergency response, water and sanitation, the financial industry, the continuity of government. The report estimated that recovery from a Carrington-class storm could take up to a decade and cost many trillions of dollars (emphasis added).

Living in Santa Cruz, California, as I do, I am a customer of Pacific Gas and Electric Company, and when a big storm hits, with heavy rains and winds, I am not at all surprised when the power goes out. Let me be clear that I am talking about a "terrestrial" storm, not a "space storm," as discussed in Schulz' article. 

When my power does go out, I wait, patiently, for the voicemail-message that I know will be forthcoming. A mechanical voice tells me that my power is out, verifying the address number, and lets me know how many others are similarly afflicted. This winter, one of these PG&E bulletins told me that eighteen (18) other homes were affected; on another occasion, the bulletin told me that 2,887 homes were affected. I was also told, in each case, how long it would be until PG&E thought power would be restored. In both cases, the bulletin gave me times from a couple of hours to two days. And, in both cases, PG&E restored power more quickly than their bulletins had predicted. 

Consider what might happen in the kind of "solar storm" discussed in that New Yorker article: I could look forward to NO bulletins, of course, because all cellphone and landline communications would be out of commission. However, presuming what such a bulletin might have said, I might well be told (1) that my power is out, verifying my address; (2) that 100,000,000 million other homes are also affected; and (3) that my power would be retored by 12:00 midnight ten years later. 

Like I say, this could be worse than that million-acre wildfire possibility. I would not, of course, be able to get any money out of my bank. My credit cards wouldn't work, and I am guessing that the water and sewer system serving my home would quickly stop working, too, since there wouldn't be any electricity for those city services, either. 

What should we do if we want to take seriously the possibility of another "Big One," or that a "solar storm" might hit? Such disasters - those "Schulz-type" disasters, giant earthquakes and solar storms - are unpredictable and might never occur. Given that, I tend to think that our first impulse would probably be to do nothing, at least individually, or personally. Funding the government to prepare for such disasters would be wise, but since we can't predict when such natural disasters might occur - and they might never occur - it would be "natural," and might even be "rational," to face those problems when they happen - if they do. 

I do think that the global warming disaster is different. It is not a hypothetical possibility. It's an ongoing reality. It really is that boulder bouncing downhill, ready to crush our human realities below. For the non-hypothetical reality of global warming, I do think we need to get "prepared." What I suggested yesterday, I note, would also come in handy in one of those "Schulz-type" disasters, too: Find some friends!

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