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Plausible Apocalypse

This post is also available in: German

I watched “Knowing” on a free movie internet database site. It’s about a kid from 50 years ago who predicts the future with dates and locations for tragic events that hadn’t yet occurred. The end times event prophecied by the kid is a giant solar flare that literally scorches the earth to a crisp. It was a silly but entertaining movie.

I wondered about the odds of such an event happening, and if a real life rogue monster solar flare would cause the worldwide firestorm depicted in the movie. Then I read this:

Over the last few decades, western civilisations have busily sown the seeds of their own destruction. Our modern way of life, with its reliance on technology, has unwittingly exposed us to an extraordinary danger: plasma balls spewed from the surface of the sun could wipe out our power grids, with catastrophic consequences.

The projections of just how catastrophic make chilling reading. “We’re moving closer and closer to the edge of a possible disaster,” says Daniel Baker, a space weather expert based at the University of Colorado in Boulder, and chair of the NAS committee responsible for the report.

It is hard to conceive of the sun wiping out a large amount of our hard-earned progress. Nevertheless, it is possible. The surface of the sun is a roiling mass of plasma – charged high-energy particles – some of which escape the surface and travel through space as the solar wind. From time to time, that wind carries a billion-tonne glob of plasma, a fireball known as a coronal mass ejection. If one should hit the Earth’s magnetic shield, the result could be truly devastating.

A coronal mass ejection causing the deaths of tens of millions? Yes, but not by firestorm. By a total disruption of services.

The second problem is the [electricity] grid’s interdependence with the systems that support our lives: water and sewage treatment, supermarket delivery infrastructures, power station controls, financial markets and many others all rely on electricity. Put the two together, and it is clear that a repeat of the Carrington event could produce a catastrophe the likes of which the world has never seen.

[…]

First to go – immediately for some people – is drinkable water. Anyone living in a high-rise apartment, where water has to be pumped to reach them, would be cut off straight away. For the rest, drinking water will still come through the taps for maybe half a day. With no electricity to pump water from reservoirs, there is no more after that.

There is simply no electrically powered transport: no trains, underground or overground. Our just-in-time culture for delivery networks may represent the pinnacle of efficiency, but it means that supermarket shelves would empty very quickly – delivery trucks could only keep running until their tanks ran out of fuel, and there is no electricity to pump any more from the underground tanks at filling stations.

Back-up generators would run at pivotal sites – but only until their fuel ran out. For hospitals, that would mean about 72 hours of running a bare-bones, essential care only, service. After that, no more modern healthcare.

The article goes on to describe more nightmarish consequences of an unanticipated CME. And how difficult and time-consuming it is to replace the transformers fried by a massive solar plasma ball of death. Our entire way of life — the decadence of our modern economy — would begin to grind to a halt within days of the event. You wouldn’t even be able to recharge your Ipod. The SWPLs would be running around useless like chickens with their heads cut off.

Right now, the only countermeasure we have is NASA’s ACE orbiter probe which can relay information about solar activity to earth with 15- 45 minutes of warning of any incoming solar storms. But this probe is old and failing. And a huge CME can travel much faster than a typical geomagnetic storm, leaving our power companies with too little warning to prepare by either shutting down or re-routing the electrical systems.

This should be a priority for NASA before any manned space flights to Mars. I don’t want my Quake Live interrupted.

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