Saturday, July 6, 2013

X-Events: Are We Ready For Them?

The CME captured by the Solar Dynamics and Heliospheric Observatory in February. Such solar energetic eruptions could cause multiple X-Events.

In the book  X Events – The Collapse of Everything, author John Casti casts a wide net to consider just about every conceivable event that could bring modern civilization to its knees. The events include: global pandemic, collapse of global financial markets, failure of the electric power grid and access to clean water, drying up of world oil supplies. The top three include: widespread failure of the internet, breakdown of the global food supply and a continent-wide EMP (electro-magnetic pulse) that destroys all electronics, communications. As I scanned through these I couldn’t help but think of one single event that could cause four of them. That event? A solar coronal mass ejection (CME).

As an example, consider the CME that erupted in February, shown in the above image. It was captured by the Solar and Heliospheric Observatory (see graphic) as it shot away from the Sun at 800 km/s. Fortunately, the bulk of the ejected mass sailed over the Earth’s north pole. At the time also warned of a chance of a glancing blow. Had it occurred high latitude observers on Earth would have seen brilliant auroras, and possibly one or more power grids knocked out such as occurred in Quebec in 1989 after a giant solar flare.

A direct central meridian -solar originating flare and CME would be a different matter entirely. In a 2010 episode (‘Magnetic Storms’) of the series ‘The Universe’ on the Science channel, the initial sequence featured a March, 2013 central meridian CME event which also triggered brilliant auroras, as far south as Cuba. Being of solar central meridian origin it delivered a head on blow to Earth, that knocked out the entire power grid of the U.S. and every single transformer.

The result depicted power loss (grids knocked out) across the U.S. No water, since water in your taps requires electricity to pump it, and no fuel either or gasoline, since gas stations also require electricity to effect pumping. What kind of life would await? Take another gander at those images after superstorm Sandy struck NY and NJ in November, 2012. Long lines for fuel, squabbles over position in lines, fights, and even supermarkets going out of business. In other words, no food either! Such a CME would also knock out GPS and communications satellites, and that would wreak even more havoc (including no cell phones). Computer networks everywhere would go down, and without electricity – computers would become museum pieces and clean water a luxury. At least two of the X–Events would have already manifested.

The episode projected some 10-15 million dead since the power wouldn’t be able to come back for years, given all the infrastructure would need to be rebuilt, including transformers, power stations, etc. Imagine then a nation with no power to speak of, hundreds of millions without food, only limited canned stores – if they have that, no water, and no way to access critical emergency networks or services. The most vulnerable, as in the case of Sandy, would be the elderly, and sick.

The end of modern civilization? NO, just one. But the episode then went further to conceive an even worse scenario: a CME striking at exactly the time when the Earth’s geomagnetic poles are in mid-reversal. With such a reversal there’d be days or weeks with no magnetic field to protect us from the full brunt of high energy solar particles so the entire planet would be affected with up to 2-3 billion dead as a result of all the power knockouts, the starvation to follow, the mayhem. The ‘End of the World’? Technically no, but many would think so!

By now at least four of the X-Events, any one of which is putatively a civilization killer, are manifest.

Will any of us be ready when this type of event occurs? I doubt it. Fortunately, the worst case scenario of a global catastrophe is remote, even lower than a major asteroid hit. However, a localized catastrophe – say affecting one continent- is definitely within the realm of probability. Will the U.S. – if severely affected- get the recovery help it needs from the rest of the world? Let’s hope so, but let’s also hope that by the time such an X-event occurs the U.S. becomes less of a bully and would attract assistance and aid and not be ignored.  The best formula for that remains JFK's prescription of putting away delusions of  "Pax Americana", i.e. trying to rule the world using American threats and weapons of war.

Who knows, this superpower may need the non-superpower world one day! If it wants maximum assistance in such parlous times, it better mind its global manners now!

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