Wednesday, December 19, 2012

Space - It's Genuinely Scary Out There

On many of the sites aimed at those trying to be more self reliant and self sufficient, people talk about solar flares causing global catastrophes.  It's a topic I've written about several times, because I believe that while the danger is real - in the sense that flares are real and really big ones are capable of causing damage here on the Earth - the media and (strangely)  NASA itself over hypes them. 

The granddaddy solar flare of all time has, until very recently, been regarded as the Carrington Event in 1859, the dawn of the telegraph age. The event was witnessed in real time by British astronomer Richard Christopher Carrington.
"Two patches of intensely bright and white light broke out," he later wrote. Carrington puzzled over the flashes. "My first impression was that by some chance a ray of light had penetrated a hole in the screen attached to the object-glass," he explained, given that "the brilliancy was fully equal to that of direct sun-light."
Note that these flashes were so much brighter than the projected image of the sun in his dark room that he thought daylight was somehow getting into the room.  The story itself is amazing.  That evening, when the Coronal Mass Ejection hit, telegraph operators were able to run without batteries; the flare-induced voltages on their wires working better than batteries.  The aurora display was global, even in the deep tropics.

If such a flare were to happen today, I believe it would take out the power grid on at least the hemisphere facing the sun when the CME hit.  What we have in our favor is that our modern monitoring systems would allow grid operators to shut down some to all of their gear: force the world into a black out, so that the equipment could be reconnected when the storm was over. 

Now comes a story that there appears to have been a flare that could have been 20 times stronger than the Carrington event. 
Everybody loves a good “whodunit?” How else could you explain the number of television shows with the prefix “CSI”? So when a study in Nature identified a previously unknown (and very large) spike in carbon-14 around the year 774 AD, it raised a lot of eyebrows. This radioactive isotope of carbon is created when energetic particles from beyond the Earth transform atmospheric nitrogen to a form of carbon with two neutrons more than the most common isotope.
There are a couple of known mechanisms for creating C14 in the atmosphere, one is a massive solar flare.  774 AD was 600 years or so before the first telescopes were used, so there was no Carrington to be watching.
So when a college student from UC-SD found a record of a “red crucifix” in the skies over Britain in that year, Nature published his note.
The story diverges a bit here, because the original group who tried to calculate how big a flare would have to be to cause the measured amount of carbon-14 in tree rings made a mistake and ended up with a preposterous result, 1000 times bigger than Carrington's granddaddy flare. 
A pair of researchers from Washburn University and the University of Kansas published a comment in Nature pointing out that the solar flare calculations included a rather fundamental error. Working backwards from the intensity required to produce the right amount of carbon-14 in Earth’s atmosphere, they mistakenly calculated the total size of the event as if the flare was emitted in all directions from the Sun, forming an expanding bubble of charged particles.
CMEs, are fairly localized, so the amount of spread would be much less than calculated and a powerful enough flare much smaller than the original calculations.  These researchers derive a number closer to 20x the size of Carrington's flare. 

A flare this size is genuinely scary; I don't know how much bigger it would be than the one pictured here, from November 2003, the largest flare observed since the space age began, but it would fry an entire hemisphere's grids, and if the grids are connected better than I think, would plunge the entire world into darkness.  I don't know if anyone on the Space Station could survive that. 
You can put together an entire catalog of potential TEOTWAKI disasters: a flare like this, a super volcano like Toba or Yellowstone, a nearby supernova, and more.   Something like any of those things or these mega flares is highly unlikely (yeah, I disagree strongly with this and briefly explained why here). 

But you know how a bunch of those UN Agenda 21 freaks want to kill off 95% of the humans on earth?   This just might do it.


drjim said...

It would definitely kill the crew of the ISS.
I think at the most it could kill a continental grid, as there isn't any grid connection between North America and Europe, for example.

Still, I wouldn't want to be on the side of the Earth it slammed in to!

Penny Pincher Personal Finance said...

There is, as you are probably aware, some woo out there about humans becoming telepathic on 12/21/12 en masse.

One of these woo sites claims that the carbon in our bodies will become a different kind of carbon, like carbon-6 going to carbon-12 or something like that. Your article made me remember that theory. Not that I believe the theory, just it jogged my memory.

Happy last day of the Kali Yuga y'all!

GreyBeard said...

"So when a college student from UC-SD found a record of a “red crucifix” in the skies over Britain in that year, Nature published his note."

I was "quick reading" this article, (I'm old and tired). But the above quote, jerked me awake.

I don't have the actual date, but maybe 20-25 years ago, my wife and I observed a RED CRUCIFIX lined with green, in the sky over our home in the Michigan woods. It covered the entire visible sky, with the tall lines running East and West. It lastest long enough for us to call her sister 7 miles away, and have her look up and see it too. We always though it was some sort of Northern Lights?