Saturday, August 28, 2010

Yo, NASA! Can We Knock Off the Solar Storm Scare Tactics?

I'm talking about this:
Melbourne, Aug 26 (ANI): Astronomers are predicting that a massive solar storm, much bigger in potential than the one that caused spectacular light shows on Earth earlier this month, is to strike our planet in 2012 with a force of 100 million hydrogen bombs.
Honestly: this article is 99% garbage.  100 million hydrogen bombs?  Would those be 10 kiloton bombs or 10 Megaton bombs?  They're taking advantage of the fact that people are (in general) woefully ignorant of the forces in nature.  A typical hurricane will release 200 times the electrical energy generated in the entire world every day.  A hurricane has hundreds of times the energy of a hydrogen bomb. A typical CME puts hundreds of times of that energy (Gigaton bombs) into our magnetosphere, and the most it does is cause pretty lights at night. 

It's bad form to copy the whole article here and thoroughly fisk it, but let me address just a few highlights.  What are my qualifications?  I'm an amateur astronomer, solar observer, someone who tracks solar cycles and tracks solar activity.  When they say,
Several US media outlets have reported that NASA was warning the massive flare this month was just a precursor to a massive solar storm building that had the potential to wipe out the entire planet's power grid.
Despite its rebuttal, NASA's been watching out for this storm since 2006 and reports from the US this week claim the storms could hit on that most Hollywood of disaster dates - 2012.
there's an implication that a particularly bad storm has been building.  They don't work that way.  Solar storms are short lived events, caused by solar flares and coronal mass ejections. Nothing happening today will cause a storm in more than a few days or weeks at most.  Even worse, it implies flares and CMEs can be predicted years in advance.  There is no known way to predict them beyond knowing that they're associated with more activity, and visible sunspots.  All they're saying is that solar maximum is coming. Like it does every 11 years (on average) for as long as we've been aware of solar cycles.

Solar flares and CMEs happen all the time, even during solar minima. Earlier in the month, on another solar flare scare story, I said,
See, solar flares vary over orders of magnitude in size.  The smallest go from C1 to C10.  Next up, M class flares also go from a 1 to a 10.  Finally, the biggest flares are X class or X-ray flares.  There's no top to that scale, but in the peak of the last solar cycle, back around 2003, X class flares were hitting every month.  An X10 flare hitting directly can make auroras visible in the southern US.  A monumental flare in 2003 made them visible in north central Florida.  I have heard a big flare in the previous cycle (1990s) caused an aurora visible in the Caribbean.
 The original Australian article says,
"The general consensus among general astronomers (and certainly solar astronomers) is that this coming Solar maximum (2012 but possibly later into 2013) will be the most violent in 100 years," quoted astronomy lecturer and columnist Dave Reneke as saying.
I'd like to find out who has that opinion.  The cycle we are currently starting (Cycle 24 - they got that right) is coming out of the lowest solar minimum in over 100 years.  Nobody that I've seen thinks this cycle is going to be even average in strength, let alone "the most violent in 100 years".  The current activity is still well below predictions:

What you can't see in that plot is that the predicted start and peak of the next cycle was shifted to right every few months through all of 2008 and 2009.  We went through more days with zero solar activity in '08 and '09 than any stretch since 1913, and the cycle "refused to start" when they said it would.  You can see from that chart that the predicted peak (in Spring of '13, not 2012) is well below the peak of the last cycle, which wasn't as strong as the one before it.  Actually, there's a respectable number of physicists who think this peak will be much lower than average.
It will be the weakest solar cycle since Solar Cycle 6, the second half of the Dalton Minimum (1810 to 1823). Solar Cycle 5 had a maximum amplitude of 49.2 and Solar Cycle 6 of 48.7.
Is it possible for a solar CME to do the things they talk about? Absolutely. How likely? There has been one CME since 1900 that damaged parts of the grid (it shut down power in Quebec) and that was in the last peak of the 1990s (1996?).  It's not precise to say expect it to happen once in a hundred years, but probably close enough for discussion.  If you own a satellite, you can shut it down when a big CME is coming because you see the flare and ejection when they happen (ignoring that the light takes 8 minutes to get here from the sun) while the particles from the CME take a couple of days to get here.   

These government goons are trying to show us how important they are so that they can raise funds. They're trying to get us to say, "Oh, no! Don't cut our budget, cut something else!"


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