Hey, the way you contextualize your existence is up to you. Do you think there’s a giant magic clerk in the sky, registering your every deed? Good luck with that. Do you think a vast and immane oneness accounts for everything from distant quantum weirdness to human ethics? All right then. Do you think alien ghosts occupy each of us and the only way to tame them is to buy truckloads of self-help literature? Rock on, Tom Cruise.
The thing is, there are tangible objects in the sky that, in the end, hardly apply to whatever framework you’re carrying around to make it through the day. Take for example the brightest one above your head, the nuclear fusion reactor we call the Sun.
Unlike most features of human belief systems, the sun does its thing visibly, objectively. Not only is the sun visible, if you stare at it, it will be the last thing you see. In marked contrast to human constructs such as guilt, fear, or Church of Scientology legal defense, our 93 million miles of distance from it is no protection against its power. Good thing too, given that its power is the same that allows us to not die on a cold rock in space.
As visible as it is, our relationship with it is a hidden, delicate balance. No matter what we believe, the fact is sometimes the sun believes it’s a good idea to belch up vast quantities of charged particles, particles that carry enough electrical charge to shut off whole swaths of civilization.
Understanding things that can kill all of us is a good idea. Which is why we fund efforts to do so with public money, and fight off political attacks on that funding by retrograde illiterates such as Republican Governor Bobby Jindal, who recently scoffed at $140 million in funding for the Alaskan volcano monitoring that saved lives and gave early warning last week of an eruption. (Mr. Jindal has not as yet died of embarrassment, although one can hope.)
Politically speaking, we are again turning away from the natural world, thanks to a pervasive culture that denies the very existence of a public interest. A recent publication, covered in New Scientist magazine reminds us of a critical human construct that would be whipped in any fight against the sun. I mean the electrical power grid, upon which my words rode to get to your eyeballs.
As this grid has grown in size and capacity, and our dependence on it has increased accordingly, it has receded in our consciousness and is taken largely for granted. No public spending could ever change that phenomenon, but it is true that the Sun’s special ability to wipe out the electrical grid via solar storm activity calls for special effort on our part to monitor and buy time for us, just like any weather monitoring does. The Sun’s periodic blasting our planet with its charged particles can be mitigated to some degree by solar monitoring – monitoring the Jindals and Palins of the world sneer at even as they trudge through ankle-high drifts of volcanic ash.
We’ve got a satellite up there watching for exactly this, but it’s breaking down. Faced with its replcement, once again, in a culture overly influenced by pious ignoramuses, the scientists struggle for the words they shouldn’t even need to speak. Who is listening?
By far the most important indicator of incoming space weather is NASA’s Advanced Composition Explorer (ACE). The probe, launched in 1997, has a solar orbit that keeps it directly between the sun and Earth. Its uninterrupted view of the sun means it gives us continuous reports on the direction and velocity of the solar wind and other streams of charged particles that flow past its sensors. ACE can provide between 15 and 45 minutes’ warning of any incoming geomagnetic storms. The power companies need about 15 minutes to prepare their systems for a critical event, so that would seem passable.15 minutes’ warning
However, observations of the sun and magnetometer readings during the Carrington event shows that the coronal mass ejection was travelling so fast it took less than 15 minutes to get from where ACE is positioned to Earth. “It arrived faster than we can do anything,” Hapgood says.
There is another problem. ACE is 11 years old, and operating well beyond its planned lifespan. The onboard detectors are not as sensitive as they used to be, and there is no telling when they will finally give up the ghost. Furthermore, its sensors become saturated in the event of a really powerful solar flare. “It was built to look at average conditions rather than extremes,” Baker says.
He was part of a space weather commission that three years ago warned about the problems of relying on ACE. “It’s been on my mind for a long time,” he says. “To not have a spare, or a strategy to replace it if and when it should fail, is rather foolish.”
There is no replacement for ACE due any time soon. Other solar observation satellites, such as the Solar and Heliospheric Observatory (SOHO) can provide some warning, but with less detailed information and – crucially – much later. “It’s quite hard to assess what the impact of losing ACE will be,” Hapgood says. “We will largely lose the early warning capability.”
The world will, most probably, yawn at the prospect of a devastating solar storm until it happens. Kintner says his students show a “deep indifference” when he lectures on the impact of space weather. But if policy-makers show a similar indifference in the face of the latest NAS report, it could cost tens of millions of lives, Kappenman reckons. “It could conceivably be the worst natural disaster possible,” he says.
The report outlines the worst case scenario for the US. The “perfect storm” is most likely on a spring or autumn night in a year of heightened solar activity – something like 2012. Around the equinoxes, the orientation of the Earth’s field to the sun makes us particularly vulnerable to a plasma strike.
What’s more, at these times of year, electricity demand is relatively low because no one needs too much heating or air conditioning. With only a handful of the US grid’s power stations running, the system relies on computer algorithms shunting large amounts of power around the grid and this leaves the network highly vulnerable to sudden spikes.
If ACE has failed by then, or a plasma ball flies at us too fast for any warning from ACE to reach us, the consequences could be staggering. “A really large storm could be a planetary disaster,” Kappenman says.
So what should be done? No one knows yet – the report is meant to spark that conversation. Baker is worried, though, that the odds are stacked against that conversation really getting started. As the NAS report notes, it is terribly difficult to inspire people to prepare for a potential crisis that has never happened before and may not happen for decades to come. “It takes a lot of effort to educate policy-makers, and that is especially true with these low-frequency events,” he says.
We should learn the lessons of hurricane Katrina, though, and realise that “unlikely” doesn’t mean “won’t happen”. Especially when the stakes are so high. The fact is, it could come in the next three or four years – and with devastating effects. “The Carrington event happened during a mediocre, ho-hum solar cycle,” Kintner says. “It came out of nowhere, so we just don’t know when something like that is going to happen again.”