Is a devastating Solar Flare coming to a city near you? : Discovery News

Flaring beast: Although life has evolved with our sun’s temper tantrums, it’s modern society’s obsession with technology that could be our undoing (NASA) — See the Discovery News slide show of our transformed view of the sun.

As NASA warns of a massive surge of solar energy potentially impacting our way of life, the mainstream press reacts, finally. However, these warnings are nothing new.

It’s no secret that the sun has been acting rather strange lately, but that’s what makes solar physics so fascinating.

SLIDE SHOW: Seeing the Sun in a New Light, The First Solar Dynamics Observatory Images

WATCH VIDEO: Piecing together how the sun’s corona works, I explain the first Solar Dynamics Observatory video of “coronal rain.” Our nearest star still remains a mystery, so there’s little wonder we have a hard job predicting what it’s going to do next. And it turns out that mankind has an acute need to predict the impact the sun has on Earth — a science called space weather prediction — due to our increased dependence on sensitive electronics we insist on putting into space.

But computer chips aboard satellites aren’t the only things we depend on. Besides losing satellite TV, national power grids are at risk too. Once a nation or region loses access to electricity for weeks, months or even years, can you imagine what might happen? I can. It wouldn’t be pretty.

As the modern world is totally at the mercy of this big, scarey, boiling mass of magnetized plasma, I’ve been surprised by the lackluster response of the mainstream press. After all, damage to our infrastructure by solar activity has happened in the past and it will happen again.

Quebec Attack

The engineers didn’t know, however, that for the last half-hour, their entire system had been under attack by powerful Earth currents. One second later, at 2:44:17 AM, these currents found a weak spot in the power grid of the Hydro-Quebec Power Authority […] the Chibougamau sub-station tripped and went off-line as harmonic currents induced by the electrojet flowing overhead, caused protective relays to sense overload conditions […] The cascading of events was much too fast for human operators to react, but it was more than enough time for 21,500 megawatts of badly needed electrical power to suddenly disappear from service. — “Space Weather”, Sten Odenwald, NASA Astronomer

The above text may sound like an excerpt from a Dan Brown novel, or an alternative opening to “War Of The Worlds”, but as excellently written by NASA’s Sten Odenwald in 2005, this is a blow-by-blow account of what happened to Quebec’s power grid in March 1989 — it was overloaded by atmospheric currents created by a massive coronal mass ejection (CME) that was blasted our way after a huge (X class) solar flare erupted on the sun.

It’s little wonder, then, that the UK’s Telegraph newspaper reacted strongly to this new NASA warning (see: “NASA warns solar flares from ‘huge space storm’ will cause devastation”).

ANALYSIS: How Does the Sun Affect the Earth?

How Bad Can It Get?

At the Space Weather Enterprise Forum 2010 held in Washington D.C. last week, scientists discussed the expected increase in solar activity toward the sun’s 11-year peak — or “solar maximum” — due in 2013. Solar maximum brings an increased frequency of solar flares and CMEs, and a few will be aimed in our direction.

But how bad will it be? Actually, although some estimates suggest that the next solar maximum will be “a doozy,” other, more recent predictions reckon the next solar max will be merely average.

Although solar flares and CMEs sound scary, it’s not actually the sun I’m concerned about. Life on Earth has been happily evolving with the sun’s waxing and waning moods for billions of years. But it’s our civilization’s hard-wiring to sensitive electronics that worries me the most.

Take last month’s “zombiesat attack” for example, when the Galaxy 15 satellite was struck by a solar flare, killing its ability to communicate with Earth. There were fears that this drifting satellite could have interrupted the final episode of LOST. (There was some low-level hysteria about the latter.)

What if a satellite carrying a critical payload (military, GPS, national communications) was knocked offline by a solar flare? What if our entire satellite network was hit by a barrage of flares and CMEs? Galaxy 15 was hit by a random high energy particle from the sun, 3 years before the predicted peak of this solar cycle, so what does the impending solar maximum have in store for us?

That is exactly the question solar physicists are trying to answer.

An Electronic Mess

“We know it is coming but we don’t know how bad it is going to be,” Richard Fisher, the director of Nasa’s Heliophysics division, told The Daily Telegraph.

“It will disrupt communication devices such as satellites and car navigations, air travel, the banking system, our computers, everything that is electronic. It will cause major problems for the world.”

“Large areas will be without electricity power and to repair that damage will be hard as that takes time.”

“Systems will just not work. The flares change the magnetic field on the earth that is rapid and like a lightning bolt. That is the solar effect.”

Although this sounds alarming, and there should be concern, the likelihood of this happening remains very low. The Telegraph used the U.K. as an example of a national power grid getting neutralized by the sun, but any nation is vulnerable.

Preparation (and Funding) is the Key

Having worked in the solar physics community, I know that this concern isn’t unfounded. Most solar research projects are working toward the common goal of understanding how our sun works so we can better predict its moods and prepare ourselves for the worst. But like many science disciplines, solar science is woefully underfunded.

As the Gulf oil spill is teaching us, we need to be better prepared for major incidents. It is becoming very clear that no emergency plan for the Deepwater Horizon disaster was sufficient and there was no contingency plan for how to mitigate the worst effects of millions of barrels of oil pumping into the ocean. Now we are stuck with a leak that continues to decimate the wildlife in the Gulf of Mexico and the U.S. is left scrabbling to find a fix.

In the case of space weather, wouldn’t it be great if, as a civilization, we could look at the sun and get advanced notice of a solar eruption? All we’d need is a few hours lead-time and we could reduce the output of national power grids (to avoid overload) and switch our satellites into “safe mode.” Once the storm has passed, we’d continue our lives as normal. Disaster averted.

Unfortunately, it often takes a disaster to teach us to prepare better in the future. I just hope the next solar maximum doesn’t teach us a lesson we can’t recover from.

"Neither Sparrows Nor Canaries" by Nahid Kabiri translated from Persian into English: Kambiz Parsay.

I`ll cut you off from the umbilical cord
of my days of past whatever

whether good happy days

or dark days of gloom

as now the facinating colors yonder

across the seperating river

beckons me in a gripping temptation

and I am so much bored

with so many depressing dark scenes here .

Eyes are for beholding beauties-

the sunflowers neighboring the rice field resonating a warming melodious murmur

all yellow all gold

or the calm flowing and ebbing of cool waves of the sea

blue blue

so soothingly blue.

I want to turn green like a grain of wheat

that the nature-loving Persians grow

in a dish before the happy event

of the new year eve

or just like these red drops of love

become warmer and more red

and still more red crazy red

with each shower of rain here

each time the bold wind talks to me in intimacy

from afar or near.

Patience and moderation is useless

with the admass

yes my dear

that`s why

I do not strut in the streets amassed with vanity

being the bird of love sunshine liveliness

and I shun the piteous side-walks where

poets have put on sale their poems of no readers

on the dull stands here and there…

The city is void of all happy twitterings songs

no sparrows or canaries here

only a couple of crows

croaking now and then on bare branches of trees-

a nostalgia in their croak.

You will see how I tear off myself

from the thick curtains and sickness-ridden sheets

of this murky hospital

and in disbelief you will see

that I will not heed the red light

on the embarrassed whistles of the traffic police

and I will go forth

determind and resolute

my comb my rouge

and my broken vial of perfume

all with me in the trespass.

Don`t worry for me

I`ll give birth to my baby

in the shelter of the thick wheat crops

younder there

on the gold of the other wing of sunshine.

Product Description

There are seven billion-plus humans crowding the surface of 21st century Earth. It is an age of intelligent computers, mass-market psychedelic drugs, politics conducted by assassination, scientists who burn incense to appease volcanoes … all the hysteria of a dangerously overcrowded world, portrayed in a dazzlingly inventive style.

About the Author

* #15 in the Millennium SF Masterworks series, a library of the finest science fiction ever written

* Winner of the Hugo Award, the British Science Fiction Award and the Prix Apollo.

* ‘It’s time for a new generation to read it’ Joe Haldeman

73 of 75 people found the following review helpful:

5.0 out of 5 stars A heady collage and futuristic homage to Dos Passos, April 16, 2004

By D. Cloyce Smith (Brooklyn, NY) – See all my reviews

(TOP 500 REVIEWER)

This review is from: Stand on Zanzibar (Paperback)

British writer John Brunner’s novel, first published in 1969 (when it won both the Hugo and British Science Fiction awards, and four years later, the French Prix Apollo), is certainly one of the most literary, complex, challenging, even difficult works of science fiction written during the twentieth century. Yet, in spite of the hurdles it may present some readers, the book manages also to be fast-paced and hysterically funny.

One of the triumphs of Brunner’s book is that it can be read on any number of levels, which is probably why it seems to resonate with readers of extraordinarily divergent tastes. Having read it twice (once as a bookwormish Valley brat and now twenty-odd years later as a still-bookwormish publishing professional), I am not surprised that this book might be entirely different beasts to different readers; the enthralling, bewildering thriller I remembered from my adolescence has somehow transformed itself into a darkly sardonic political and social commentary–and I like both versions just fine.

The novel is not, at first, an easy read. Its “unique” jump-cut/collage structure, its pseudo-hip prose style, its fabricated lingo–all are modeled rather precisely on John Dos Passos’s classic American classic trilogy, “U.S.A.” Like Dos Passos, Brunner interlaces chapters in several strands. The bulk of the storyline appears in the “Continuity” chapters, which detail the misadventures of secret agent Donald Hogan and corporate executive Norman House, and the “Tracking with Closeups” chapters, which describe two dozen characters who are peripheral to the action. The other two strands–“Context” and “The Happening World”–provide background material (film descriptions, encyclopedia entries, song lyrics, document excerpts, advertising jingles, news stories, etc.) that catalog a world drowning in both information overload and an excess of people who would no longer be able to stand “on the island of Zanzibar without some of them being over ankles in the sea.” Much of the novel revolves around how various nations and individuals deal with the perceived need to limit births both in number and in quality. (A helpful hint to the baffled reader: “Read the Directions,” the first chapter in “The Happening World” sequence, serves as both a dramatis personae and a jargon decoder.)

After the first 75 pages or so, once you’re accustomed to the pace, the book is smooth sailing; it’s as much a novel to be admired as enjoyed. And it’s one of the most wickedly, playfully funny books ever written–in any genre. The plot is far too complicated to attempt to summarize here; suffice it to say that Donald is trying to thwart a potentially dangerous and politically volatile eugenics program and Norman is struggling to increase his company’s profits while simultaneously enriching an underdeveloped yet perplexingly peaceful African nation.

The two plots seem disconnected, yet at heart is the juxtaposition of naked greed and dignified idealism, of selfishness and altruism, of capitalism and communalism, of totalitarianism and anarchy. (At times, the overt political and sociological messages recall Le Guin’s “The Dispossessed.”) Or, as the character Chad Mulligan puts it in one of his sociological treatises, “applying the yardstick of extremism leads one to conclude that the human species is unlikely to last very long.” Yet Brunner avoids the trap of losing himself in the hopelessness of his nightmarish world; instead, the resilience of human ingenuity and the vision for a better world still stand a chance, even on Zanzibar.

Product Description

When young Sanych elTiera began her Archivist Quest in search of a legendary heroine who might not exist, she thought she knew what to expect. Being swept up in a centuries-old power struggle over a magical tome with the ability to control the world wasn’t on her list.

Now the Shanallar, whose hand has shaped the histories of countless realms, is on a mission to destroy the dreaded Dire Tome in order to prevent an ancient cult from unleashing the ancient book’s magic. Unfortunately, Geret Branbrey Valan, nephew of the Lord High Magister of Vint and leader of the expedition, has a distinctly different agenda regarding the Dire Tome. Even the motives of the arrogant nobleman Salvor Thelios may not be what they seem.

When the quest for the Dire Tome is beset by horrific assaults from without—and treachery from within—both its future, and that of everyone involved, is thrust into jeopardy.

Does the Shanallar have one more heroic tale in her, or will this epic endeavor be her final undoing?

About the Author

Extraordinary new author Jasmine Giacomo brings over twenty years of fantasy-writing experience to her thrilling debut novel, The Wicked Heroine. Full of adventure, exotic locales, intrigues and edge-of-your-seat drama, this book will have you salivating for the gripping conclusion to the Legend of the Shanallar duology, Oathen!

Truly epic and delightful!, April 30, 2010

By G. Huntman “gezza” (Australia)
This review is from: The Wicked Heroine: Legend of the Shanallar Duology Book One (Paperback)

I had the pleasure of reading this before publication, and I can honestly say that Jasmine’s novel is outstanding. It has all the qualities of a classic fantasy – quests, conflicts, betrayals, magic, evil, goodness, and so forth. And yet, she has her own inimical style, a true sense of humor and the sardonic. Well done Jasmine! and I truly look forward to the second and last book of the series.

The end of the world as we know it…

Apocalyptic thought has a tradition that dates to the Persian prophet Zoroaster in the 14th century BC. Recently, anxiety has grown over the prediction of the end of the world in the Mayan calendar.

It’s true that the Mayan odometer will hit zeros on 21 December 2012, as it reaches the end of a 394-year cycle called a baktun. But this baktun is part of a larger 8,000-year cycle called a pictun, and there’s no evidence that anything astronomically untoward will happen as the current baktun slides into the next. However, that hasn’t stopped the feverish speculating that sells books and cinema tickets.

What kind of catastrophe would it take to end the world? Astronomical intruders provide a potentially serious threat. Impacts can be caused by stray rubble from the Asteroid Belt and the rocky snowballs that travel in highly elliptical orbits in the comet cloud. There are many fewer large bits of debris than small bits, so the interval between large impacts is much longer than the interval between small impacts.

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That’s good news. Every century or so, a 10-meter meteor slams into the Earth with the force of a small nuclear device. Tunguska was the site of the last, in 1908, and it was pure luck that that meteor landed in the uninhabited wilderness of Siberia. Every few thousand years, Earth can pass through unusually thick parts of the debris trail of comets, turning the familiar light show of a meteor shower into a deadly firestorm. Roughly every 100,000 years, a projectile hundreds of meters across unleashes power equal to the world’s nuclear arsenals. The result is devastation over an area the size of England, global tidal waves (if the impact is in the ocean), and enough dust flung into the atmosphere to dim the Sun and kill off vegetation. That could ruin your day.

Then there’s the “Big One”. About every 100 million years, a rock the size of a small asteroid slams into the Earth, causing global earthquakes, kilometre-high tidal waves, and immediately killing all large land animals. Creatures in the sea soon follow, as trillions of tons of vaporised rock cause drastic cooling and the destruction of the food chain based on photosynthesis. There’s good evidence that this happened 65 million years ago and our tiny mammal ancestors were the beneficiaries as the giant lizards were extinguished.

A hundred million years sounds like a safe buffer, but the next one could happen at any time. But you can take it off your worry list – astronomers have it covered. A network of ground-based telescopes scans the skies for bits of rogue rubble larger than a few hundred meters. That’s ample time to dust off the nuclear arsenals for an interception mission if we had to. Unfortunately, the Dr Strangelove approach creates lethal shrapnel travelling in the same direction as the original object; a smarter strategy is to send a spacecraft alongside it and gently “tug” it with gravity onto a slightly different trajectory.

When massive stars exhaust their nuclear fuel, the result is a titanic explosion called a supernova. The dying star brightens to rival an entire galaxy and emits high-energy particles that can destroy the ozone layer of a planet like Earth if it occurs within 30 light years. The demise of large North American mammals 41,000 years ago has been linked to a supernova, and several other mini-extinctions may be tied to the cataclysm of stellar death.

A supernova is a small squib compared to a hypernova. In this dramatic and rare event, the violent collapse of a very massive star ejects jets of gas and high-energy particles at close to the speed of light, and for a few moments the star outshines the entire universe in gamma rays.

If a hypernova went off within 1,000 light years, and Earth was within the narrow cone of high- energy radiation, we’d experience an immediate global conflagration. It’s brutal luck if a hyper nova ever goes off with its beam aimed at us.

On longer time scales, attention turns to the sheltering Sun. Our constant companion is midway through its conversion of hydrogen into helium. In about 5 billion years, its guttering flame will be extinguished. The Sun’s diffuse envelope will engulf the Earth and turn it into a lifeless cinder. This is death by stellar cremation.

If that seems like a comfortably distant prospect, the biosphere will actually die much sooner. The Sun burns hot as it gets older, and in 500 million years a turbocharged version of global warming will turn the Earth into a global desert.

That gives us plenty of time to find better real estate. Titan looks promising. It already has the nitrogen – just add oxygen and presto! Our second home. And those wild-eyed rocket scientists who want to save us from asteroids have a thrilling plan up their sleeves: deliberately bring an asteroid in close, and with each pass it will transfer a little energy to the Earth and nudge it further from the Sun. After a few million close calls we’ll have migrated to a more hospitable orbit.

*****

Stars come and go but galaxies seem eternal. A galaxy like the Milky Way acts like it has all the time in the world. Its spiral arms are cauldrons where new stars form out of gas that falls in like a fine rain from intergalactic space. Stars like the Sun will some day die, but in Orion and Taurus freshly minted stars are switching on for the first time. The bright fizz of supernovae is a sideshow; most stars die modestly and leave behind fading embers. Stellar lifetime is a strong function of mass because low mass stars are misers with their hydrogen. The lowest mass stars will eke out a dim existence for over a trillion years.

The end of the Milky Way will come slowly, in a stellar lockdown. Massive stars live short lives and die explosively as supernovae – leaving behind a neutron star or a black hole, neither of which emits any light. Stars like the Sun and those less massive will die as white dwarfs – that is, as slowly cooling, carbon-rich embers. Gradually the cycle of star birth and death will be irrevocably broken. More and more mass will be trapped in compact stellar remnants or cooling white dwarfs. In galaxies across the universe the lights will gradually go out, and after tens of trillions of years the universe will have faded to black. But as bleak as it sounds, the end of starlight doesn’t mean life must end.

A star shines by converting a tiny proportion of the energy locked in pure matter into radiation. The ultimate source of starlight is gravitational energy. There are many ways other than fusion to turn gravitational energy into heat or radiation, so even after the stars have all faded enterprising civilisations could live by harnessing the energy of black holes. New artificial stars could be created if nostalgia dictated.

*****

Fifteen years ago, it was discovered that the cosmic expansion is getting faster. The cause is inferred to be dark energy – a manifestation of the pure vacuum of space that has an effect opposite to gravity: it repels rather than attracts. Its existence was indicated by the fact that distant supernovae are fainter than expected in a decelerating universe. Dark energy is an embarrassment: fundamental theories don’t predict it, and no one knows how a pure vacuum can have such a bizarre property.

In some theories, dark energy is not the cosmological “constant” of Einstein’s original formulation, but varies over time and space. If dark energy grows, it will cause the universe to unravel in about 20 billion years in a crescendo called the “Big Rip”. First galaxies, then stars, and finally atoms will be torn asunder by dark energy. Nothing can survive; it’s an outcome of crushing finality.

Absent the big rip, cosmic acceleration will steadily remove galaxies from view. After 100 billion years, most galaxies will recede faster than the speed of light, leaving frozen final images on the edge of our horizon as if at the boundary of a black hole. The Milky Way and Andromeda galaxies will merge and our view of the universe will end at the edge of this super-galaxy. On even longer time scales, familiar gravitational structures become unglued. In about 10^15 years, planets detach from their dead stars and drift through interstellar space. In about 10^19 years stars detach from galaxies and float off into intergalactic space. In most theories that unify fundamental particles in terms of a single super-force, the proton is not stable and will decay in something like 10^35 years. This vast time scale is to the age of the universe what the age of the universe is to a millisecond.

The decay of protons heralds a final drawn-out phase of disintegration in the universe, as everything falls apart. After protons decay, there are no stable atoms, presenting a challenge for life. The curtain falls with the slow evaporation of black holes by a process called Hawking radiation. The largest black holes evaporate on the inconceivable time scale of 10^98 years. We imagine the last inhabitants of the universe huddled around the evaporative glow of gamma rays from the last black hole, telling timeless stories about time. It was fun while it lasted.

How It Ends: From You to the Universe by Chris Impey is published in hardback by Norton (£18.99). To order a copy for the special price of £16.99 (free P&P) call Independent Books Direct on 08430 600 030, or visit http://www.independentbooksdirect.co.uk

Playing the Game

Sitting here watching the ‘World Cup’, the only time I show the least bit of interest in the world of Soccer, I have to make the following observations:

1. The so-called leading soccer nations are being taught a lesson in playing the game by the other teams, for the game’s sake.

2. The commentators here in the UK are deeply cynical towards every team that is not included in their perceived world of ‘Soccer Nations’.

3. England’s abiding notion that because they host the ‘Premier League’, in their eyes, it follows England will win the ‘World Cup’, beggar’s belief.

4. As I write this, the host nation South Africa leads France by 2 goals in Group A. If ever there was a team that personifies the true meaning of “playing the game”, then it clearly is South Africa.