Do-Nothing Congress Ignores Threat from the Sun


A Slashdot contributor gazes up into the firmament and is frozen with horror at the madness dwelling in the deep skyey voids: 

A privately employed solar scientist named Pete Riley estimates there's a 12 percent chance of a massive solar storm comparable to the Carrington Event in 1859 which resulted in breathtaking aurorae across the United States and other temperate regions of the globe. The electromagnetic surge from the 1859 event caused failures of telegraph systems across Europe and North America. A similar storm today could knock out power grids, GPS and communication satellites, data centers, transportation systems, and building and plumbing infrastructures and wreak $1 trillion or more of economic damage in the first year alone, according to a 2008 report from the National Academy of Sciences.

In the journal Space Weather, Riley explains how he got his figures:

By showing that the frequency of occurrence scales as an inverse power of the severity of the event, and assuming that this relationship holds at higher magnitudes, we are able to estimate the probability that an event larger than some criteria will occur within a certain interval of time in the future. For example, the probability of another Carrington event (based on Dst < ?850 nT) occurring within the next decade is ?12%

At Wired, Adam Mann has details on the Great Chastisement

When they hit the Earth's atmosphere, those [solar particles traveling at 4 million MPH] generated the intense ghostly ribbons of light known as auroras. Though typically relegated to the most northerly and southerly parts of the planet, the atmospheric phenomenon [in 1859] reached as far as Cuba, Hawaii, and northern Chile. People in New York City gathered on sidewalks and rooftops to watch "the heavens … arrayed in a drapery more gorgeous than they have been for years," as The New York Times described it.

Auroras may be beautiful, but the charged particles can wreak havoc on electrical systems. At the time of the Carrington Event, telegraph stations caught on fire, their networks experienced major outages and magnetic observatories recorded disturbances in the Earth's field that were literally off the scale.

In today's electrically dependent modern world, a similar scale solar storm could have catastrophic consequences. Auroras damage electrical power grids and may contribute to the erosion of oil and gas pipelines. They can disrupt GPS satellites and disturb or even completely black out radio communication on Earth.

During a geomagnetic storm in 1989, for instance, Canada's Hydro-Quebec power grid collapsed within 90 seconds, leaving millions without power for up to nine hours… 

 "A longer-term outage would likely include, for example, disruption of the transportation, communication, banking, and finance systems, and government services; the breakdown of the distribution of potable water owing to pump failure; and the loss of perishable foods and medications because of lack of refrigeration," the [National Research Council] report said.

A one-in-eight chance seems much higher than, for example, the likelihood of a chemical/biological/radiological/nuclear attack estimated in this Risk Management Solutions study [pdf].

Yet we spend $60 billion a year on the Department of Homeland Security, and we have yet to send even the first star cruiser to deliver a weather-controlling machine to the surface of the sun. When will the government do something about the electromagnetic pulse? 

When Newt Gingrich becomes president, that's when! The Newter has been warning us about the EMP threat for years now. But the former House Speaker's fears are limited to terrorist EMP attacks by North Koreans or Iranians, who are always using their high-yield nuclear weapons and state-of-the-art ballistic missiles to do stuff like that. 

Once again, the wages of fear get spent on low-probability threats mainly because the high-probability threats tend to be events you can't blame on anybody. You don't have to accept at face value all those studies that conclude you have a better chance of being crushed under a vending machine than of being killed in a terrorist attack – and who says you can't be crushed under a vending machine during a terrorist attack? But as our collective boredom with fast zombies and bathroom accidents shows, we tend not to fear the stuff that can actually kill us. 

Fortunately for America, one man is ever-vigilant about the extraterrestrial threat. Reason's Ron Bailey assesses the threat of an asteroid collision; weighs the probability of a collision over time; and wonders why being freed of the burden of putting people into space has not made NASA any better at watching the skies. Whether the threat comes from the sun or from big rocks, one thing we know: It's time to stop sticking our bayonets into each other and start sticking them into space.