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  1. 28 Mar '12 18:50
    Is this a valid concern?

    http://www.ereleases.com/pr/author-matthew-stein-reveals-real-facts-concerns-solar-flares-not-matter-when-73454
  2. 28 Mar '12 20:29
    Yes, although what he's talking about for nuclear reactors is the 'absolute worst case' scenario and realistic
    evaluations of the likely outcome are less apocalyptic.

    However it is a perfectly real threat although nuclear meltdown wouldn't be my biggest concern.


    The trouble is that geomagnetic storms make the earth's magnetic field shift and move and this moving
    magnetic field induces DC electric currents in the core electricity grid system.
    These large direct currents flow into the big power transformers that make up the major nodes in the grid system
    and essentially (and potentially spectacularly) destroy them.

    They are an essential part of the grid without which the grid doesn't work.
    They take at least 2 weeks to replace if you have a spare and there are very few spares.
    They take months to build.

    There are very few places that manufacture them and worldwide there are vastly fewer spare (a handful?) than are
    in use (several hundred).

    And even once you have got the grid back up it then takes another two weeks to power up the core nuclear reactors
    assuming they didn't meltdown when the grid failed.

    A recent (last year) NASA study on the dangers of a massive solar flare inducing a large enough geomagnetic storm
    predicted that the USA would take over 6 months to get the grid back up. (similar for the rest of the western world)
    [This is assuming that a large proportion or all the core transformers got toasted]

    Now why is this a problem?

    Everything runs on electricity.

    No electricity there is no water as the pumps don't work.
    No electricity there is no gas because the pumps don't work.
    No electricity there is little to no heating because almost all modern central heating systems require electricity to work.
    No refrigeration so food goes off, and you are not getting any more because there is no fuel for the transport grid.
    Hospitals go back to the 1900's with no x-rays, heart monitors, electric lighting, nMRI scans, ultrasounds, and many
    drugs that need refrigeration, and oh no more deliveries because the drug labs don't work without electricity and
    there is no petrol for transporting them anyway....
    No computers, internet, telephones, ...

    And to cap it off, the radiation blast, and thermal expansion of the upper atmosphere will knock out most of the satellites
    we rely on, and with that many satellites spinning out of control there will begin to be collisions, which produce debris that
    hits more satellites... And the entire satellite network gets trashed. [and space is now full of debris that makes launching
    anything else almost impossible]

    So after about a week we have been sent back to the 19th century except our society isn't designed to run on 19th century
    technology.
    We have no running water, heating, food, healthcare, or communications. for 6 months.

    That to me is a damn site scarier than the nuclear issue.
    Because they will scramble all sorts of resources to all the reactors to keep them from exploding and releasing radiation.
    Meanwhile everyone else starves and dies of thirst.


    And all this is pretty preventable.
    It's not that hard to install protections in our grids to prevent them being damaged by such an event.
    And the consequences of it could be devastating.


    This is of course a worst case scenario.
    The 'Carrington Event' of 1859 is a singular event, we only have records of one such an event and so while we know that an
    event of that magnitude can occur [and will occur again] we have no idea when it will happen again.
    However a much smaller event could take out 'some' of our networks in 'some' areas which could still be disasters and cost
    vastly more than securing our networks against these threats without being as bad as this worst case scenario.
  3. 29 Mar '12 12:05
    I guess you are right about the nuclear scenario. Backup generators would still be functional unlike the disaster in Japan.

    Surely fuel stations have generators for backup in case the electricity goes out, right?
  4. 29 Mar '12 13:21
    Originally posted by Metal Brain
    Surely fuel stations have generators for backup in case the electricity goes out, right?
    Nope. Some might, but the majority stop working in a power-cut.
  5. 30 Mar '12 14:38 / 2 edits
    In Zambia, power cuts are a near daily occurrence (there simply isn't enough power available). Being without power for even an hour is not a pleasant experience. Being without it for weeks or months would be devastating.

    However, humans are remarkably poor when it comes to planing for relatively rare events. I would say that anything that occurs less than once every 10 years, results in disaster because we do not plan appropriately.
  6. 30 Mar '12 16:07
    Originally posted by twhitehead
    In Zambia, power cuts are a near daily occurrence (there simply isn't enough power available). Being without power for even an hour is not a pleasant experience. Being without it for weeks or months would be devastating.

    However, humans are remarkably poor when it comes to planing for relatively rare events. I would say that anything that occurs less than once every 10 years, results in disaster because we do not plan appropriately.
    I concur.

    However as it is a known phenomenon it is not beyond an element of control and it is perfectly
    possible to design our societies better so that we don't leave everything to the last minute and
    do plan for and build safeguards against rare or distant disasters.

    A large component of the problem is the short termism built in to our political systems.
    Running for election every few years (or less in America) leads to few plans that last longer than those
    few years.

    Another factor is the sensationalism and short termism of our for profit news media.
    Which means that the public is not kept reliably informed about things that actually matter in a truthful
    and detailed manner. This is particularly true about science issues.
  7. 30 Mar '12 21:39
    Originally posted by twhitehead
    However, humans are remarkably poor when it comes to planing for relatively rare events. I would say that anything that occurs less than once every 10 years, results in disaster because we do not plan appropriately.
    Actually, humans are astoundingly good at planning for relatively rare events. Id est, we recognise that they exist and sometimes we even manage to plan for them. In this we are unique. Every other species only plans for tomorrow, or at the best, for the end of the year - or, for that matter, needs to - or, for that matter, can afford to.
    That we, on occasion, manage to plan beyond our personal life expectancy, is more than ought to be expected from any species. And yet, some of us do. There's this story, perhaps apocryphal but quite possibly not, about a university hall in Oxford planting oaks for when the beams in the great hall go, centuries from now - and when they were needed, a few decades ago, not just using those oaks, but planting new ones. For the next time those beams need replacing. Fancy taking a bet on anything else planning for such a contingency?

    Of course, it is true that in the general case, we are not very good at dealing with small probabilities over long times. We don't have an anti-asteroid railgun-cum-nuclear-bomb in place, yet we, en masse, take out earthquake insurance. Even those of us who live in the Netherlands. But then, is that surprising? I'd say it's a boon we take out any insurance at all.

    Richard
  8. 31 Mar '12 00:00
    Originally posted by Shallow Blue
    Actually, humans are astoundingly good at planning for relatively rare events. Id est, we recognise that they exist and sometimes we even manage to plan for them. In this we are unique. Every other species only plans for tomorrow, or at the best, for the end of the year - or, for that matter, needs to - or, for that matter, can afford to. ...[text shortened]... t then, is that surprising? I'd say it's a boon we take out any insurance at all.

    Richard
    Heh, well it depends on your yardstick...
    Measuring our behaviour against other species...
    Or against our own potential...

    Against our potential we suck at long term planning.
  9. 01 Apr '12 12:54 / 1 edit
    Originally posted by googlefudge
    Heh, well it depends on your yardstick...
    Measuring our behaviour against other species...
    Or against our own potential...

    Against our potential we suck at long term planning.
    Depends on what you mean by "potential". If you limit it to potential on that specific subject, well, we suck at almost everything. There is very little we, as a species, could not put more effort in. But there's a trade-off: we'd have to put less effort into other areas of interest.
    And that's where I think we do, by and large, get it right. We don't put massive amounts of effort into long term planning, it is true. But that's because we put most of it into medium term planning. And this strategy has served us well.
    We could certainly build a power grid which is totally flare-proof. However, not only would it be extraordinarily expensive; it would also, almost certainly, involve trade-offs which hit its short- or mid-term effectiveness. What we've done is, instead of planning for once-a-century solar flares, we've planned for once-a-year Cup (or Superbowl) finals.

    Instead of investing into handling something which will probably, some time this century, cost us dearly, we've invested into handling something which will definitely, every year again, cost us not quite as much. If you add up all the "not quite as much"es, they come out to much more than the "dearly".
    It's not a new strategy, either. Look at Africa. No kraal is defended against elephant stampedes. They could be, but they aren't. The reason is that elephant stampedes rarely if ever occur, while hyena raids or prowling leopards are common. So the kraals are protected against hyenas and leopards.
    We've followed this strategy of planning for the short term first, mid term next, and long term only if we have time and resources to spare, for tens of millennia. It has served us very well.

    Richard
  10. Subscriber FMF
    Main Poster
    01 Apr '12 14:34
    Originally posted by twhitehead
    In Zambia, power cuts are a near daily occurrence (there simply isn't enough power available). Being without power for even an hour is not a pleasant experience. Being without it for weeks or months would be devastating.
    When I lived in West Papua I endured about 3 months in early 1992 with, at the very most, 2 hours of electricity a day (and many days with no electricity at all). Those two hours of power were used to fill the large tank in the bathroom with water pumped up from the well.