Sanity Injection

Injecting a dose of sanity into your day’s news and current events.

The end of the United States of America

Posted by sanityinjection on March 26, 2009

No, this post isn’t about Obama or even the current economic crisis. It is about a much more serious threat to the safety and security, and even the long-term existence of the USA and other countries. I am speaking of a potential natural disaster that could make the current “global warming” concerns look like child’s play. And most people have never even heard of it, including myself until recently.

This natural disaster is called a coronal mass ejection(CME), and it is an intermittent product of the sun’s volatile nuclear activity. Many readers will have heard of the “solar wind”,  a stream of charged particles constantly being emitted by the sun, which are blocked by the Earth’s magnetic field. In a CME, a mass of highly charged plasma separates from the sun and is carried outward by the solar wind.

The problem occurs if such an ejection happens to hit the earth. This places a major strain on the Earth’s magnetosphere. Depending on the size/intensity of the ejection, the magentosphere may suffer a slight or serious disruption.  A serious disruption would create a geomagnetic storm with disastrous consequences for societies like ours that rely on electricity for basic needs such as food and water. Basically, it would knock out electrical grids beyond the ability to be easily repaired, leading to long-term power shortages, which in turn would lead to shortages of food and fuel. Such an event would make Hurricane Katrina seem tame in terms of the casualties caused.

The worst such event that we know of occurred in 1859, before human societies had become dependent on electricity. A lesser event in 1989 took all of 90 seconds to knock out power to 6 million people in Quebec.

The good news is that there are steps that power companies can take to brace the grids and minimize the damage if they have sufficient warning of a CME. The bad news is that we may not get enough warning. A CME usually takes 1 to 5 days to reach Earth from the sun, but our current detection apparatus only gives us about 15 minutes of warning time.

So what should we do? We could adopt the Al Gore-style panic and overreaction approach, and demand that everyone stop using electricity. A more reasonable suggestion, though, would be to devote more resources at NASA and the other space agencies of the world toward putting in place improved detection satellites.

We may not have much time. While we cannot predict when a CME might occur, we know that the sun is in a very calm period right now, but is expected to hit a peak activity period as early as 2012.  Eschatologists and doomsday enthusiasts will recognize that date as the last year of the Mayan Long Count calendar, and one that has been predicted by multiple sources as the date of the end of the world. Coincidence? Well, probably. The Mayans were great astronomers and might have had some understanding of solar activity cycles, but they could never have imagined a world that could be so easily crippled by a geomagnetic phenomenon. Still, we should use the next three years wisely…don’t you think?


2 Responses to “The end of the United States of America”

  1. giantword said

    Isn’t it interesting that the Mayan Calendar runs out at the end of the hurricane season of 2012?

    Another statistical link between weather and the Mayan Year 2012.

    • That link doesn’t mention that the El Nino/La Nina cycle is a major determinative factor in the severity of hurricane seasons. In any case, even a severe hurricane season is unlikely to have a significant effect on the majority of the North American mainland.

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