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How good are our global senses, watching our changing world?

15 October 2010

Summary:   Our increasingly complex world creates new vulnerabilities.  New factors to watch.  New threats to which we must respond.  Can we manage the necessary coordinated global action?  The cost is trivial, especially compared to that of our wars.  This post examines one serious but little-known threat.

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One terrible aspect of early 21st century America is our fascination with shockwaves — high impact, low probability threats — and indifference to likely dangers.  Al Qaeda might conquer Pakistan and get nukes.  The antarctic ice cap might slide into the ocean.  While we worry about these things, our transportation, power, and transportation infrastructures decay — and our communications systems fall behind those of our peers.

There is a  global challenge, similar but potentially worse.  While global gdp grows at rates probably not seen since the invention of agriculture, critical sensory systems remain underfunded.  Perhaps the most serious example:  the global climate measuring system is a joke, making reliable forecasting impossible.  For example, Anthony Watt’s SurfaceStations project has proven that only 10% of the USHCN network (measuring surface temperatures) meet the criteria for a rating of 1 or 2 (error less than or equal to 1 degree C); 69% have the lowest two ratings.  That’s bad, since the US has one of the best networks.  At the other extreme, coverage in Antarctica is sparse — and coverage at the Arctic Ocean is almost non-existent.

The global sensors for less-familar problems are almost nil.  For example, sensors watching solar activity — and scientists studying the results — are grossly underfunded.  As described in this article about space weather forecasting:  “Are We Ready for the Next Solar Maximum? No Way, Say Scientists“, Richard A. Kerr, Science 26 June 2009 — Opening:

The Big One for space physicists struck on 28 August 1859 {aka the Carington Event}. The sun had blasted a billion-ton magnetic bubble of protons and the like right at Earth. On smashing into the planet’s own magnetic cocoon at several million kilometers per hour, the bubble dumped its energy, pushing the solar-driven aurora from its customary arctic latitudes to overhead of Cuba. This once-in-500-years “solar superstorm” crippled telegraph systems for a day or two across the United States and Europe but otherwise was mainly remembered for its dramatic light show.

Now that our world has evolved into a so-called cyberelectrosphere of modern electronics, we can hardly hope to fare as well. Today, the charged-particle radiation and electromagnetic fury of a geomagnetic superstorm would fry satellites, degrade GPS navigation, disrupt radio communications, and trigger continent-wide blackouts lasting weeks or longer. Even a storm of the century would wreak havoc. That’s why space physicists are so anxious to forecast space weather storms accurately. If predicting a hurricane a few days ahead can help people prepare for a terrestrial storm’s onslaught, they reason, predicting solar storms should help operators of susceptible systems prepare for an electromagnetic storm.

… A space weather symposium* last month asked, “Are we ready for Solar Max?” The unanimous answer from participants was “No.” … In fact, space forecasters are about where their meteorological colleagues were in the 1960s: making useful but unimpressive forecasts in the short term and lacking computer models able to improve on longer-term predictions by human forecasters. And even the short-term forecasts could go by the boards if the sole but aging early-warning satellite {the Advanced Composition Explorer} fails before a replacement—as yet unfunded and unplanned — arrives in orbit.

Another shockwave to worry about:  a solar superstorm

Severe Space Weather Events:  Understanding Societal and Economic Impacts“, National Academy of Sciences, May 2008 — The summary is here.  Abstract:

The adverse effects of extreme space weather on modern technology — power grid outages, high-frequency communication blackouts, spacecraft anomalies — are well known and well documented, and the physical processes underlying space weather are also generally well understood. Less well documented and understood, however, are the potential economic and societal impacts of the disruption of critical technological systems by severe space weather.

As a first step toward determining the socioeconomic impacts of extreme space weather events and addressing the questions of space weather risk assessment and management, a public workshop was held in May 2008. The workshop brought together representatives of industry, the government, and academia to consider both direct and collateral effects of severe space weather events, the current state of the space weather services infrastructure in the United States, the needs of users of space weather data and services, and the ramifications of future technological developments for contemporary society’s vulnerability to space weather.

NASA wrote an excellent one-page summary.  “Did you know a solar flare can make your toilet stop working?”  It’s worth reading!

FM posts about shockwaves and other geo-science related issues

  1. There is no “peak water” crisis, 19 June 2008
  2. We are so vulnerable to so many things. What is the best response?, 30 December 2008
  3. About our certain doom from the Yellowstone supervolcano, 11 January 2008
  4. My nomination for a top priority shockwave, 19 January 2009
  5. A serious threat to us – a top priority shockwave – a hidden danger …, 20 January 2009
  6. What about all the hype, the extreme warnings, about swine flu?, 3 September 2009
  7. More about shockwaves of the volcanic kind, 21 April 2010

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