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A perfect space storm
January 7, 2009 8:31 AM   Subscribe

A perfect space storm, which happens about every century, like the one that occurred in 1859, could cause "catastrophic social and economic disruptions", according to a new study by the National Academy of Sciences on behalf of NASA. "Potable water distribution affected within several hours; perishable foods and medications lost in 12-24 hours; immediate or eventual loss of heating/air conditioning, sewage disposal, phone service, transportation, fuel resupply and so on," the report states. Outages could take months to fix, the researchers say. Banks might close, and trade with other countries might halt. The next peak in solar activity is expected around 2012.
posted by stbalbach (61 comments total) 8 users marked this as a favorite

 
Since the Yahoo News link is sourced from Space.com, here is the original content from space.com -- I'm hoping their URL will last longer than the 4-6 weeks the News link will survive.

NEAT! Mayan 2012 Apocalpytic-Chicken dance anyone?
posted by cavalier at 8:33 AM on January 7, 2009


Mayan's were right?
posted by cjorgensen at 8:34 AM on January 7, 2009


Didn't they make a movie about this?
posted by iamkimiam at 8:38 AM on January 7, 2009


Pretty barren homepage, but it's got a juicy teaser:

"As I'm sure you know, they are coming back in just a few years. Check back here for additional information and items that you will need to be prepared." -- mayan2012.com.
posted by cavalier at 8:39 AM on January 7, 2009


That's weird, because the most rational interpretation I ever read of the Mayans predicitions was along the lines of the Earth's magnetism shifting and displacing its current angle to the sun, and in turn causing such a sudden change in climate for most of the world's population that a great many will die.
posted by mannequito at 8:39 AM on January 7, 2009


Well that's pretty scary. The solar observing community could give some warning but what are you going to do? Even as a homeowner I was like....turn off the computer? Ineffective, I bet. Maybe construct a Faraday cage around it (or the entire house?) with chicken wire?
posted by DU at 8:40 AM on January 7, 2009


Sheesh, all about the DOOM on the Blue today. Between this and the Black Swans post, I'm about ready to go and hide under the covers.
posted by Happy Dave at 8:42 AM on January 7, 2009


Is it National Panic Week and nobody told me? Because I forgot to wear my brown pants. :(
posted by emjaybee at 8:45 AM on January 7, 2009 [4 favorites]


The Hydro-Quebec wiki article has a good level of detail on what actually occurred in 1989.
posted by Durn Bronzefist at 8:47 AM on January 7, 2009


"The time has come to panic."
posted by Joe Beese at 8:48 AM on January 7, 2009


meh - It'll be fine.
posted by seanyboy at 8:53 AM on January 7, 2009


They just don't make enough tin foil for you folks around here, do they?
posted by HuronBob at 8:53 AM on January 7, 2009 [5 favorites]


Yikes. But...it seems to me that more or less the same precautions to deal with a breakdown in civilization due to a global financial meltdown would also help if a big space storm hits. You're gonna need to be able to handle the same stuff regardless of the disaster: shelter, food/water, light, medicines, security, transportation. All the talk about a new Depression had already motivated me to start making just-in-case SHTF (shit hits the fan) precautions to deal with a widespread breakdown in, well, everything. By the time 2012 rolls around I plan on being pretty damn prepared to just walk away from modern society for a lengthy period of time, if need be.
posted by jamstigator at 8:56 AM on January 7, 2009


I joke with my parents off and on about moving back to the homestead, picking up a Winchester defender for every member of the family, and reinforcing the cistern and generator housing. But then we'd be like the rest of the family.
posted by mrmojoflying at 8:57 AM on January 7, 2009


And by that I mean a bunch of country living social Armageddon waiting crazies.
posted by mrmojoflying at 8:58 AM on January 7, 2009


Living in the suburbs, with a large, gardenable yard and access to streams and rivers, doesn't look so dumb now, eh?
posted by DU at 9:02 AM on January 7, 2009 [2 favorites]


*lights up cigs, opens flask and heads for the local greasy spoon*
posted by Brandon Blatcher at 9:04 AM on January 7, 2009


Pfft, everything will be fine. We'll have had the fantastic first four years of President Obama to prepare us for this event.

Then again, if the new administration can't save the US, the Republicans can use it as a major example of how the Democrats are weak in the face of Solar Threats.

----------------------------

I didn't get far enough into the 3rd link to see if they mentioned 2012, I found this MSNBC article which states [h]alf of the specialists predicted a moderately strong cycle of 140 sunspots expected to peak in October of 2011, while the rest called for a moderately weak cycle of 90 sunspots peaking in August of 2012. The twelve-member panel hopes to achieve a consensus sometime in the next six to 12 months.
posted by filthy light thief at 9:32 AM on January 7, 2009


Well, if it doesn't happen, at least we can still look forward to Asteroid 99942 Apophis.

Will this be Obama's Katrina?
posted by VicNebulous at 9:35 AM on January 7, 2009


And then the zombie outbreak comes, right? It's from space, it involves radiation 'n shit, and so, zombies, right? Please?
posted by happyroach at 9:40 AM on January 7, 2009


People, people! This is not the time for panic -- this is the time for finger-pointing, ass-covering and recrimination!
posted by Devils Rancher at 9:41 AM on January 7, 2009 [2 favorites]


I cannot fucking WAIT until 2013, when we won't have any more malingering prophecy years of apocalyptic doom lurking around the damn calendar.

Until 2666, at least.
posted by FatherDagon at 9:47 AM on January 7, 2009


I mean, when the stars are right, you'll just KNOW. All this this calendar year business is just a distraction.
posted by FatherDagon at 9:54 AM on January 7, 2009


So I fill a bunch of water jugs, lay in a bunch of candles and good books and.......

Relax!
posted by The Light Fantastic at 10:12 AM on January 7, 2009


What's with the apocolyptafilter? Reading this site for the past couple of weeks has been more scary than watching a George Bush press conference. Thank God my horror needs will remain satisfied through the Obama years.
posted by stupidsexyFlanders at 10:14 AM on January 7, 2009


Earth Atmosphere "Breathes," Thanks to Solar Winds
posted by homunculus at 10:25 AM on January 7, 2009


Will this be Obama's Katrina?

It depends on how he reacts to it.
posted by elwoodwiles at 10:26 AM on January 7, 2009


mrmojoflying, we're thinking of a Springfield M6 Scout instead.

But seriously, there's nothing any of us can do about this other than keep the same kind of disaster kit around you'd want to have for any natural disaster. Several weeks worth of usable firewood, ditto canned and/or dried food, several tens of gallons of bottled water and a supply of purifying tablets. No point freaking out. Oh, wait, does this list mean I've already freaked out?
posted by 1adam12 at 10:29 AM on January 7, 2009 [1 favorite]


So, you're saying it's time for us to smash each others heads open and feast on the goo inside?
posted by aramaic at 10:32 AM on January 7, 2009 [1 favorite]


This study brought to you by Sony Pictures.
posted by infinitefloatingbrains at 10:35 AM on January 7, 2009


mrmojoflying, we're thinking of a Springfield M6 Scout instead.

Neat rifle that I wasn't familiar with, but a little outside of my price range for apocalypse survival. But seriously, on this front, I've recommended to the folks to double the size of the cistern and to start taking home security at least seriously enough that they lock the windows, since they live in the middle of the woods. They've got a hell of a gasoline generator, but have balked several times on getting a natural gas gen with a 3-phase automatic transfer built in. I don't think they feel like they have the time to pour a slab and wire it up right now. Another big snowstorm might change their mind since they have gas heat (and hot water). Durable sources of heat, water, home protection, and three or four months worth of non-perishable food isn't freaking out if you have the means to acquire or provide it. Where I'm from it's called having a long memory.
posted by mrmojoflying at 10:49 AM on January 7, 2009


There are 1485 anagrams for "Space Storm". One of them holds the key to earth's survival.
posted by blue_beetle at 11:14 AM on January 7, 2009 [2 favorites]


Don't pay attention to any of the apocalyptic 2012 nonsense related to Mayans. Most of that stuff was made up by the renowned shit-filled huckster, José Argüelles. Yes, the Harmonic Convergence guy.

If you insist on believing that garbage, I want to ask you something: do you really believe the Mayans could predict the future? Maybe you also believe that they invented television.
posted by redteam at 11:20 AM on January 7, 2009


There are 1485 anagrams for "Space Storm". One of them holds the key to earth's survival.

God, I hope it's not "Taco Sperms".

Maybe it's "Scam Poster". Holden Karnofsky will save us all.
posted by maqsarian at 12:11 PM on January 7, 2009 [4 favorites]


Hate to break it to you, but every other time the mayan long count has completed a cycle? Nothing very interesting happened.
1618
1224
830
435
41
354 BC

However, solar storms like this? Now, I've got to worry about the yellowstone supervolcano, a mega-tsunami from the canary islands, killer asteroids and now my good friend, the sun, ruining all my toys and destroying modern civilization as we know it. At least we don't have to worry about the imminent Robot overlords. They're totally screwed.
posted by Freen at 12:31 PM on January 7, 2009


I cannot fucking WAIT until 2013, when we won't have any more malingering prophecy years of apocalyptic doom lurking around the damn calendar.

Nah, they'll just find another calender. Mayan calenders? Pffft. Totally wrong. The real Date of the Apocalypse will be from the ancient Danish Calender of DOOM.

That's right, the Danish. 2015. Mark your crappy non-apocalypse predicting calenders people!
posted by rand at 1:01 PM on January 7, 2009


But seriously, there's nothing any of us can do about this other than keep the same kind of disaster kit around you'd want to have for any natural disaster.

This may or may not include: leather jacket, sawed off shotgun, canned pet food, V8 Interceptor, and a cattle dog. Alternatively, it could be the emergency kit variant that relies heavily on assless chaps, motorcycles, and mohawk cutting and coloring tools.

As for me? I've resigned myself to the fact that because I'm well prepared, I'm guaranteed to die in the first few moments of any disaster, that way when the intrepid hero and his band of adventurers find my dessicated corpse in my car, they can open the trunk and find a full cache of supplies which will help them through into Act 3 of their story.
posted by quin at 1:15 PM on January 7, 2009 [3 favorites]


"The time has come to panic."

What I want to know is how can I benefit from this panic?

Invest in companies that make panic related products? Nabisco? The History Channel?
posted by peppito at 1:18 PM on January 7, 2009


Now, I've got to worry about the yellowstone supervolcano, a mega-tsunami from the canary islands, killer asteroids and now my good friend, the sun, ruining all my toys and destroying modern civilization as we know it. At least we don't have to worry about the imminent Robot overlords. They're totally screwed.

Freen, you forgot bird flu. But that's supposed to kill us all any day now, so probably by the time all those other things happen, we'll all be dead anyway.
posted by briank at 1:31 PM on January 7, 2009


Damn! And I just got done cleaning up from that Y2K disaster.
posted by rusty at 1:41 PM on January 7, 2009 [2 favorites]


YES!!! Another reason to look forward to 2012.

Man, it is going to be one Nervous year.

BTW, 2012 isn't going to bring on THE END OF THE WORLD, but a massive consciousness change that will change the world 'as we perceive it' I for one look forward to this. It's much preferable to the world blowing up.
posted by AzzaMcKazza at 2:10 PM on January 7, 2009


You're all ignoring the obvious solution: get the space storm and the Yellowstone supervolcano to fight each other, preferably on Venus.
posted by Halloween Jack at 2:39 PM on January 7, 2009 [1 favorite]


“But seriously, there's nothing any of us can do about this other than keep the same kind of disaster kit around you'd want to have for any natural disaster.”

*adjusts assless chaps*
(Say...aren’t all chaps assless?)

Yeah, that and developing cooperation skills and the ability to work in a group along with making dynamic social connections with people with wide varieties of skills as well.

Always irked me about the barricade mentality, folks seem to prize competition above cooperation. Why? Never made any sense to me and I’m armed to the teeth.

I mean it’s a cute joke - give a man a fish and he’ll eat for a day, give a man a gun and everyone will give him fish.

But there’s not a damned thing you can get with a firearm that’s not a short term solution. Even ammo depends on a supply chain.
I mean, sure, when a violent response is an option, typically it’s the only option.

But, what, you’re going to train a gun on a doctor all day?
Folks survive because they cooperate. Typically in disasters there’s that bit of time where people go a little nuts. So maybe you need to compete around then. But if you’ve got a nice network set up already, you know people, they know you, you’ve got a place, etc. You’ll wind up fat, happy and free while most folks are hole up waiting for the wind to change.
posted by Smedleyman at 2:41 PM on January 7, 2009 [4 favorites]


On December 21st 2012 I'm holding an end of the world party. Everyone must bring non-perishable foods and tin foil hats.
posted by Pseudology at 2:52 PM on January 7, 2009


Solar storms make for some amazing aurora displays. I hope the world doesn't end before the pretty light show.
posted by theora55 at 3:05 PM on January 7, 2009


You know what's going to be funny?

If the world really ends at Dec 21st 2012, statistically there will be someone, somewhere, completely clueless about it, that will be flushing their toilet at the exact moment everything starts to... let's say... go down the crapper. You can imagine the guy pushing the button, looking around and crying "HOLY SHIT! WHAT HAVE I JUST DONE?"
posted by qvantamon at 3:42 PM on January 7, 2009 [4 favorites]


qvantamon - Oh man. That thought just made me even KEENER for 2012
posted by AzzaMcKazza at 3:54 PM on January 7, 2009


Christ, if I can't convince the world as a whole to, can we here at Metafilter make an effort this year to never use the tired term "Perfect Storm" anymore?

I know that movie had a catchy title and all, but seriously, not every clusterfuck is a Perfect Storm.
posted by Uther Bentrazor at 5:35 PM on January 7, 2009


There's not really much reason to panic. To quote:
"A catastrophic failure of commercial and government infrastructure in space and on the ground can be mitigated through raising public awareness, improving vulnerable infrastructure and developing advanced forecasting capabilities," the report states.
What amounts to a power surge through the electrical grids of planet Earth doesn't necessarily spell the end of civilization. Probably a few chaotic hours here and there, but essential services will undoubtedly have back-ups in the event of a surge/failure (many if not most already do), and off-grid locations will probably not really feel it at all.
posted by Marisa Stole the Precious Thing at 6:04 PM on January 7, 2009 [1 favorite]


DU writes "Living in the suburbs, with a large, gardenable yard and access to streams and rivers, doesn't look so dumb now, eh?"

It takes a few years to turn turf into a decent garden free of wire worms, cutworms, and other assorted vegitable killing pests. So you'll want to get started digging.

qvantamon writes "If the world really ends at Dec 21st 2012, statistically there will be someone, somewhere, completely clueless about it, that will be flushing their toilet at the exact moment everything starts to... let's say... go down the crapper. You can imagine the guy pushing the button, looking around and crying 'HOLY SHIT! WHAT HAVE I JUST DONE?'"

This happened to me last year. I was staying at my sisters and just as I flicked off the outside light all the lights in town went out. Very surreal for at least a few seconds and I actually instinctively flicked the switch back on hoping to turn the town back on.
posted by Mitheral at 6:34 PM on January 7, 2009 [4 favorites]


MStPT: What about the large transformers integral to our entire power grid that take 10+ months to build and supply, and the long wires heating to the point of ignition all over the country? If the grid melts and panic hits we're talking massive nationwide riots, looting, etc... I've got 30 days of earthquake supplies, but I don't know how I'd get insulin.

But there’s not a damned thing you can get with a firearm that’s not a short term solution. Even ammo depends on a supply chain. I mean, sure, when a violent response is an option, typically it’s the only option.

Time to learn how to fletch I guess.
posted by BrotherCaine at 6:35 PM on January 7, 2009


Kaboom! Earth dies.
posted by stavrosthewonderchicken at 6:50 PM on January 7, 2009


What about the large transformers integral to our entire power grid that take 10+ months to build and supply, and the long wires heating to the point of ignition all over the country? If the grid melts and panic hits we're talking massive nationwide riots, looting, etc...

Now that you mention it, taking a look at the study, these are the conclusions they reach:
In synthesizing the ideas and discussion offered in this session and in the entire workshop, audience members offered several perspectives and suggestions about current needs:
-Improved physical understanding of solar processes to enable forcasting
-Effective means of transitioning from models to operations
-The addition of space weather coverage on The Weather Channel
-The codification of risk assessment standards for space weather events, including space weather analogs to 100-year risks
-Analysis of cascading effects on complex, coupled systems
-The articulation of scenarios that illustrate the effects of space weather, as a means to educate the public and policy committee about the importance of space weather

In a spirit of optimism, the conference adjourned.
I, personally, would love to see some space weather on the Weather Channel.
posted by Marisa Stole the Precious Thing at 9:10 PM on January 7, 2009


Invest in companies that make panic related products? Nabisco? The History Channel?

Depends.
posted by sneebler at 9:38 PM on January 7, 2009 [2 favorites]


A class ten solar flare can happen anytime, even in periods of relative solar quietude. If it happened to be pointed at the earth, when it hit it would knock out pretty much all the transformers on the grid, basically a giant EMP. If, for instance, the USA happened to bear the brunt of it, it might take as many as 5 years to get all the transformers replaced. It would be a very serious event.

Fortunately the odds of this happening are small, yet it would be very sensible to take a simple precaution: Put shutoff switches and grounding lines on the upstream side of all our transformers, with a big red button at every power plant that could isolate all the transformers in the event of such a flare. Our solar observatories would be able to provide us with about a 2-hour warning (the pulse doesn't travel at the speed of light), so we could essentially go dark and let it pass, then start up again. The hitch? In order to start up the turbines from a cold start they have to be spun up first, and only about 10% of our power plants have diesel or gas engines set up to do that. All the others rely on electricity from the grid to spin them up. So it could take quite a while to get back online again.

The logical time to install these kill switches and grounding wires would be when we rewire the grid with the new type of transmission lines called Aluminum Conductor Composite Reinforced (ACCR) lines. They can carry 2-4 times the current of today's lines, which will allow us to convert to an all-electric society without having to establish new rights of way and transmission towers. At that time we could also install backup engines to spin up the turbines from a dark start at about half our power plants, making the whole system safe from this type of rare but quite possible solar risk, and quite capable of restarting pretty quickly after it passes.

So you can put your guns away.
posted by Tom Blees at 11:56 PM on January 7, 2009 [6 favorites]


So... 90% of our electrical generating capacity requires electricity to start?

That right there is engineering at its finest.
posted by rusty at 7:52 AM on January 8, 2009


Why do the turbines need to be "spun up" at all? Doesn't the water falling out of a dam (say) do that? Or are they designed to take that force only when running at speed?

Anyway, I'm not an expert but doesn't an EMP kill even some electrical equipment that's turned off? The M part of the pulse generates huge Es and burns them out. Transformers already handle big loads so maybe that's not a big deal....except I'm sure they also have sensitive electronics controlling them. Upshot: It's not clear to me that going dark is any protection against EMPs. Faraday caging them should work, though.
posted by DU at 9:43 AM on January 8, 2009


Generators work by moving coils of wire in magnetic fields. However, most big generators do not contain permanent magnets, like small motors do -- they would be prohibitively expensive and hard to make, and they wouldn't produce strong enough fields. Instead, they have static coils which perform the same function as the magnets in a small generator or motor.

These coils need to be energized, obviously, and to do this they need a power source. Normally, a small amount of the power produced by the generator is fed back into it for this purpose. But during a "cold start," there's an obvious bootstrapping problem.

This is where you start to require separate generators; it's not an issue of physically moving the generator components: you can do that pretty easily, but without an electrical source, you just have coils of wire spinning around other coils of wire -- that won't get you any juice.
posted by Kadin2048 at 11:04 AM on January 8, 2009


Yeah, but a little gas generator that....well, I guess that's what Tom Blees was saying. They don't have those.

That's kinda dumb.
posted by DU at 12:13 PM on January 8, 2009


BrotherCaine : Time to learn how to fletch I guess.

I know exactly what this means, and yet, as I look at it, I keep reading it wrong, and all I can think is "Damn, that's a kinky approach to apocalypse survival."
posted by quin at 12:28 PM on January 8, 2009 [1 favorite]


Are you thinking felch?
posted by BrotherCaine at 10:08 PM on January 9, 2009


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