Mary Jamis, a lesbian woman, was ARRESTED yesterday after she and her partner sought a marriage license in North Carolina.
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Given that people are already misrepresenting the Mayan calendars by claiming that 2012 is the end of the world, or at least this age, it’s not surprising that different causes of this ‘great change’ have been proposed. Of all the propositions I’ve heard so far, the solar flare hypothesis the only one that is 1) evidence based 2) plausible 3) not caused by humans 4) within the possibility of being predicted by an astronomically engaged society. However, it is also based on some misunderstandings about how solar flares and their larger and more violent brothers (coronal mass ejections or CMEs) actually work. Similarly, this is related to a misunderstanding about how the structure of the outer layers of our planet serve to protect us from some effects of solar flares, as well as to redirect these into other events. In both, it is important to note that bad shit is probably going to happen, but, it’s not likely to be the bad shit people are putting out there. As a person who has studied CMEs in the past, but is not actually an expert, I would like to offer an educated layman’s perspective on the matter, and hopefully, with a bit of supporting text from the people who do know what they’re talking about, people will stop panicking and focus our energies on what we can actually do.
Where do solar flares and the magnetosphere come from?
The sun is a giant ball of very hot gas, and through complicated processes involving physics, that I’m going to misrepresent by calling it “spin”, it has a magnetic field. The same is true of planet Earth, even though it’s not a giant ball of very hot gas. So the sun rotates on its axis and creates this magnetic field with its spin, and this does some funky stuff to the gas. Meanwhile, earth spins too, as well as orbiting the sun, and the magnetic field of our planet is bulged into a funky shape, where the field is widest at the equator and most narrow at the poles. For earth, this means two things 1) the field has a small hole in it at it’s thinnest points (a weak spot) 2) where the field is weaker, the effects of solar flares are more direct. As far as the sun is concerned, the funky stuff happening to it’s gas on its outer layer (the corona) gets whipped into shape while all that magnetic energy causes the sun’s poles to shift on a regular cycle, which leads to two things 1) a semi-regular cyclical pattern of sun spots changing in size and correlated with the size and intensity of solar flares 2) the ability to predict within a reasonable large margin of error and a very short period of time, when a CME is going to occur, based on the appearance of a sun spot relative to the cyclical pattern. This means, in short, we know that roughly every 11 years, the sun’s spin has whipped up the corona and the magnetic energy enough to send out CMEs. But, let’s not forget, that it spits out solar flares every day, and these are just smaller. We see these solar flares within twenty or so degrees of the poles, and we call them the aurora borealis and australis – and they’re quite beautiful. Bigger solar flares usually mean more aurora activity.
Multiple Layers of Protection, and Causality
Now, this magnetic field is called the magnetosphere. And it’s not the only layer of protection, so there’s no need to panic about the holes at the poles. Underneath the magnetosphere, closer to us, there is also the ionosphere, stratosphere and atmosphere. For these point let’s talk about the ionosphere. You see, like the sun’s hot gases being whipped into shape by the spin, we have in our skies, right up very high beyond where the planes fly, many atoms that are interacting with the magnetosphere and stratosphere, and those atoms are charged – they are ions. This is good. This means that the atoms want to bond with other atoms, and that means, if the chemistry works out, that some of the stuff the magnetosphere didn’t deflect, can be absorbed by the ionosphere. But there’s a downside. It’s all floating around up there, looking to bond with other atoms. So sometimes it bonds with the stratosphere as well, and if we’re sending up lots of chemicals to the stratosphere (and altering one of its sections, the ozone layer), it changes the balance. But it also means that even without the changes to the stratosphere, because the ionosphere is wedged where it is, it is also impacted by that bulge in the magnetosphere. So around the *Van Allen belt in the middle at the equator – the ionosphere is magnetized differently to the areas north and south of the equator. This in turn means that the stratosphere is behaving differently further away from the equator. And this in turn, this means that weather is different further away from the equator.
Extreme Weather Peaks with Solar Flares
Tornados and cyclones (and in a more complex and less direct fashion, earthquakes and tsunamis) all increase on a rough 11 year cycle because of this relationship. It’s happened since before humans walked the earth, and, all things being equal will continue long after we’ve gone. You may have noticed that at the start of 2012, some very nasty weather happened. But it also happened in 2011. And it’s going to happen in 2013. This is because the solar maximum – the peak in flare activity – is a rough period of time, and we only know when the top of the peak has passed when things get quiet for awhile. But what we also know is that there is a build up before the peak; so it may be the case that we saw that in 2011, when things started to get a bit rougher than usual. If that is true, then 2012 is the peak, and things will continue throughout 2013 before slowing down again. This is entirely plausible, because it has been about 11 years since the previous peak, and 22 years since the infamous peak of 1990, which is what I looked at when I learned what I’m relaying to you.
The Big Fucking Tornado
In 1990, I was travelling the United States with some relatives, and I actually saw a tornado in the distance (approximately 100 km west – we weren’t in danger). I don’t know what size it actually was, but based on the dates we drove down that road, what we saw, and my read of the literature; it may have been one of those dreaded “T5” tornados. It gave me an appreciation for tornados I haven’t been able to shake since. Those fucking bastards are scary, and huge. I didn’t know it at the time, but we happened to be on the road, during one of the worst tornado seasons in the recent history of that country. There were T5s popping up left right and centre, and it was absolute bedlam. It was such a nightmare that a couple of years later, they were inspired to release that movie Twister. And I can tell you that when I watched that movie, I thought they were a bunch of fucking idiots who had probably never seen a tornado in their lives when they wrote it, because even from 100+ kilometers away those bastards are fucking scary. The entire horizon was blocked with the fucker. You just don’t do that shit. Let alone survive it. What a dumb movie. Anyway, enough fear mongering, I’ll go back to the era.
Culture and History as a Lesson
Also in 1989 – 1991, there were some interesting things going on in global politics, as there always are, but these ones are memorable for many. The Berlin wall was pulled down. That guy with his groceries braved the tanks in Tienamen Square. There were earthquakes and tsunamis as well, as there always are. The radio newscasters were raving about the end of the world, connected with Operation Desert Storm and how Saddam Hussein is really awful, and then there was that end of the world cult, I think there was more than one. Waco, Texas springs to mind – the branch Davidians chucked a Jonestown (or was it the FBI that shot them, who knows?) and some Koreans, I think, or perhaps it was Japanese cultists, were trying to poison subway users. I think it was in Japan. People said the world was going to end on Halloween in 1989. It didn’t happen. But the Canadians did experience some problems when the electrical grid failed, because of the effects of a solar storm. I don’t remember that from my childhood though. I heard all about the other things, as they happened, courtesy of mainstream media. But the Canadian electrical grid failing – I learned that when I researched the solar cycle stuff many years later. This speaks volumes to me about the media’s priorities, and how it presents stories, and how this effects people’s perceptions, including my own.
Things are different now, and, by region
The Canadian grid was susceptible because of its location; it’s within the narrower sections of the magnetosphere! Thus, when the CMEs hit the magnetosphere in that period, the electrical grid failed. In other parts of the world, such as closer to the equator, the relationship between the magnetosphere, ionosphere, stratosphere and atmosphere meant that tornados and other weather events that would normally occur seasonally did so with greater intensity and frequency. In other words, solar maximums make existing issues more troublesome. It doesn’t actually create any new problems. Thus, we don’t need to worry about something we’ve never seen before happening this year. What we might need to be concerned about, is that as Michio Kaku attempted to convey, we have a lot more satellites orbiting the earth than we ever did before. We also have this thing called the internet, and mobile phone technology. Those things did not exist with the same impact in 1990. Indeed, although they were invented before 1990, it was around that time that my family got its first computer, a Commodore 64 – and that made us the Jones’ as most people didn’t have one. Nonetheless, we didn’t have internet for years after that, and even longer for mobile phones. But nowadays, there are kids in sixth grade using the internet on their mobile phones – and even that didn’t exist in 2001, the approximate year of the previous maximum. What I am saying here - and what I think Dr. Kaku was trying to say is - that even though nature hasn’t invented anything new to throw at us, we have something new for nature to target, and we happen to be very dependent on those targets. Thus, with the increased probability of some particularly rough CMEs this year, our communications infrastructure is a sitting duck. That’s why he said, let’s build in some redundancies – back ups, so we don’t have a nasty surprise.
Human measures can protect us too
Fortunately, building in redundancies is standard procedure with ITC equipment. There are entire industries, towns and sectors of the global community dedicated to do just that. Besides, when people build satellites, they’re educated enough to know about this sort of thing. It would simply be impossible to invest millions – sometimes billions – of dollars into launching a satellite without considering the physics involved. And it would be utter foolishness not to protect that investment knowing that solar flares, asteroids and a gazillion other threats aren’t going to get in the way at some point. Thus, unless nature throws us the biggest curveball it ever has, and/or the engineers behind the satellites have taken some incredibly stupid short cuts - I wouldn’t start panicking about loss of satellites destroying civilization just yet. What is more likely to be a concern, is that the cheapskates on the ground have taken short cuts with the electrical grid and other infrastructure, so that if a satellite gets fried, or something similar to the Canadian black out occurs, we’re going to be in trouble. And that’s more likely to be an issue if you live close to the poles, and, if your government and businesses are lazy and stupid. As for the rest of us, we’re going to have nasty weather, and temporary loss of mobile phone and internet coverage, which is nothing new anyway.
Worst case scenario, is, we’ve fucked up.
That said. If we assume that the satellites are faulty, the CMEs incredibly bad, the on the ground infrastructure full of holes and short cuts, and there are no redundancies – then we’re boned. But that is such a massive clusterfuck, the first thing we’d notice is that none of the technology is working, not even electricity. Then we’d notice the blackouts aren’t ending, and the trucks aren’t delivering food. And there’s no notification about what’s going on, because all those crazy newscasters can’t send any messages. We wouldn’t even be able to go on twitter and ask our friends if something is a problem on their side of the world. And by the time we catch on, millions and millions of other people would have too. So the people who live far enough away from the poles for their cars to start up again would be blocking the highways. And other people would be looting the supermarkets. This would happen everywhere, more so closer to the north pole/arctic circle. The cities would crash, there would be mass starvation because we’re so pathetically uneducated about food, and people would flood out to the countryside. And those rural folks who didn’t bother so much with the technology will be asking us what the fuck we’re doing, and we’d fight over the food, assuming we had enough petrol to get there, because the pumps wouldn’t be working at all. Then most of us will die, while some of us try to recover the technology, and even if enough bedlam is prevented to make this happen, Planet earth will thank us for not swarming so much anymore, and we might just survive global warming. So in the long term, not having redundancies is probably a good thing, and maybe we should hope that the authorities really are that lazy and stupid, and head to the country side in a peaceful fashion before it’s too late.
But I don’t think so. Happy panicking over nothing!
EDIT/CORRECTION: 17/05 *Van Allen radiation belt is the correct term. I had mistakenly called it the Kuiper belt, which unrelated to this issue, except that it’s also in space, and it’s really really big, and I barely understand any of it.