Celestial Billiards

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Earlier this year I wrote about some of the risks facing humanity. I’ve begun to expound on those risks with additional information. Here is the first risk in the list, Celestial Billiards.

 

One risk we face that is certainly out of our control involves our environment. Not the environment on Earth, but the environment in the universe. There are many, many forces out there in the universe, and they care not in the least that they may affect life forms on our planet should they interact with it. There are many objects flying around in our solar system that can (and eventually will) intersect with our planet. If they are large enough, they can wreak havoc upon a city, or a nation, or upon the entire earth. Modeling of the impact of the Yucatan body that brought the end to the dinosaurs shows that the entire atmosphere of the earth was aflame from the impact and subsequent reentry of the material thrown out across the globe. Only the creatures burrowed into the ground, or shielded by water had much of a chance of surviving the immediate impact. Today, we use many telescopes to identify and track objects found in our solar system. Still, it seems that every few months we learn of an object that could cause significant harm to the earth passing between us and the moon. One valuable use of a proposed Space Force would be to combine this detection team with a proactive defense capability, one that would be able to divert an oncoming object away from impact with earth.

 

The odds of an ecosystem destroying impact is very low. But our solar system has another kind of risk to throw at us, and this risk is probably orders of magnitude more likely than an asteroid’s impact. That is, we could have a solar flare that would wreak havoc upon our electric grid, causing large portions of the world to instantly regress back to stone-age conditions. Our sun is huge, and we still don’t understand the physics of how large-scale eruptions can throw off millions of tons of charged particles from the sun’s surface into space. If the eruption is large enough, and if it is aimed at Earth, it will hit us. We would have a mere two to three days warning. Would we be able to power down our electrical grid before it hit, causing catastrophic damage to our wiring and transformer base? Is there a way to shield these huge transformers so that they would survive? For it is a known fact from physics that if wires are present when electrically charged particles flow past, voltage will be induced in the wires. And transformers are nothing but masses of wire windings, aimed at either stepping up or stepping down voltages. The last major solar storm that reached the Earth happened in 1859. At that time, only telegraph wires were strung across the countryside to give us an idea of what will happen with a much more wired world. In the 1859 flare, telegraph operators reported receiving electrical shocks from the induced voltages. Telegraph wires sparked and caused fires. And all of this happened with single wires carrying low-voltage electricity.

 

Were we to have such an event today, the damage would be catastrophic. Overloaded wires will cause transformers to blow. Not just the local ones on the poles that step voltage down to household level, but the huge ones that work with the high voltages used to transfer electricity across the country. These transformers are huge, there are insufficient spares available to restore service should it be required across a large swath of any country, and the available manpower to fix the grid is lacking. Look how long it took to restore service to Puerto Rico after a massive failure of their grid. It would be much worse with a massive solar flare. Thus here is another area where we need to invest manpower in preventive activity, and much of that manpower must be well-versed in electrical engineering and physics. More than just manpower though, we must also invest in spare parts, and stage these transformers in locations where they can be moved to where they are needed. Given the economic model for utilities where state regulators must approve any rate increases due to the investment of a utility, it will take a real awakening of the world to this risk factor to convince those in power to grant rate increases for a danger that may come tomorrow, but may not show for 100 years. Those who pay electrical bills will not understand prudent risk avoidance when it raises their electrical bills unless there is a huge effort made to teach the public about this risk.

 

Posted first on my blog at https://wordpress.com/view/evenabrokenclock.blog

Comments

opher goodwin Added Oct 21, 2018 - 7:42pm
EABC - yes - two of the risks! I have just completed a Sci-fi novel called God's Bolt about an asteroid hitting the Earth.
Spartacus Added Oct 21, 2018 - 8:16pm
EABC, there is much to debate on the effects of an event, similar to the one occurring in 1859.
 
For one, transformers will not blow due to over-demand.  If all other electrical equipment is disabled, according to your theory, where's the demand coming from? 
 
If the "demand" is the "charged particles moving past the wires", you are off by at least one order of magnitude.  The event in 1859 did not kill any telegraph operators who were indeed shocked by their stations.  We do not have more specific information on how bad they were shocked, but I expect it was high voltage but very low amperage -- certainly not enough to knock out a power transformer let alone an entire power station.  If 100 telegraph operators were fried to crispy critters from their telegraph machines, you might have a better argument.  In fact, there were no reports of even these low-voltage, with very thin wires having been disabled at all.
 
A flare impact, of the largest recorded in our history, would not affect our power grid here on earth.  Please, write a letter to your local power utility company and they will send you a nice letter, written by a team of engineers (two decades ago), explaining why your theory is not possible.  After you do that, please post the letter here.
 
Secondly, an electrical flare of the 1859 magnitude would only cause minor disruptions in communications satellites which are designed for flare events and would still be functioning but unable to communicate to earth until the flare event past.  Perhaps an hour at best and a day in the worst situations.
 
While we are on this topic, there is also the big EMP blast scare that often comes up from time to time.  The theory says that a nation could set off an EMP nuclear blast over the USA (or any nation) and knock out all electrical circuits permanently. 
Well, this is also not true.  Most electrical circuits would either be non-affected at all or just need a reboot if that circuit is processing data.
 
Luckily, we live on a very large mass that loves to suck up excess electrons.  Back in 1859 when telegraph operators (some) were given slight shocks at their desks from the flare -- these circuits were not effectively grounded and had no overload protection.  Lastly, these shocked telegraph operators were isolated in a small geographical area.  The effect of the flare then was not global, it was regional.
James Travil Added Oct 21, 2018 - 10:40pm
The risk of a stellar impact is low but it certainly does exist. One thing that I don't know if people are aware of is the fact that the supergiant black hole at the galactic core is surrounded by proto star systems and is constantly plucking entire stars and planets and hurling them out into the Milky-way galaxy in random directions at nearly the speed of light. So forget a measly asteroid, an entire planet or even a star could be sent our way. And something of that size moving at those speeds...well not only is there no way we could stop it, there would be no warning either. Just something to think about... 
Flying Junior Added Oct 22, 2018 - 3:14am
Great research.  I was scratching my head wondering where the figure of two the three days warning came from.  I may have found the answer in this NASA report on a solar flare that occurred on March 10, 1989 and hit the Earth on March 12, 1989.  I thought that if electro-magnetic radiation travels at the speed of light, would it not hit the Earth in about eight minutes?  Apparently some of the strongest radiation does travel exactly that fast.  What I learned was that a massive cloud of solar plasma began travelling to the Earth at something like 1 million mph, a speed that is but a fraction of the speed of light.
 
Thumbnail.  If the sun is ninety-three million miles away, at that speed, the cloud would hit in ninety-three hours.  When it finally hit the Earth's magnetic field, it caused a violent geomagnetic storm.  The biggest power outage was in Quebec.
 
Even though solar flares are highly energetic, the Earth has built-in protective mechanisms. Most dangerous electromagnetic radiation is absorbed by the atmosphere, and the high-energy particles are trapped and diverted by the Earth's magnetic field. The far northern or southern latitudes are the most susceptible to possible damage, and the last event of any importance was in 1989, when a large solar flare shut down service to 6 million people for up to nine hours in Quebec, Canada.
 
https://sciencing.com/long-solar-flare-reach-earth-3732.html
 
I don't know if the 1989 storm equalled that from 1859, but it has achieved legendary status in the annals of astrophysics.
 
On the evening of Monday, March 12 the vast cloud of solar plasma (a gas of electrically charged particles) finally struck Earth's magnetic field. The violence of this 'geomagnetic storm' caused spectacular 'northern lights' that could be seen as far south as Florida and Cuba. The magnetic disturbance was incredibly intense. It actually created electrical currents in the ground beneath much of North America. Just after 2:44 a.m. on March 13, the currents found a weakness in the electrical power grid of Quebec. In less than 2 minutes, the entire Quebec power grid lost power. During the 12-hour blackout that followed, millions of people suddenly found themselves in dark office buildings and underground pedestrian tunnels, and in stalled elevators...

 
The Quebec Blackout was by no means a local event...  New York Power lost 150 megawatts the moment the Quebec power grid went down. The New England Power Pool lost 1,410 megawatts at about the same time. Service to 96 electrical utilities in New England were interrupted while other reserves of electrical power were brought online. Luckily, the U.S. had the power to spare at the time…  but just barely. Across the United States from coast to coast, over 200 power grid problems erupted within minutes of the start of the March 13 storm. Fortunately none of these caused a blackout.
 
https://www.nasa.gov/topics/earth/features/sun_darkness.html
opher goodwin Added Oct 22, 2018 - 8:31am
From what I've heard a major magnetic storm could knock out satellites and the GPS system. That could be a problem!
Even A Broken Clock Added Oct 22, 2018 - 10:10am
Opher - One of my favorite sci-fi books of all time was Larry Niven and Jerry Pournelle's Lucifer's Hammer. That was a great book, and I will always remember the description of the tsunami hitting LA, with the surfer dude paddling out into the receding waters of the ocean, only to ride that wave back to where he's thinking he might survive, until some apartment block appeared in front of him like a fly-swatter.  Let us know about availability of your book.
Even A Broken Clock Added Oct 22, 2018 - 10:19am
William - I will beg to differ with you about the potential effects of an equivalent solar storm would be. First, the 1859 world probably didn't have a single transformer in service. All you had was single wire transmission, so there's a limit as to how much induced voltage  you could get. But with transformers, the windings will greatly increase the induced voltage, and the expected result will be melting transformers. But don't take my word on it, take NASA's word instead. In the link I provided, the summary of a report by the National Academy of Sciences described the potential facts. One thing I see in the report is that we can expect 1-2 days warning, instead of 2-3 days. It showed a transformer that sustained damage on a smaller event in 1989. Trust me, if we got struck on earth by a large CME, we'd be suffering. The biggest thing in our favor is that it would not affect the whole earth. Other than seeing brilliant aurora's, the side of the earth that didn't get slammed by the event would not be affected.
 
I will also disagree with you on EMP effects, but I've not researched that topic in detail. Thanks for your comment, though.
Even A Broken Clock Added Oct 22, 2018 - 10:22am
James - you are correct that the supermassive black hole at the center of our galaxy also poses a risk. The risk of a planet being flung through the galaxy does remind you a bit about celestial billiards, doesn't it? Maybe Niburu will come true after all.
 
I'd be more worried about being the target of radiation from a nearby supernova, or from the merger of two neutron stars, or maybe even the periodic sweep of radiation from the core of the galaxy. Were any of those to happen, we'd truly be screwed, and there'd be naught we could do to prevent it.
Even A Broken Clock Added Oct 22, 2018 - 10:30am
FJ - thanks for the additional explanation on the 1989 event. The link I provided showed a transformer that was damaged from a power station in New York. 
 
We don't really appreciate how fortunate we are to have a functioning magnetic field for this planet. It diverts most normal solar wind around our polar regions and all we get is aurora borealis effects. The big ones though, have enough punch to overwhelm our planetary defenses and blast through to the ground. That's when it can cause significant harm.
 
People also aren't as aware about the differing form of radiation. Only gamma radiation and other photons travels at light speed. The charged particles from CME's are mainly electrons (beta radiation) and protons (not considered as radiation, but having the same effect as electrons but packing a more massive punch).
Jim Stoner Added Oct 22, 2018 - 12:13pm
Interesting--I would be in favor of making our electrical and communications systems more resilient, while we rationalize and upgrade our grid.  I do think we also need to look at some more mundane things, though, like our roads, bridges, tunnels, and transportation systems.   And a little less spending on things like tax expenditures for wealthy individuals and corporations, and pouring money down the special interests' military procurement rabbit holes. 
Stephen Hunter Added Oct 22, 2018 - 4:02pm
So true Even, there are many things that could wipe out earth at any time. There is another one. If a star turns Supernova, there is a beam of energy that goes straight out, and if it happens to be in our direction, bye-bye! 
I think though the one you describe with a massive solar flare taking out energy and communication grids would be dreadful, and has a higher chance of happening.
Even A Broken Clock Added Oct 22, 2018 - 4:10pm
Jim, we are in violent agreement here. The electric grid is a bit more essential to our way of life, though, and I don't think we are doing much of anything to really safeguard it. And without it, we're toast. Albeit toast that is prepared over an open fire, since no toaster would work.
Even A Broken Clock Added Oct 22, 2018 - 4:12pm
Stephen - where were you when the '89 storm hit? Were you affected by the outages? As for directed beams from supernovas or from neutron star collisions, or from the center of our galaxy, no way to protect ourselves against those things.
Stephen Hunter Added Oct 22, 2018 - 4:24pm
True Even, no way of knowing that beam headed our way until it gets here, as it travels at the speed of light. 
I was living in S Ontario at the time so not affected like the people in Eastern Ontario and Quebec. Scary shit though! Even when cell towers go down for an hour, it causes anxiety. 
Henry Ortiz Added Oct 23, 2018 - 8:54am
Interesting article but I think the first risk, and the main one, we have as humanity is ourselves.
 
Long before a catastrophic interstellar accident, and a warming environment comes to our “destruction”, we will destroy ourselves through our own ambitions, and selfishness.
Even A Broken Clock Added Oct 23, 2018 - 10:00am
Henry - my earlier post detailed seven risks that humans face that represented my personal list of the highest risks. I'll be posting on each of these risks over the next few weeks. The next on is on the risk from infections diseases. Watch for it in a WB post near you!
Dino Manalis Added Oct 23, 2018 - 12:50pm
 Those celestial bodies circulate in space and sometimes threaten to crash onto Earth!
Johnny Fever Added Oct 24, 2018 - 2:22pm
I’m sorry but I see no reason to invest oodles of money towards something that will likely never happen.  There are simply too many destitute people and dying ecosystems that could use money and resources now.  Should a solar flare or asteroid cause massive damage, I have a hard time believing we’ll be prepared, no matter how many duplicate transformers you locate across the globe.  Besides, by the time one of these asteroids hits or the sun flares, we'll have probably invented some alternate form of energy rendering all those duplicate transformers junk.  Or have killed ourselves in some nuclear holocaust...haven’t you head of the Fermi Paradox?
Katharine Otto Added Oct 25, 2018 - 12:40am
Clock,
Given the hypotheticals here, I have to wonder if de-centralizing the grid would work better than beefing it up.  One advantage of living off the grid, or having a modicum of energy self-sufficiency, is that it spreads out energy sources so they aren't so vulnerable to solar flares, enemy attack, or computer failure.
 
By the way, I have a friend who claims a solid gold meteor five miles in diameter is theoretically possible.  Would it be a help or hindrance if it struck the earth?
Even A Broken Clock Added Oct 25, 2018 - 10:14am
Johnny - yes, I've heard of the Fermi paradox. But there are so many planets out there - surely someplace else has intelligent life? Well, we will see.
 
The reason why I highlighted the CME risk is that we can reasonably expect it to happen. And we are so dependent upon the electric grid right now that if a portion of the grid were to fail, life would quickly become impossible to sustain in that region (at least any type of life we are familiar with). Anyway, I can't predict what will happen in the future with energy production, but I can be a little better prepared to fix the system we all have now.
Even A Broken Clock Added Oct 25, 2018 - 10:22am
Katharine - what sort of psychedelics is your friend on? Actually, a solid metal asteroid that is mainly nickel / iron with other metals embedded is possible. We still don't know whether the asteroid belt is from a single object that had coalesced and then broke up. That's how you could get a huge chunk of metal. As far as solid gold, that seems a bit farfetched since the mechanism now known to create elements heavier than iron is a neutron star merger, and that disperses all of the elements out into the interstellar gas clouds.
 
Decentralizing the grid will definitely help Shoot, we went for our own backup of sorts by buying a natural gas generator. Now we'd only have to worry about the stability and supply of natural gas. Our neighbor across the street also has a gas generator, and who knows how many more there are. The gas line probably will not supply enough gas if too many people have installed these.
 
One problem that places with much solar power / decentralization have is someone still needs to keep up the infrastructure. Until you truly have stand-alone power, you still need a connection to the utility. That's not going away soon.
Katharine Otto Added Oct 25, 2018 - 10:03pm
Clock,
People tend to think of all-or-nothing solar, but my idea is solar for specific applications.  I my case, it would be the water pump.   When my power goes out--which happens frequently enough--I miss water first, then refrigeration, so that would be the second most demanding application.  Lights would be nice, but they don't use much power.  
 
Gas generators might be nice for the short term, but they are noisy.  I have huge propane tanks.
 
I don't believe in roof-mounted solar panels.  Too hard and dangerous to access for cleaning and maintenance.  Leaks.  Ground or outer wall mounts preferable.
 
If more people thought in terms of specific uses, a major power outage might still be inconvenient, but far less deadly.  Too bad about those people living in high-rise buildings.
 
My friend is mostly kidding.  The question is whether a 5-mile meteor would do more harm than good, even if it were of pure gold.
 
Michael B. Added Oct 26, 2018 - 1:04am
EABC, good post. I was somewhat affected by the Chelyabinsk meteor that struck Russia several years ago. A bus-sized rock traveling at approx. 30k mph that exploded with the equivalent of a 500 kiloton nuclear warhead was a not-so-subtle reminder of how this planet can quickly be turned into so much dust and vapor. The true violence of the universe is amply demonstrated by the copious cratering of various spheres without an atmosphere and/or dynamic geological activity.
Even A Broken Clock Added Oct 26, 2018 - 2:19pm
Katharine - I don't have the house alignment for solar panels, especially since I live on the side of a hill. So I don't have to worry about that. I agree that those who live in high rises will be absolutely up feces creek without a paddle during an extended power failure.
 
Our gas generator is noisy. Right now it just goes through a 5 min. cycle once a week as a test.
 
A 5 mile diameter asteroid of whatever composition would cause an effect about like the Yucatan impact that spelled doom for the dinosaurs. It would likely cause the next evolution on earth to come from the insects, since they would be just about the only things left. Think intelligent cockroaches, and you've probably got it.
Even A Broken Clock Added Oct 26, 2018 - 2:22pm
Michael, also remember the Tunguska air explosion that happened in Siberia back early last century. That one looked like a volcanic explosion, with trees toppled in all directions from the center of the detonation. They never did find a physical remnant of that asteroid. They did find some pieces of the Chelyabinsk meteor since one melted a hole in the ice in a lake. Kind of made it easy to find the remnant.
Michael B. Added Oct 26, 2018 - 10:14pm
@ EABC - I forgot to mention the 1908 Tunguska blast, thanks for reminding me. Numerous theories attempted to explain it, but the Chelyabinsk event settled it once and for all.