Saturday, March 28, 2009

Things that go Bump in the Night

Just as one threat was being shot down as being bogus... Sometimes there really are monsters under the bed. First - if you were ever worried about the Bird Flu or SARS (I still am somewhat and I bought two boxes of N95 masks (Google) for my family), Bird Flu could be nothing compared to some of the other viruses lurking out there (think HIV). Fortunately at least we have people hunting for these things. From TED (via BoingBoing):

The second is the potential of a solar space storm - here's how the New Scientist - which isn't exactly a fringe magazine, paints the worst case scenario:

IT IS midnight on 22 September 2012 and the skies above Manhattan are filled with a flickering curtain of colourful light. Few New Yorkers have seen the aurora this far south but their fascination is short-lived. Within a few seconds, electric bulbs dim and flicker, then become unusually bright for a fleeting moment. Then all the lights in the state go out. Within 90 seconds, the entire eastern half of the US is without power.

A year later and millions of Americans are dead and the nation's infrastructure lies in tatters. The World Bank declares America a developing nation. Europe, Scandinavia, China and Japan are also struggling to recover from the same fateful event - a violent storm, 150 million kilometres away on the surface of the sun.

It's not like this kind of thing hasn't happened before - it has! Just not in major population zones:
The incursion of the plasma into our atmosphere causes rapid changes in the configuration of Earth's magnetic field which, in turn, induce currents in the long wires of the power grids. The grids were not built to handle this sort of direct current electricity. The greatest danger is at the step-up and step-down transformers used to convert power from its transport voltage to domestically useful voltage. The increased DC current creates strong magnetic fields that saturate a transformer's magnetic core. The result is runaway current in the transformer's copper wiring, which rapidly heats up and melts. This is exactly what happened in the Canadian province of Quebec in March 1989, and six million people spent 9 hours without electricity. But things could get much, much worse than that.
(via China Confidential, more here and here)

The big issue is how reliant we are on an outdated electrical grid and an excellent case for decentralizing the grid. I figure though if we can get through the next 10 years without a disaster, some of the amazing technical innovations in energy will provide us with sufficient alternatives but until then... I'm not sure that relying on government is ever ideal.

Something to think about tonight when I'm sure some of you will turn off your lights in observance of "Earth Hour". Me? I think I'll keep the lights on to celebrate human civilization and hope those lights continue burning brightly.

Update: And as if we didn't already have enough things to worry about (RTE News): "A highly radioactive lead ball has gone missing in China, prompting authorities to launch an urgent search."

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