Yesterday was the Summer Solstice. The sun was as high in the sky as it gets in the Northern Hemisphere. Thus today's topic.
Buried in paragraph 12 of a story about solar flares, which itself was buried on page F1 (Health & Science) of yesterday's Washington Post, was this tidbit of what might be considered useful information from a report by the National Academy of Sciences on what a major solar flare might mean to the inhabitants of certain portions of the U.S. of A.:
"An 1859-level storm could knock out power to parts of the northeastern and northwestern United States for months or even years.
"135 million Americans would be forced to revert to a pre-electric lifestyle or relocate. Water systems would fail Food would spoil. Thousands could die. The financial cost could be up to $2 trillion, one-seventh of the U.S. gross domestic product."
I like the fact that writer Brian Vastag put that "thousands would die" thing in the middle of his list of really bad outcomes.
This isn't just some pie-in-the-sky idle chatter. Just a couple of weeks ago there was a major burst of solar energy that missed the Earth but was significant enough to cause scientists who track these things to head into the office early and fire up the computers to see what was what.
In fact, yesterday morning -- just hours before the official beginning of summer -- according to MSNBC: "A solar storm triggered a massive eruption of plasma, known as a coronal mass ejection."
I know the term "coronal mass ejection" sounds suspiciously like the beginning of an Anthony Weiner joke, but quit thinking like Beavis and Butthead. Again, according to MSNBC: "Coronal mass ejections are massive eruptions of charged particles and solar material from the sun's surface."
That 1859 solar storm hit about 20 minutes after the telegraph had been invented, but there were enough wires and stations so that the wires attracted the charged particles and telegraph equipment burst into flame.
Imagine what would happen to that new high-tech one-cup-at-a-time coffee maker up there on the fourth floor.
Not having access to Starbucks for three months might be just about enough to do you in if one or more of these consequences from the Washington Post piece, of an 1859-level storm don't:
-- Communications satellites will be knocked offline.
-- Financial transactions, timed and transmitted via those satellite, will fail, causing millions or billions in losses.
-- The GPS system will go wonky.
-- Flights between North America and Asia, over the North Pole, will have to be rerouted, as they were in April during a weak solar storm at a cost to the airlines of $100,000 a flight.
-- Oil pipelines, particularly in Alaska and Canada, will suffer corrosion as they, like power lines, conduct electricity from the solar storm.
I am wasting your time with this because it seems to me that one could make the case that the sun god is becoming angry with us for thinking we - humans - control the Earth's weather and is about to show us who is boss.
Greek and Roman lore is full of examples of the gods taking steps to remind humans that we are but toys in the playpens of Mount Olympus or wherever they were hanging about while they tinkered with our lives.
Sometimes we suffered because Greek gods, like humans, had trouble controlling their kids. The story of Phaeton, the son of the sun god Helios, is a good example.
Phaeton got the keys to the family chariot, lost control of it (sound familiar so far?) and set fire to the Earth.
In one version of the story, the chairman of the gods intervened by giving Phaeton a Leroy Jethro Zeus whack to the back of the head (actually he fired thunderbolts at the chariot) to save the Earth but did Phaeton in for the price of it.
The sun is awakening from its slumber and we may be in for some major storms.
iPads and smartphones; HD-TVs and laptops; cars and airplanes; anything electric … everything electric…
Just like in "The Day the Earth Stood Still" (the Michael Rennie version, not the Keanu Reeves version).
Maybe we should all go outside, look toward the sky (but not at the sun) and chant: Klaatu barada nikto
Or, like everything else, we can just forget about it and leave it to our kids and grandchildren to worry about.
On the Secret Decoder Ring today: Links to as much as you can want to know about solar storms. Also to the myths of Phaeton, a topic-appropriate Mullfoto and a Catchy Caption of the Day.