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July 24, 2014

Our Enemy, The Sun: Two Years Ago, A Massive and Potentially Catastrophic Coronal Ejection Just Barely Missed The Earth

We probably would have survived.

Most of us, anyway.

It would depend on how well humans adapted to living without electricity for a few months or a year.

Fortunately, the blast site of the CMEs was not directed at Earth. Had this event occurred a week earlier when the point of eruption was Earth-facing, a potentially disastrous outcome would have unfolded.

"I have come away from our recent studies more convinced than ever that Earth and its inhabitants were incredibly fortunate that the 2012 eruption happened when it did," Baker tells NASA. "If the eruption had occurred only one week earlier, Earth would have been in the line of fire."


... NASA offers this sobering assessment:

Analysts believe that a direct hit ...could cause widespread power blackouts, disabling everything that plugs into a wall socket. Most people wouldn't even be able to flush their toilet because urban water supplies largely rely on electric pumps.

. . .

According to a study by the National Academy of Sciences, the total economic impact could exceed $2 trillion or 20 times greater than the costs of a Hurricane Katrina. Multi-ton transformers damaged by such a storm might take years to repair.

CWGs Steve Tracton put it this way in his frightening overview of the risks of a severe solar storm: "The consequences could be devastating for commerce, transportation, agriculture and food stocks, fuel and water supplies, human health and medical facilities, national security, and daily life in general."

Read on. One guy claims that the odds of experiencing this type of direct hit in the next ten years are... ten percent.

This story immediately called to mind a piece I had seen discussed at Volokh about the Fermi Paradox.

The Paradox goes like this: There are a huge number of stars in the universe. There are 100-400 billion in our galaxy alone, and there are 100-400 billion galaxies. (IIRC.)

Given all those stars, surely some would have generated life (assuming, of course, that life does not require a divine genesis) and reached the technological capacity to communicate with us or even travel to our planet and say "Hello."

So: Where are they?

But that's not the interesting part. The interesting part is this: Given the assumptions of the first part of the paradox (that it is almost a statistical certainty that some number of alien planets should have generated technologically-advanced life by now), and the fact of the second part (that we've seen nothing), then we need an explanation for this -- why is the universe so deathly silent?

And "deathly" is the key word there.

And one of those explanations is that technologically advanced societies just cannot live very long at all. They die very quickly.

This would explain why no one's picked up the Space Phone to say hello: Because shortly after inventing the Space Phone, they were all wiped out.

Or set back a thousand years.

By what?

Well, that's why the coronal mass ejection story jogged my memory.

Maybe stars are a lot more lethal than we know. After all, we wouldn't know how lethal a star could be until after it had already killed us all -- at which point, we would no longer be around to remember or document this fact in books.

This guy talks about this in this more-academic article, noting that the "Great Sieve" -- whatever factor it is that sharply limits the number of technologically advanced societies-- must either be in our past (that is, it is virtually impossible for life to arise, and hence we should not be surprised that there's none of it out there) or in our future (that at some point it is nearly inevitable that a civilization destroys itself, or is destroyed by regularly-operating forces which periodically return it to the stone age, or just actual stone).

And if that's the case -- that the Great Sieve lay before us -- then we have to wonder about when our planetary ticket is scheduled to be punched.

It's actually pretty sobering stuff.

If the difficult part is behind us, we're okay. If we're just extraordinary/lucky to exist at all, then the Hard Part was already accomplished a billion years ago.

But if the difficult part lay ahead of us, we might soon be joining all those thousands or millions of intelligent species that weren't able to stick around long enough to say hello to anyone else.

(That link was cribbed from Volokh too -- or, more accurately, Ilya Somin.)

Corrected: I stupidly failed to say "100-400 billion" galaxies. My claim that there are only 100-400 galaxies in the universe was a typo.



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posted by Ace at 01:25 PM

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