To play on a phrase from "Star Trek": "Space. The final weather frontier."
I just learned that space weather is something that exists. I asked Vic if he had ever heard of space weather, and he said no.
We knew about solar wind, which is a steady stream of subatomic particles coming out from the sun. Solar wind can affect Earth's magnetic field. But we did not know that there is a field of science dedicated to studying and forecasting that wind, or space weather, as it affects Earth.
I learned about space weather in a roundabout fashion. I have become a follower of the National Geographic television series "Doomsday Preppers." The series profiles people who are preparing for Armageddon and the end of the world caused by one thing or another. Some of them say they are preparing for a C.M.E. that will knock out our power grid.
At first I thought, "Oh, no, something else to worry about."
My next thought was, "What the heck is a C.M.E.?"
I'm a biologist, not an astrophysicist. I had to look it up. Seems it stands for "coronal mass ejection." I had to look that up too. A coronal mass ejection is what happens when there is a large solar flare.
Our sun is basically a huge ball of super hot hydrogen. It's so hot that the hydrogen has gone beyond the gas stage to the plasma stage. I'm sure the astrophysicists are cringing, but as far as I can make out, plasma is like melted gas.
Matter is now recognized as having four stages: solid, liquid, gas and plasma. In the form of plasma, the protons, electrons and neutrons of the atoms have all separated, and those subatomic particles are just floating around separately.
So get this. The sun is so hot that the hydrogen isn't in the form of gas anymore; it's plasma. A solar flare, or C.M.E., sends bursts of plasma, or subatomic particles, hurtling toward Earth.
It seems that there are magnetic swirls of these subatomic particles all around the sun's surface. In photographs, they look to me like loops of yarn. Sometimes these loops knock into each other, expand outward from the surface of the sun (called the corona), and break open. Whoopee, a coronal mass ejection of plasma occurs.
This creates a solar wind that hurtles toward earth at breathtaking speeds of up to two million miles an hour. A solar flare bursts outward with a force equivalent to nearly one billion hydrogen bombs. Space weather forecasters track these solar flares and forecast C.M.E. events that will affect people.
Before you all head to a bomb shelter, let's remember that these happen all the time. But they happen more at some times than others. The sun goes through what are called sun spot cycles approximately every 11 years. That's when coronal mass ejections become more frequent. After a long period of quiet on the sun, we are now in another sun spot or solar flare cycle.
Actually, we are experiencing a C.M.E. right now. Visit http://www.swpc.noaa.gov/SWN/ to get the daily space weather forecast if you're interested. Another good website is http://www.spaceweather.com.
What happens when a C.M.E. hits Earth is that the solar wind deforms our planet's magnetosphere. This results in spectacular displays of Northern lights, or the Aurora Borealis. That's the pretty part. The ugly part is that a C.M.E. can also disrupt GPS signals and communications at high latitudes, and can blow power transformers.
In fact, a large C.M.E. knocked out the power grid in Quebec in 1989, disrupting power to 6 million people for 9 hours. Since then, the power companies have learned ways to mitigate for these occurrences so there is less danger of the entire grid going down.
The problem is that these big transformers aren't an item just sitting on the shelf as replacement parts down at Radio Shack. It takes a year to build a new one. If many transformers are blown in an event as big as the C.M.E. that occurred in 1859, and that knocked out telegraphs around the world, it could take years to replace them all.
It made me wonder if we were at risk for such an event here in Huntington Beach. I looked into it, and it seems that coronal mass ejections are far more likely to affect the power in northern states. Oregon has a 70% probability of losing power due to a large C.M.E. But California has only a 7% probability of having its power knocked out. However, energy experts say if a really major C.M.E. occurs, areas could be without power for 4 to 10 years.
I continue to watch "Doomsday Preppers." Many of these folks are pretty wacky and build their lives around expecting imminent catastrophe. But there is also good common sense in taking some modest steps to prepare for emergencies.
I am a prepper, but not a doomsday prepper. I don't believe that the end of the world is around the corner. I guess I'm a disaster prepper. I believe that help will be on its way after a disaster, but that it might take a lot longer than three days to get here.
Many types of major disaster could occur in Southern California: earthquake, fire, flood, or other. Food, money, gasoline, and drinking water could be impossible to get for some period of time.
This is why I prepare. Not for an epic disaster of years in duration, but one lasting weeks. I recently added to our food and water stores to ensure at least a month's worth of both.
I also bought a water filter at REI that would allow us to drop a hose into our rain barrels or Huntington Lake and filter out any bacteria, viruses, herbicides and pesticides to get clean drinking water.
In addition, I bought a toilet seat that fits onto a five-gallon bucket, plus bags that gel and deodorize waste in case our sanitation system goes down.
I don't expect to ever use these things. But if the worst happens, even an unlikely major C.M.E., we're prepared. Are you?
If not, visit http://www.readyOC.org. Get a kit, make a plan, get educated.
VIC LEIPZIG and LOU MURRAY are Huntington Beach residents and environmentalists. They can be reached at LmurrayPhD@gmail.com.