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Super hurricanes and solar storms and EMP… lessons about resilient tech (Part I)
David Brin   Oct 10, 2017   Contrary Brin  

We’ll get to the solar storm alert and its implications, in a minute. But first… the devastation wrought by Hurricane Harvey tears open our hearts in empathy for our fellow humans and citizens in Texas. (See a list of ways you can help.)

It also forces us to think about bigger scales – like what will it take for civilization to endure and thrive, amid an onrushing future filled with shocks? Harvey is, after all, the third “500 year event” to strike Texas in the last three years, and the tenth in a decade. Confronted with this “coincidence,” the state’s director of emergency planning – a confirmed climate denialist – snarked that “anyone can toss ten heads in a row.
Sure, but I invite you to go without eating till you manage it. Better yet, go win ten 1:500 quick-pick tickets in a row. Do that and someone’s gonna check into your cousin working at the Lottery. (See an earlier posting of a chapter from my 1989 novel EARTH, portraying a future (2038) Houston persevering after hurricane flooding.) 
Of course climate change doesn’t explain everything.  It blatantly increases the frequency and severity of bad news – like Hurricane Irma, a category 5 and bearing down on Florida, just a week after Harvey. (Irma is the strongest hurricane ever recorded in the Atlantic basin, and two more storms are forming, as we speak.)But some nasty events were going to happen, anyway.  

Separately, the topic that should be foremost is getting ready for when – inevitably – the sky will fall or the earth will shift, beneath our feet.
California's past and coming superstorm: This article reminds us, for example, of great floods that struck California in 1862, swamping the entire Central Valley and crushing towns all across the west.  Nor was this the worst that nature can bring. “Scientists looking at the thickness of sediment layers collected offshore in the Santa Barbara and San Francisco Bay areas have found geologic evidence of megastorms that occurred in the years 212, 440, 603, 1029, 1418, and 1605, coinciding with climatological events that were happening elsewhere in the world.”
The core issue is: shouldn’t we be preparing better? Especially since climate change is actually real?
== Cyclones only begin our list of perils ==
Likewise, we’ve had other natural catastrophes on our minds -- and variable levels of sagacious preparation. Does it surprise you that, in what can safely be called opposite-to-wise governance, the Trump Administration has been yanking support from both earthquake and tsunami-warning systems?
Few prophesied dangers raise hand-wringing as much as civilization-wide disruption by an Electromagnetic Pulse, or EMP. After all, what do you figure Kim Jong Un imagines he might accomplish with the one or two bombs he might get through to North America? Even landing one amid a city would be little more than another disaster to overcome, with a resilient and mighty nation swooping in to help the afflicted, rebuilding and mourning with one hand… while stomping him flat with the other. Kim knows this…
…but he might convince himself that one nuke exploded high over our continent could neutralize all our satellites and throw America back to a pre-electronics stone age. 

(In which case, we should ask ourselves: “which power would benefit most from a no-America vacuum? And might this explain why Pyongyang’s technicians have grown so ‘capable,’ all of a sudden?” I know one sentence that could - possibly - get that major power to back down.)
Okay, set aside the threat that a single, North Korean nuke might cause, popping an EMP over North America. What about natural versions of the same calamity, courtesy of our sun? Speaking to you as the discoverer of the Great Solar Flare of 1972 – (I was the duty observer at the Big Bear Observatory that summer, when it burst) – let me tell you them things can be fierce! The resulting Coronal Mass Ejection can be rough, especially when a CME happens to flow right at our planet. As seems likely this week, according to NOAA!
The effects can be beautiful, when our protective magnetosphere channels solar particles from a small-to-moderate CME away from temperate climes and toward the magnetic poles, charging atmospheric gases to glow in gaudy aurorae. (Any high-rollers out there; I’ll be guiding an arctic aurora expedition, next March.) And to be clear so there’s no cause for immediate panic; this week’s event isn’t likely to do much more than make a show for people north of Chicago. But when a big CME strikes us head-on, the effects can be much more serious.
We’ve has ‘sunspot’ disruptions of our communications within living memory, but nothing like the Carrington Event of 1859, that fried telegraph systems around the world. And tree ring analysis suggests that another solar event may have made the 1859 one look tame by comparison, several thousand years before written records. Almost annually, for decades, I have urged various defense agencies to pay more attention to our civilization’s vulnerability to a deliberate or natural EMP.
EMP/CME impact on our electricity grid has long been foreseen - and more of a risk than nuclear war or an asteroid strike. See James Cameron’s Dark Angel post EMP apocalypse TV show. Now The Economist is highlighting it. My own tech sense is that a higher fraction of our tools would survive or reboot. But we’re fools not to be spending 20x as much on this. 
Without any doubt, human activity – e.g. climate change or enemy action -- is making our dangers far more serious. But even without deliberate meddling, this kind of thing is going to happen! We’d best spend time, energy and money making sure that we’re robust.  

Hence, I urge you all, as individuals to give some thought to your family’s emergency plans and supplies.  And look into getting trained for CERT – your local Community Emergency Response Team – which does civil defense prep in your area.
And reiterating -- for decades I have hectored (by invitation) members of our Protector Caste at the Pentagon, CIA, OSTP, ODNI, DTRA and many other alphabet agencies, that they cannot carry this burden alone.
As revealed by the heroic neighborliness of the “Cajun Navy,” it’s clear that the Cincinnatus tradition of America can still rely on a resilient citizenry! In fact, on 9/11, every single good and useful thing that was accomplished that day – including fighting back against the hijackers of flight UA93 – was done by average folks, empowered by … cell phones.  (See Rebeccas Solnit’s book: A Paradise Built in Hell: The Extraordinary Communities that Arise in Disaster.) 
So that’s what I'll talk about next, in Part 2.
David Brin Ph.D. is a scientist and best-selling author whose future-oriented novels include Earth, The Postman, and Hugo Award winners Startide Rising and The Uplift War. David's newest novel - Existence - is now available, published by Tor Books."

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