My “Space-Weather Project” raises some interesting questions. Some of these are about what we know about the Sun-Earth system and how we have come to know it. That’s the science part, and it is plenty complicated. It’s all about how the Sun affects the space around the Earth, and about the natural phenomena the Sun produces around and near the Earth. Some other questions the project raises are about how these natural events, a part of the solar system since before humans farmed or built cities, affect us and our lives. This requires a lot of subtlety. At the moment, I cannot think of another exact parallel in the interaction between what we know, how we live, and the environment in which we live. I hope if this post inspires some ideas, that you will let me know. Right now I am a bit bewildered. So, beyond the science part, there is a human part, a technological part, and an environmental part. Complication on complication. Help me sort it out.
Here is the problem in a nutshell. The Sun has been sending out various “emanations” since long before we knew anything about them. We can now talk about solar wind, proton storms, and bursts of x-rays. But this is all new, really, since the mid-20th century. Again, this is the science part and there is an involved and interesting story about how we have come to understand as much about this as we do. Although that plays a role in the Space-Weather Project, it is not the whole story and maybe it is not even the most important part of the story. Humans always saw earthly effects of these solar events in the aurora, and our ancestors had intriguing, beguiling explanations that helped them live with these sporadic lights in the sky.
But everything changed in the mid-19th century. At that point, individuals with adequate leisure and curiosity – mostly natural philosophers in Europe and Europe’s diasporan areas – began devising instruments and procedures that revealed natural phenomena not evident to people in ordinary daily life. Specifically, they began to study electricity and magnetism and their place not only in laboratories but also in the natural world around us. These are esoteric, subtle phenomena. They still are not obvious to most of us, even though we depend on electricity and magnetism every day. We now use electricity even while we sleep. And from the moment we wake up, it infiltrates every part of our experience: the alarm rings, we flip on the lights, we listen to the radio and check our cell phones before we leave the comfort of our sheets. Then we leave the house, stop at the traffic signal, get money from the ATM, and one way or another, the rest of each day is regulated and enabled and also restricted by the electromagnetic fields that permeate our lives. Let’s face it, our lives are electromagnetic. And we don’t recognize even a shade of how deep this reality goes. Hell, I am writing this on a computer. Even though I have no internet access at this moment, I am writing, getting my thoughts down, and I am wondering: When will I get a chance to post this on the internet? Since 1820, when Hans Christian Oersted first exhibited the interdependence of electrical currents and magnetic fields, we have come a long way. And it’s not all positive.
This is a very intimate reflection for me, and it should be for you too. Here is my question for today. Can you think of any other phenomenon that brings natural phenomena, technology, and daily life together in an analogous way? I cannot at this point and I do seek insight from others. If what I say next inspires some ideas, email me at email@example.com.
Here is the framework. The natural phenomena of space weather used to show themselves only as aurora. (Saying phenomena –plural – is not an oversight. I am not talking of only one “thing”). Today, space weather manifests in radio blackouts, GPS errors, and compromising of the electrical grid. Understand: this does not happen daily, and I have no intention of crying wolf. The effects of space weather on our technical systems may occur every day, but the effects overwhelmingly are nothing for most of us to be alarmed about. Indeed, these effects very rarely will rise to the attention of any non-specialist. More on this part later.
My first thesis is simply stated. Our technical systems are becoming simultaneously more central to our lives and more susceptible to disruption from natural events. This requires lots of teasing out, but many people see its basic dimensions intuitively. We depend more on cell phones, integration into the web, etc., every day. These depend on transistors, micro-circuits, and transmission lines. How often do you drop a call when you need it most? How often do you lose the internet? (As I have right now, sitting in a modern, uncheap hotel, in a major U.S. city.) I don’t know about you, but in the last four years, my electricity has failed for a total of about three weeks. Our technical systems are essential and vulnerable: to incompetence, to a direcchio, and to blizzards. And so far I have not said much about the Sun. What if that very rare event happened – a massive coronal mass ejection (CME)? What if it took out the power grid and the satellites and all the dependent technologies? Cell phones, GPS, food in the freezer, your car, email and FaceBook? This starts to sound like a human catastrophe. That is what it could be, depending on how long the effects lasted. This starts to sound alarmist, but it gets your attention. Now let’s slow down and think more soberly about this human-environmental-technological nexus.
First I should say that even without the alarmism, we should be concerned about our technical systems generally. Every time we introduce a new technology we open ourselves to new vulnerabilities. We grasp at immediacy in our interactions. We welcome every new technical convenience. With each of these, how many of us take one second to consider unintended consequences? Most people are motivated by something much more visceral: the latest cool thing, closer interaction with our employer or our family, or a new way to make money. There are always unexpected consequences.
This is, in part, a history of risk and vulnerability, of our efforts to understand and control nature, or at least, to minimize unintended harmful effects on our technological choices. This is true with mundane technologies, such as heating and cooling systems or cars, and even more so with extensively disruptive technologies, such as nuclear bombs or purposeful large-scale experiments or manipulations of the environment: geoengineering. What can also come with any of these technical choices is higher exposure to natural phenomena. These phenomena might have been there all along, like space weather, or these might be changes we introduce into the environment, as in high-altitude nuclear tests, DDT, or hormones in the water.
I cannot, however, think of one natural risk that is exactly like space weather. Consider volcanoes and earthquakes. They are similar to space weather in their scope and scale. Moreover, their scope and scale are not affected by human actions: puny humans cannot change these phenomena, they overwhelm us. But volcanoes and earthquakes differ immediately in that we have always been vulnerable to them. Think Santorini, Pompey, and the Lisbon and San Francisco earthquakes. We increase our vulnerability to volcanoes and earthquakes mainly in choosing where we live. But our technological choices over time have not increased our vulnerability to volcanoes and earthquakes. In the case of space weather, technological choices have transformed esoteric natural phenomena into human vulnerability.
Another situation is presented by storm surge and hurricanes, tornadoes, forest fires, and peak weather and climatic events like floods and droughts. Like volcanoes and earthquakes, human exposure to these dangers has been mainly a choice of where we live. Also like volcanoes and earthquakes and unlike space weather, we have always been endangered by these phenomena. But these reverse the polarity in another way. Human technological choices have intensified these atmospheric/hydrologic phenomena in the last few centuries, mainly through the global-scale use of fossil fuels. Through the injection of fossilized CO2 into the atmosphere, by removing it from solid rock or liquid trapped deep in the Earth, we have unleashed global chemical change that intensifies pre-existing phenomena which negatively affect humanity. They increase our vulnerability. But there is one last way these differ from space weather. The increased vulnerability is of a mundane sort. Floods, droughts, rising seas or rising temperatures do not pose any new kind of threats to our technologies. We could predict that roads or power plants or even electronic gadgets would be destroyed by water or fire. This is normal destruction. Space weather destroys technologies via means that have only become known as the new technologies themselves appeared. It’s not quite the same.
So, there are natural phenomena to which humans have become more vulnerable because we have changed the natural environment. There are other natural phenomena to which we have become more vulnerable mainly through our choice of where to live. And then there is space weather. We have become more vulnerable to space weather without changing the phenomena and where we live is irrelevant. We have become more vulnerable to it because we have become dependent on technologies that are sensitive to natural phenomena that never before affected us. And we have become more vulnerable to space weather because these technological choices integrate us globally in a way never before seen in human history. Our electronics and our use of electricity connect us intimately to the Sun in new ways. This requires us to ask new questions about nature, the environment, our technologies, and vulnerability.