Wednesday, August 27, 2014

Instant Climate Change, Krakatoa Style

The Scream (of Nature)       Edvard Munch, 1893
Imagine waking up on this fine Wednesday morning to hear that a gigantic magnetic storm will disrupt much of the planet's electronics and communication networks on Friday. This event simply isn't going to break up your digital reception of Saturday's big game. It's going to require months of reconstruction - software and hardware - on power grids, communication systems and circuit boards on land, sea, air, and in space. I raise this issue not to alarm but to use coronal mass ejection (CME) and similar electromagnetic pulse (EMP) events as modern-day examples of climate issues that need to compete with the longer term phenomenon of global climate change. Furthermore, I am not about to deny or denigrate the existence and significance of global warming and cooling. It happens and I have no issue with mitigation and preparation for the consequences. On the other hand, sometimes our priorities don't seem to match the serious short-term and potentially catastrophic threats we face. Scientists and engineers already know of an event in 1859 that, had it occurred this morning in our high tech electronic world, would have caused widespread threats to social, political, and economic systems worldwide. There is a 12% chance of a similar event happening between now and 2022 [see citation in"1859" link].

Why raise the issue today? This day marks the 131st anniversary of the massive volcanic explosion of the Indonesian island known as Krokatoa. The event killed over 36,000 people, sent a measurable shock wave around the world seven times and produced the loudest noise
heard in recorded history, a noise heard in Perth, Australia, more than 2800 miles from the island. Geophysical impacts included a decline of over 2 degrees in the planet's average global temperatures and more than a decade of memorable atmospheric events including, vivid sunsets, lavender suns, and noctilucent clouds.

This was an astounding event in earth history and a modern-day lesson in the fragile nature of the planet and its inhabitants. As I've said before, nature in all her beauty can be a cruel mother. In light of the recent events like Mount St. Helens, record setting earthquakes, earth-grazing fireballs, and meteors, it's also a lesson that radical global climate change could occur tomorrow as well as a century from now. Granted, the sciences in question are little more than 150 years old but we have come a long way in understanding, yet we know there are some events beyond knowledge and control. 

Do keep the faith, my friends. There's a really good probability for sunrise tomorrow. The chances for more tomorrows are equally high because some of our finest earth and space scientists study and stand watch for these threats, short-term and long-term. I can't imagine a more exciting career than one exploring the far reaches of the planet and its journey in the universe.

N.B. Edvard Munch painted four versions of The Scream of Nature over a seventeen year period beginning in 1893. Some experts believe his depiction of the vivid orange-red sky came from his observations of similar sunsets caused by the explosion of Krakatoa a decade earlier.

No comments: