Saturday, November 21, 2015

Step 6: There's an App for That!

When I was nine years old, my parents asked me what I wanted to be when I grew up.  "An astronaut, archaeologist or a go-go dancer,” I replied.  I swear I'm not making this up.

If you don't know what a go-go dancer is, then let me to explain.  During the 1960s, go-go dancers were the girls wearing tight mini-skirts and knee-high white boots while dancing in cages overlooking a pulsating dance floor.  I really liked those boots. 

Personally, I think the go-go dancer career choice should have been a red flag but my parents just smiled and nodded.  Fortunately, the dance world remained safe and, instead, I grew up to become a reporter, pilot and disaster communications professional.

But, before all that happened, I first enrolled in university to become an archaeologist.  Since my childhood love of dinosaurs had been unshakable, I signed up for some classes where, to my significant embarrassment, I learned that archeology and paleontology were actually two very different disciplines.  Contrary to popular belief, archaeologists don’t study dinosaurs, they study past cultures.  Who knew?

Although my university classes eventually taught me how to say “Australopithecus,” I realized that I wasn’t cut out for a career that might, if I was really lucky, culminate in a ground-breaking discovery based on an ancient pottery chip the size of a nickel.  Truthfully, I just wanted to find Atlantis.  That self-awareness, combined with a bad back, sent me down an entirely different career path but I never lost my love of all things ancient. 
Today, I have a lot of admiration for archaeologists and paleontologists (those lucky people who really do study dinosaurs) because, like me, they, too, want to know what the heck happened back then.  And, that’s where space science might one day be able to provide some of those missing puzzle pieces.  Some large gaps in human history may be related to natural disasters that came from above and have yet to be identified.  I’m a firm believer that a surprised “uh oh” has been uttered immediately prior to many historical turning points.

While scientists hunt for clues to our past, others are wondering if we will have enough time to find them before something else happens.  Is there any danger that past events could return to take down our civilization?  Some say yes, others say no.  If you want to ensure that your family is safe and prepared, how do you determine the risk level?  Is it real or just hype? 
Let's take a look at one of my favorite threats, our sun – the giver of life, red, blistery skin and squinty-eyed photos.  Now, just to clarify for those readers who are not science junkies, yes, our sun is a star and, no, it's not on fire.  And, just to cover off all my bases, yes, we orbit around it – something we've been doing for a very long time.

So, what's the problem then?  Well, quite frequently, the sun vomits and, if we happen to be in the way, space weather scientists will then announce that a solar flare is on its way and "earth-directed."  If we're not in the way, then the solar flare goes flying past and takes out somebody else.  Apparently, that's usually Mars. (Read Cosmos Magazine's How the Sun stole Mars' atmosphere)

When we are in the way of a solar flare, which happens A LOT, typically, there's little damage thanks to Earth's protective magnetic field which is actually produced by the rotation of our planet's core (we think). 

Solar storms are just a fact of life on Earth.  Sometimes, they’re responsible for annoyingly dropped cellphone calls, HAM radio disruption, GPS coordinates off by a few yards and pretty aurora light shows.  If you’ve ever lived in a far north or far south part of the globe, you’ve likely seen the aurora lights as a dancing, wavy curtain of green in the sky.  Sometimes, the aurora can be red (rare) or a mixture of colors depending on levels of oxygen in the upper atmosphere.  I know.  Too much science.  I'll stop. 

But, in addition to flares, there's another kind of solar storm called a coronal mass ejection (CME).  They both come from the sun but, as NASA explains it, if solar flares are a muzzle flash, then a CME is a cannonball.  It's a good analogy.   

CMEs are massive, fast-moving bursts of solar matter, ejected outwards from the sun and travelling at around one million miles per hour.  As naturally-occurring electromagnetic pulses, they are so powerful that they temporarily deform our planet's magnetic field, change the direction of compass needles and create large electrical ground currents in the Earth itself. 

It’s been rumored that some countries are trying to turn the CME phenomena into a weapon using man-made electromagnetic pulses called EMPs.  An EMP weapon would likely originate from a satellite and, if unleashed on a target, like a city, could cause every electronic device and computer to instantly fail, achieving the ultimate blue screen of death for millions.  This failure would be complete with no reboot possible as all data and operating systems would be erased when the EMP hit. 

Unfortunately, a naturally-produced massive CME from the sun could do much worse.  A CME could destroy civilization as we know it and here's how. 

Although Earth has been living with the sun’s mood swings for a very long time, it’s only during the last 100 years that our society has been living full-time with electricity.  Today, transmission lines, transformers and the grid could become supercharged by the extra current and permanently fail during a massive CME like the one that occurred in 1859. 

Named after British astronomer, Richard Carrington, the 1859 Carrington event is the most powerful geomagnetic storm ever recorded and one that gives many people the willies.  (Read National Geographic's What if the biggest solar storm on record happened today?)

In February, 2012, the North American Electric Reliability Corporation (NERC) released a report asserting that even a worst-case geomagnetic "super storm" like the 1859 Carrington event would likely not damage most power grid transformers but could cause voltage instability and possibly result in a blackout lasting hours or days, but not months or years.  That’s good, right?  Inconvenient but we could survive that. 
Unfortunately, NERC’s assertions were not supported by any of the official studies performed by the U.S. Congress or the U.S. Government.  In fact, reports by the Congressional EMP Commission (2008), the National Academy of Sciences (2008), the Department of Energy and NERC itself in 2010 (High-Impact, Low-Frequency Event Risk to the North American Bulk Power System), the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (2010) and, more recently, the Defence Committee of the British Parliament (2012) all independently arrived at the same conclusion – that a great geomagnetic storm would cause widespread damage to power grid transformers, result in a protracted blackout lasting months or years and have catastrophic consequences for society.  That’s bad.

At the time, the man who presented these findings as well as an analysis of the conflicting information was Dr. Peter Vincent Pry, executive director of the EMP Task Force on National and Homeland Security – a group established to advise the U.S. Congress on natural and man-made EMPs and other threats, and what to do about them.  He noted, in his presentation, that the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) report concluded that power could be interrupted for several years.  He also let it be known that he was not impressed with NERC’s “junk science” and that pilot projects, seeking protective solutions, needed to be initiated immediately.
Quite frankly, it was both scary and heart-warming to see a report that was easy to understand and passionate about the risk level.  Since most are reluctant to stick their necks out and ring the alarm bells, we would do well to listen to a distinguished scientist such as Dr. Pry as he tries to warn people.

So, has anything been done to address this worst-case scenario?  Wikipedia has an interesting entry that says, “Because of serious concerns that utilities have failed to set protection standards and are unprepared for a severe solar storm such as a Carrington event, the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) is now in the process of a proposed ruling that may require utilities to create a standard that would require power grids to be protected from severe solar storms.”
Unfortunately, actually implementing the necessary changes to protect any country’s electrical infrastructure is going to be exceptionally costly and difficult.  While new transformers and transmissions lines may be somewhat protected, most believe that it is nearly impossible to retrofit any protection into older equipment which makes up the majority of the North American electrical grid.  And, without pilot projects to find out, we’ll never know.

A CME that takes down the grid is a great example of how bad things can happen to good people.  Some scientists believe that an extended blackout of up to three years could occur if a CME overloaded it.  Remember back to the last power outage you experienced.  For most people, the computer was down but your cellphone worked.  The fridge stayed cold for awhile and flashlights or candles gave off some light until the power came back on a few hours later.  Now, imagine the power not coming back on for three years. 
Three years.  No electricity.  It's an apocalyptic scenario.

A Carrington-style event has never hit us during a time of heavy dependence on electrical utilities but the implications of that are simply terrifying.   Damage would be widespread and repairs nearly impossible since the factories that manufacture the replacement parts for transformers and transmission lines would not be running because, well, there's no electricity.  Nations would go dark in more ways than one.

Even though our society would crumble, the planet would look exactly as it had before the massive CME hit.  Blue skies, sun shinning, cats being lazy.  The only difference is that there would be no electricity and that one fact would end our civilization as we know it.  No banking, no life-saving medications, no mass food production, no fuel, no communication, no transportation of goods or people, no critical infrastructure operating.  You get the idea.

So, what happened the last time this occurred?

Back in 1859, life, for many, was hard but early technology was in use.  An American patent for an indoor toilet had been granted two years earlier, in 1857, while the first sewing machine and steamboat already existed.  Machine guns (1862), a motion picture camera (1889) and the radio (1891) were just about to be invented.  The telephone would take another 17 years before it first appeared in 1876. 
Of course, when the Carrington event hit, computers had yet to be invented but the telegraph was in existence.  All over Europe and North America, telegraph systems failed and, in some cases, actually shocked the people using them.  Even more startling, some machines continued to work even after operators had disconnected their batteries.

During this event, the Boston Traveler newspaper reported the following conversation between two operators of the American Telegraph Line between Boston and Portland, Maine:
Boston operator (to Portland operator): “Please cut off your battery entirely for fifteen minutes.”

Portland: “Will do so.  It is now disconnected.”
Boston: “Mine is disconnected and we are working with the auroral current.  How do you receive my writing?”

Portland: “Better than with our batteries on.  Current comes and goes gradually.”
Boston: “My current is very strong at times and we can work better without the batteries as the aurora seems to neutralize and augment our batteries alternately, making current too strong at times for our relay magnets.  Suppose we work without batteries while we are affected by this trouble.”

Portland: “Very well.  Shall I go ahead with business?”
Boston: “Yes. Go ahead.”

These operators didn’t know it at the time but they were writing history, literally. 
The Carrington event was so strong that, according to other reports, the “northern lights” were seen around the world, even as far south as the Caribbean.  Gold miners in the Rocky Mountains awoke in the middle of the night and began preparing breakfast because the aurora’s glow simulated morning sunlight while other people claimed they could read a newspaper by its light.   

Since then, smaller solar storms have occurred in 1921 and 1960, causing significant radio disruption, while another geomagnetic storm in 1989 knocked out power across large sections of Quebec, Canada.  Why Quebec?  No one knows for sure but it was likely just a case of being in the wrong latitude at the right time. 
Since most of Quebec sits on hard rock, known as the Canadian Shield, the auroral current may have been prevented from travelling through the ground and, instead, much to the dismay of many, it chose the path of least resistance which was Hydro Quebec’s long transmission lines, causing a significant blackout.  During that same event, polar satellites also lost control for several hours and even the space shuttle Discovery had sensor problems which went away after the solar storm ended.

Now, if you're still with me, then, congratulations on making it this far (this blog is a long one but I felt it couldn't be chopped into two posts).  Having said that, I'd understand if you might be incredulously wondering what's the chance of this happening again? 

Seriously, what are the chances?

No one is sure but, brace yourself, NASA recently revealed that we narrowly missed a Carrington event on July 23, 2012.  The event happened but our orbital position allowed for a glancing blow instead of a full-on hit.  Researchers believe that, had it hit, the event would have been stronger than a Carrington event and that it actually involved two CMEs.  If you're not totally panicked or depressed by now, you can read NASA's release about it entitled Carrington-class CME narrowly misses Earth.

Needless to say, if you haven't decided on what level you want to prep to, then a Carrington event might persuade you to go all the way.  With any disaster, you'll want to stash some cash and, with more severe disaster types, you'll want to stock some gold and silver.  But, if a Carrington event happens again, packets of seeds will be the new currency.

Step 6: There's an App for That!

When you put together an emergency kit or stock long-term supplies, one item that's often overlooked is information.  Although there's an impressive group of people out there that have taught themselves how to re-start civilization, most of us haven't had the inclination to even get a kit together, let alone learn how to grow potatoes or build a shelter from tree branches. 

But, if you're interested, there's a wealth of knowledge available, including free books, training and cellphone apps, to help you learn everything you've ever wanted to know about prepping but were afraid to ask. 

All it takes is a little of your time to browse through the links below to see what you'd like to know ahead of an incident.  Or, store the info as a hard-copy in your emergency kits for use during or after an incident.  If you don't have time to learn it now, there's a good chance you'd have time to learn it long as you can access the information.

At the very least, make sure to include (and protect in a waterproof container) a hard copy version of a survival first aid manual.

Remember, a CME might take down the grid so don't rely 100% on e-books.  Read them now but make sure you have printed hard-copies of your favorite publications and checklists (many government publications are available in printed form for free or you can use your own printer, although there's the cost of ink to think about).

Free Books and Publications

How-to knowledge, especially for surviving specific risks like an earthquake or a tornado, is a vital aspect of pre-incident preparedness while other books, like ones on survival and first aid, are perfect for including in long-term supplies.  

Don't forget to include a few start-civilization-over books.  For example, a book on identifying herbs and poisonous plants, understanding weather systems, how to cultivate a garden and another one on identifying animal tracks are great items to include in your the-end-of-the-world-as-we-know-it (TEOTWAWKI) kit.  Yes, there really is an acronym for that.  Anyway, here's a few to get you started.  

Free Preparedness Info (this link has a staggering list of free downloads in all categories)

Free Kindle Books on preparedness, homesteading and survival (check often, typically free for only 24 hours so watch the price on download)

Free Family Planning for Disasters Publications (a mixture of hard-copies and PDFs available from the US Government, similar webpages may exist in other countries)

Free FEMA Publications (covering seniors, families, businesses, special needs and pets, available as hard copies and PDFs)

You can also search for your own country's free publications using search terms like "free emergency preparedness books" or "free disaster planning."  Just add the word "free" in front of your search term.

Free Training

To find a resource in your country, try doing a search using terms like "free emergency training" or "free emergency planning course."  Here's a small sample below, just to illustrate what's available.

(USA) FEMA offers free distance learning for members of the general public as well as emergency responders and volunteers.  Currently, there are 197 courses to choose from.

(USA) American Red Cross offers free courses in disaster preparedness and other related topics.  Make sure to search online for your local area.

(Canada) The City of Vancouver offers free disaster planning workshops covering everything from tsunamis to heat waves.

(New Zealand) Massey University offers free emergency management courses covering resilience, readiness, response and recovery. 

Another way to gain free training is to consider joining a club or volunteer organization.  In the US, CERT (Community Emergency Response Team) members receive training, opportunities to participate in disaster exercises and mentorship from those who have real-life experience.

Free Videos

Don't forget to check out YouTube to see what videos are available.  Just enter search terms like "growing vegetables" or "survival tips."  Here's a few but the sky's the limit when it comes to search topics.  Pick a subject and press play.

(Family Disaster Planning)

(Jamie Lee Curtis for the Red Cross)

(Car Emergency Kit)

(Active Shooter Survival Tips)

Free Cellphone Apps

Since we have electricity, let's embrace all that it offers including these free cellphone apps.  By searching, you'll find others that do everything from monitoring river levels (for flooding) to coaching victims of PTSD (see link below).

Top 5 Free Disaster Apps for iPhone and Android

Disaster Radar (Real-time global monitoring, needs iTunes account, free, most countries)

Red Cross (Suite of free Red Cross apps from first aid to disaster alerts, worth checking)

PTSD Coach (Free from Veterans Affairs, downloaded 100,000 times in 74 countries)

Weather Disaster Alert (for Android phones, free)

Weather Underground (for iOS phones, free)

Weather Underground (for Android phones, free)

Earth Alerts (Windows, global coverage, option to send alerts to your cellphone, free)

Free Pet First Aid Apps

Let's not forget to prepare a kit for our furry loved ones and then download a pet first ad app to help in emergencies.

Red Cross Pet First Aid (for Android phones, free)

Red Cross Pet First Aid (for iOS phone, free although the CNET link mentions .99 cent cost, I believe it's a mistake as the Apple site says its free and that matches with the Android version).

Good luck with the inclusion of knowledge into your emergency planning and preparedness efforts.  Knowledge is power but it's also survival.

Thanks for reading and happy learning!

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© Copyright 2015 Nancy Argyle


  1. For a good look at how this might play out, I would encourage you to read "One Second After" by William R. Forstchen. Part staff study and part novel it lays out a highly probable chain of events following a major disruption such as this.

    1. Thanks, Tim, for the comment. I've been meaning to read "One Second After" for awhile now. I will put on my Christmas reading list.