Saturday, January 2, 2016

Step 7: The Gift That Keeps On Giving

Ever since we discovered the terrifying threat of huge geomagnetic CME storms, like the Carrington event of 1859, we've been on the hunt for other space invaders with similar potential and, in the years that followed, our list of threatening acronyms continued to grow.  Ironically, our understanding of “stuff we can’t control” partly came out of efforts to blow up other countries with a nuclear bomb. 
Now, if you thought my last post on CMEs was scary (and they are), then let me introduce you to the Gamma Ray Burst (GRB).  GRBs are considered the single most powerful space event and can be detected all the way from the other side of the universe.  They were first discovered in 1967 by a US Vela satellite sent up to keep an eye on the Russians – specifically to watch for nuclear testing.  Imagine this satellite’s surprise when it captured some naughty business going on but nowhere near Russia. 

Satellite overlord Ray Klebesadel and his team from the famous Los Alamos Scientific Laboratory in the United States were the first people to witness an event that looked like a nuclear explosion but wasn’t.  Analyzing the data, they ultimately decided it was unlike any known nuclear weapons signature, considered it non-urgent and filed it away.  Seriously, that's what scientists sometimes have to do.  If they can't explain it, they let some time pass, hoping something will help solve the mystery which is exactly what happened.

Eventually, the team gained better instruments and data and the discovery of GRBs, the most violent phenomenon in the universe, was declassified and published in 1973 in an Astrophysical Journal article.  The assumption then was that they didn’t happen very often which was good news because a GRB was capable of killing a lot of life forms. Unlike a CME, which could just take down our modern electrical grid, a GRB could do that as well as end life as we know it.  If you thought having X-ray vision might be fun, well, it's not.
A super-sized dose of radiation from a GRB is just one of the theories being considered as a cause of five major extinction events where large numbers of life forms on Earth died out mysteriously.  Since GRBs disrupt photosynthesis, it’s considered a safe bet that increased radiation levels of around 50 per cent prompted broader extinction events due to plant die-off.  Simply put, when plants die, the food chain suffers and eventually takes down everything that eats from it including large meat-eaters who eat smaller plant-eaters and so on.  That's if you weren't on the earth-facing side to the GRB and already dead from a cell-exploding blast of radiation.

Fast forward many more years in our research efforts and another group of scientists found, much to everyone’s surprise, that the Earth had probably been irradiated by a GRB back in 775 A.D. which, as far as everyone could tell, was just a tad alarming.  Since humankind was still around, they had to assume that this was not an extinction-level event but it was still in our very recent past. 

Scientist Fusa Miyake’s work on ancient Japanese cedar tree rings provided astronomers Valeri Hambaryan and Ralph Neuhäuser the evidence they needed to deduce that the culprit GRB only delivered a very short burst of a second or two of gamma rays and was far enough away that no harm came to life.  Any closer or longer duration burst and you likely wouldn’t be reading this.
Short-lasting GRBs, like this one, are believed to be caused when two neutron stars smash into each other.  If you recall my earlier post where I mention Theia (or Wrong-Way Harold as I like to call it), the smaller planet that smashed into Earth and then created the Moon, you'll start to see that the universe is similar to driving in a foreign country.  Not every space body understands the traffic laws and there are a LOT of collisions.  

In the case of the recent GRB event, other than some possible climate change, there’s a very good chance that our 8th century ancestors never knew what hit them.  However, according to an article in Scientific American, they may have witnessed something since medieval texts record the appearance of a “red crucifix” glowing in the night sky around that time.

Speaking about the 775 A.D. GRB, astronomer Dr. Neuhäuser noted that “if the gamma ray burst had been much closer to the Earth, it would have caused significant harm to the biosphere.  But, even thousands of light years away, a similar event today could cause havoc with the sensitive electronic systems that advanced societies have come to depend on.”  Great.  Just great. 

Another scholarly article on the same event in the esteemed Nature journal, says “such an event would cause great damage to modern technology...this issue merits attention.”  No kidding.  Especially since most of Earth’s population have never heard of a GRB.
In a May 2013 Forbes interview, Grant Hill, an astronomer at the WM Keck Observatory in Hawaii, noted that, right now, the Earth may be lying within the sights of a potentially lethal gamma-ray burst.  According to the article, a Wolf-Rayet star called WR 104, some 8000 light years away (this is practically across the street), is ripe to undergo a core-collapse supernova that could generate a seconds-long burst of dangerous gamma rays that could wipe out a quarter of our planet's protective atmospheric ozone.

"We could see it go supernova anywhere from tomorrow to 500,000 years from now," says Hill.  "For all intents and purposes, the gamma ray burst and optical photons from the supernova would arrive simultaneously," he adds.  This is a nice way of saying that we won’t see that one coming.

Today, we're still learning about GRBs but we now know that orbiting satellites detect, on average, approximately one GRB per day.  The closest one was observed March, 2014, in a distant dwarf galaxy 130 million light years away which is good news for us but bad news for anybody in that galaxy.

By now, you might be thinking what my mother often does which is “Why didn’t anyone tell me about this?”  Although there are scientists and researchers trying to educate, I think most scientists don’t want to be seen as being alarmist.  In fact, telling a scientist that they're “alarmist” is equivalent to swearing at them. 

As a disaster communicator, I ran into this issue many times in trying to raise awareness about the potential for a mega-quake on the west coast of North America.  When I gave an interview in the 1990s and said "we're living on borrowed time," one geologist friend told me he was embarrassed for me.  Needless to say, I'm delighted to see insightful science stories being shared in the media over the past year.  (Read the New Yorker's story on the potential for a west coast mega-quake called The Really Big One which scared the bejesus out of everyone.) 

Understandably, science is focused on making new discoveries, providing explanations to mysteries and finding solutions to problems.  It gets uncomfortable and downright cranky when a rogue scientist talks about alarming possibilities without a lot of data to back it up.  Typically, science does not sound the alarm until the theories have been proven and the numbers confirmed.  Perfect.  But does this mean we will have to experience a GRB that kills humankind to then be able to say that “Yes, we have the data that proves we no longer exist because of a gamma ray burst.”  Maybe not.

I see positive changes within the scientific community through an increased willingness to interpret and extrapolate on the data that they do have.  Sure, there's a lot of weasel words thrown in like "might, "possibly" and "unconfirmed" but that's okay.  It's still better to inform than ignore when it comes to potential scenarios.

Hopefully, none of these horrific acronyms, like a civilization-killing CME or a life-ending GRB, assert their dominance over the planet before we find some survival solutions but I think most of us would still like to know what's gunning for us.  And, as an advocate of emergency preparedness, I find people are more likely to take things seriously and get prepared when they're informed.  When the populace is not informed, they tend to focus on the shallow end of the pool until they find themselves suddenly drowning in the deep end during a major disaster.

When it comes to Really Big Space Events (RBSEs), we're somewhat limited in what we can do but future technology may change that.  Between the asteroids, comets, solar storms, gamma ray bursts, dark energy, colliding stars and matter-eating black holes, it all sounds scarily fascinating as long as it stays far, far away.  Which leads me to the question of how far do you go with your preparedness efforts? 

Do you prep for a GRB?  I imagine that some secret government agency has done that but, for the average person, there comes a point where you may just want to accept that you've done the best you can and leave it at that. 

One humorous commenter on my post about prepper personality types said there should be a category called "Nice Try."  Although she was talking about how she didn't think she had done enough, in another way, she's correct in that there are some scenarios that could turn all of our preparedness efforts into a "nice try, earthlings."  But, those threats aside, the practical reality is that the remaining disaster scenarios are much better managed and survived by being prepared.

Even if you ignore all of the space invaders, the list of disasters that Earth has in store for us is staggering so get ready.  Because every day, in some town somewhere, there's a wild ride happening and, one day, you might be one of the unlucky ticket holders.

Step 7: The Gift That Keeps On Giving

No matter what the occasion, there's nothing more loving than a gift that says "Hey, I really want you to survive so enjoy this gift that I hope you'll never use." 

Whether it's an actual gift or a gift card, let's look at how you can use your "present power" to turn gifts into gear and quickly move your preparedness efforts forward at no cost to you.

Gift Cards

Today, it's becoming more common to receive gift cards instead of presents for Christmas, birthdays and other special events.  Some people will even ask what store you want the gift card to which gives you a perfect opportunity for suggesting retailers that sell the kind of items you want in your emergency kits.  Here are a few ideas of how to do this like a pro:
  • If you want to keep your preparedness efforts quiet, then simply ask for gift cards to stores that offer building/hardware, hunting/camping or automotive supplies.  In North America, some examples include Bass Pro, Home Depot, Canadian Tire, Home Hardware, Lowe's, Mountain Equipment Co-Op and shops like these.
  • As a security measure, some suggest not letting others know about your preparedness efforts but if you don't mind advertising the fact then ask for gift cards to specialty preparedness stores.  Just search for the ones in your local area.  These stores carry a comprehensive selection of items that are often reviewed and rated by other preppers.
  • If you want to quickly and cheaply build a kit, ask for a gift card to a Dollar store.  A $20 gift card will get you 10-15 items that you can use.
  • If you ask for and receive a Walmart gift card, rejoice because it's especially good for stockpiling food and canned goods. 
Keep your mind open as any gift card can carry the hidden power to help build your kits.  Got a gift card to a drugstore?  Use it to stock over-the-counter medications, diapers or first aid supplies.  How about one to a clothing store?  Look for deals on cold weather gear, backpacks and good walking shoes.  Received a gift card to a book store?  Buy a book on survival, weather spotting or first aid.


If you don't typically receive gift cards but, instead, you're asked to provide gift ideas, then don't miss the opportunity to make suggestions that will support your emergency kit efforts.  Many emergency preparedness items sound like regular camping supplies so go ahead and ask away.

Having said that, don't be afraid to talk about your short-term emergency kit needs (everyone should be talking about what they're doing to be prepared for power outages, winter storms, tornadoes, wildfires, earthquakes and such).  However, you may want to be quiet about extensive long-term supplies.  The jury is out on this one as some argue that your chances of survival increase by being part of a community (and not a loner) while others say that long-term supplies attract attention because so few people have planned for those scenarios.  If you're prepping long-term, my advice is to keep it in the family.

Finally, think before you re-gift.  We've all received a gift that we didn't want or need and then found someone else to give it to but, before doing that, consider whether it's a good candidate for your emergency supplies.  For example, did you get a hand, body or hair product you don't use?  Add it to your long-term supplies when you might not be so picky.  How about an item of clothing that isn't your style?  After a disaster, you may not care as much about how it looks.  Got a tool or gadget that isn't as nice as the one you already have?  See if it can be used in your car kit, work kit or evacuation kit.

If you do receive a disaster gadget as a gift or buy one with your gift card:
  • Make sure you test it out.
  • Get familiar with how it works (prior to a disaster).
  • Keep its manual and the correct batteries (if required) stored with the item. 
  • If it uses batteries, don't install them.  Just tape/attach in a bag with the item as the batteries will last longer this way.
Emergency preparedness presents keep on giving long past the occasion and can bring peace of mind which is truly a gift that's worth receiving.

Thanks for reading!

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© Copyright 2016 Nancy Argyle

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