Saturday, May 7, 2011

I told you so

I recall reading an article "Drowning New Orleans," by Mark Fischetti in the October 2001 issue of Scientific American that warned of the large losses of property and life that would result should a large hurricane strike New Orleans. The same article recommended simple remedies to the system of levies that would more than pay for themselves in the event of a disaster. A few years later, Hurricane Katrina did exactly what the article had predicted. As is common, warnings from scientists were ignored and the damage far outweighed the cost of prevention.

Part of the resistance to global warming research may stem from the high cost of taking action relative to the perceived uncertainties in climate research. However, other disasters are waiting to happen that should be taken seriously. The potential culprit? Our sun.

In 1859, British amateur astronomer Richard Carrington reported his observations of a huge solar flare that produced aura from earth's poles down to the equator and disabled the telegraph system. Today, such an event would knock out power service to 130 million Americans, not to mention its affect on the rest of the world. Many power transformers would be fried in the process, and could take years to replace given today's manufacturing capacity. As a result, some communities would be without power for years.

The science connecting solar flares and damage to the power grid is well understood and not in doubt. The only unknown is when. It is therefore prudent to take preventative action that protects us from the immense social and economic consequences of this inevitable event.

Hurricane Katrina is an example of a natural phenomena whose effects could have been mitigated had the politicians heeded the warnings of scientists. I hope that scientists will never have the opportunity for an "I told you so" moment when it comes to the power grid. We are all too dependent on electricity to take chances.