Catastrophes—always be prepared

January 27, 2010

By Drs. Robert & Sonia Vogl

President and Vice President

Illinois Renewable Energy Association

When a catastrophe such as Hurricane Katrina or the Haitian earthquake strikes, it raises questions regarding the vulnerability of modern civilization to natural forces and human predators.

One potentially massive threat could come from another solar superstorm, such as the one in September 1859. Such storms result when the sun ejects a coronal mass of hot gases with powerful magnetic fields. If the fields are exceptionally intense and opposite to the Earth’s magnetic field, the Earth’s field can no longer block the surge that disrupts electrical services.

The storm of 1859 was the most powerful one on record. Telegraph wires in the United States and Europe were shorted out, producing numerous fires. Fortunately, electrical services were very limited. We now live in an expanding electrified world with increased vulnerabilities. In 1989, a much smaller solar storm cut power to the entire province of Quebec.

Scientists are confident another superstorm can be detected in advance, but they will not know its full extent before its arrival, and do not expect to know the direction of the Earth’s magnetic field when the storm arrives. Although it poses little direct threat to people, electrical technologies would be widely damaged.

Beyond damaging natural events are accidental or deliberate acts that contribute to catastrophic occurrences, such as the meltdown of the Chernobyl nuclear power plant or the Bhopal disaster, an industrial catastrophe involving release of toxic gases at a pesticide plant in India. Death estimates ranged from 2,200 to 15,000.

In their 1982 book, Brittle Power, Amory and Hunter Lovins posed scenarios under which energy services in the United States could be disrupted, inflicting substantial economic damage and human suffering. Well-informed, technically-skilled people could target a variety of vulnerable points in our energy supply systems and bring them to a halt regionally or nationally. They argued our society becomes more vulnerable as it becomes more centralized and integrated, but would be much more resilient if our services were decentralized and redundant.

Some recent writings address the question of societal collapse resulting from forces such as climate change, peak oil and economic malfeasance, and suggest we should prepare for a very difficult transition.

In Haiti, the severity of the earthquake overwhelmed a population that long suffered from a combination of forces that led to an extremely-impoverished nation with few resources for dealing with such a powerful earthquake.

With 30 years of outsourcing our industrial base and declining wages and job prospects, individuals and communities are reorganizing their lives around the theme of survival and local economic initiatives. With that focus, gardening, local food supplies, alternative forms of transportation, smaller homes or more people per residence, lower consumption of goods and services, healthier lifestyles and more frugal living are gaining acceptance.

While it is not the world we were prepared to live in, it is the one we are being forced to live in. We might as well prepare now. At a minimum, we suggest storing a week’s supply of food and water.

Drs. Robert and Sonia Vogl are founders and officers of the Illinois Renewable Energy Association (IREA) and coordinate the annual Renewable Energy and Sustainable Lifestyle Fair. The Vogls and the IREA are members of the Environmental Hall of Fame. Dr. Robert Vogl is vice president of Freedom Field, and Dr. Sonia Vogl is a member of Freedom Field’s Executive Committee. The Vogls consult on energy efficiency, renewable energy and green building. They have 3.2 kW of PV and a 1 kW wind generator at their home. Forty acres of their 180-acre home farm are in ecological restorations. They are active in preserving natural areas and are retired professors from Northern Illinois University. E-mail sonia@essex1.com.

From the Jan. 27-Feb. 2, 2010 issue

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