Journalists: The Purveyors of Doom

Why do journalists always feel it necessary to report science in alarmist terms?

Solar storms and the geomagnetic consequences are serious and the subject of serious study but such study is devalued when sensationalised by intrepid reporters from the outback.

Yesterday’s Daily Telegraph informed us that “Nasa warns solar flares from ‘huge space storm’ will cause devastation”. The reporter Andrew Hough goes on breathlessly  to explain that the “Daily Telegraph can disclose” that

National power grids could overheat and air travel severely disrupted while electronic items, navigation devices and major satellites could stop working after the Sun reaches its maximum power in a few years. Senior space agency scientists believe the Earth will be hit with unprecedented levels of magnetic energy from solar flares after the Sun wakes “from a deep slumber” sometime around 2013. In a new warning, Nasa said the super storm would hit like “a bolt of lightning” and could cause catastrophic consequences for the world’s health, emergency services and national security unless precautions are taken. “We know it is coming but we don’t know how bad it is going to be,” said Dr Richard Fisher, the director of Nasa’s Heliophysics division. Every 22 years the Sun’s magnetic energy cycle peaks while the number of sun spots – or flares – hits a maximum level every 11 years. Dr Fisher, a Nasa scientist for 20 years, said these two events would combine in 2013 to produce huge levels of radiation.

We should head for the hills !!!!

The 22 year Solar Cycle – the Babcock cycle was discovered by HW Babcock in 1961.

In 2007 NASA was predicting the Cycle 24 maximum for 2011 as a strong maximum or in 2012 as a weak maximum. By March 2009 the maximum was being forecast for May 2013 with the admission that “It turns out that none of our models were totally correct,” says Dean Pesnell of the Goddard Space Flight Center, NASA’s lead representative on the panel. “The sun is behaving in an unexpected and very interesting way.”

The great 1859 storm– the “Carrington Event” – electrified transmission cables, set some papers on fire in a few telegraph offices, and produced exceptionally  bright Northern Lights. Some electrical disruption also occurred during storms in 1921, 1937, 1941 and 1958. On August 4, 1972 a solar flare knocked out long-distance telephone communication across Illinois. That event, in fact, caused AT&T to redesign its power system for transatlantic cables. A similar flare on March 13, 1989, provoked geomagnetic storms that disrupted electric power transmission from the Hydro Québec generating station in Canada. In  2005, a solar storm disrupted satellite-to-ground communications and Global Positioning System (GPS) navigation signals for about 10 minutes.

There is a long way in nature from notable to  disruption to devastation and to catastrophe; but in journalism the distance seems exceedingly short.

Tags: , , , ,

%d bloggers like this: