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August 30, 2014
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Not the end of the world, but…

Tony Staffieri

December 21, the Friday before Christmas, marks the winter solstice, a date that also looms large for the so-called Mayan “end-of-the-world” prediction. Despite what you may have heard, the Maya did not predict the end of the world. What these ancient “astronomers” did do was produce highly accurate and complex astronomical calendars (and there were many) that predicted events such as solar eclipses, transits of the sun by Venus (a rare occurrence) and other celestial happenings.

This year, there was news about a newly discovered Mayan calendar that refutes all the myth and hype surrounding the calendar that’s causing all the brouhaha. An archeological expedition in Guatemala that began in 2010 uncovered a Mayan calendar that is 600 years older than any previously known, and (more importantly) it tracks time for over 7,000 years, extending well beyond this Christmas. That’s the good news.

The Mayan “prophecy” and the publicity that surrounds it, however, are obscuring a real warning about important celestial events we should all be concerned about. These warnings come from the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA).

Scientists who watch the heavens, know that the sun erupts in cycles approximately every 11 years. Commonly called sunspots, these solar storms are really huge ejections of electromagnetic energy (coronal mass ejections or CMEs) that explode as solar flares out into space. When a cycle reaches its peak, it is called a solar maximum, and for the last few years, NASA has been predicating a very serious solar maximum to take place from late 2012 through early 2013. In fact, on November 16 this year, two massive CMEs occurred four hours apart. They were so large they were referred to as “solar storm tsunamis.” Fortunately, these CMEs missed earth, but NASA caught the whole thing on tape, and it’s chilling. (www.space.com/18533-giant-sun-eruption-nasa-video.html)

So, you may ask—with the sun 93 million miles away, what can a solar flare possibly do to us?

Solar flares can penetrate the electromagnetic shield that protects the earth, interrupting electronic communications and satellite transmissions, interfering with navigation systems and wrecking havoc with our electric grid (which is already overwhelmed and very fragile). In our everyday lives, they can affect the electronics in everything from microwave ovens and TVs to automobiles, planes, buildings and more. Our modern way of life, totally dependent on electricity, truly is vulnerable to solar flares.

History reminds us of what can happen. “On September 1, 1859, an electromagnetic storm raged across our planet. The sky lit up with a brilliant aurora, bright enough to erase the darkness of night, and telegraph systems sparked and malfunctioned, (in the U.S. and the U.K.) shocking their operators as they struggled to send their messages.” (en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Solar_storm_of_1859) The impact this flare had on the rudimentary technology of 1859 did little to disrupt people’s lives, but our world today is different.

In more recent times, a solar flare on March 13, 1989 knocked out power to six million residents in Quebec and, closer to home, it destroyed a $12-million generator/step-up transformer owned by the Public Service Electric and Gas Company of New Jersey.

For people living in the Catskills and Hudson Valley, who lost electricity during the recent earthly storm named Hurricane Sandy, it’s not very hard to imagine the consequences of an even more destructive solar storm that could take out our electrical grid. FEMA, the Federal Emergency Management Agency, would do what it could, but we should not count on them to deliver food, water, heat and power to us quickly. If NASA’s predictions are correct, we must be ready to withstand loss of power for weeks or even months.

Consider, too, what will happen after two or three weeks without power, when nearby friends and relatives in the big cities leave and head to the smaller towns in our region. (On a smaller scale, this actually happened after 9/11.) Imagine people filling our guest rooms, sleeping on our floors and sharing our food. Complete strangers will be asking for our help. Right now in Narrowsburg, up to 70 families already depend on the Narrowsburg Ecumenical Food Pantry. We are a hamlet of less than 500 people. Do the math.

None of us is really ready for an event of this magnitude. As Hurricane Sandy demonstrated—stuff happens, sometimes really bad, life-altering stuff.

As I learned in Boy Scouts: Always be prepared.