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Asteroids & Solar Flares (what are the real risks?)

15 Feb 2013, 7:21 am
Close Call



To paraphrase comedian George Carlin “between asteroid near-misses and giant solar flares – don’t sweat the snow flurries!” Today 2012 DA14, a 150 foot wide chunk of rock, passes 17,500 miles above the Earth. In astronomical terms that’s a very close call.



My friends in emergency management remind me that the solar cycle peaks in 2013. Apparently there’s a 1 in 9 chance of a once-in-a-century solar super-storm capable of bringing down portions of the grid. Imagine a world without reality TV, e-mail spam or Facebook?



Some days the 19th century sounds pretty good.



We live with relative risk every day. And for the record the odds of succumbing to stroke, cancer, heart disease or firearms are astronomically higher than asteroid strikes, or even natural disasters. Details on the blog below.



The latter half of February looks colder than average, a swipe of (fresh!) Canadian air today & Saturday, again the middle of next week. It won’t be as Nanook as January; a higher sun angle already having an impact. A big eastern storm may brush the upper Midwest with light snow late next week; perhaps a few inches.



Glass half full: having cold air in place increases the potential for big storms into March.

From The National Safety Council – source here.

Cause of Death Lifetime Odds
Heart Disease 1-in-5
Cancer 1-in-7
Stroke 1-in-23
Accidental Injury 1-in-36
Motor Vehicle Accident* 1-in-100
Intentional Self-harm (suicide) 1-in-121
Falling Down 1-in-246
Assault by Firearm 1-in-325
Fire or Smoke 1-in-1,116
Natural Forces (heat, cold, storms, quakes, etc.) 1-in-3,357
Electrocution* 1-in-5,000
Drowning 1-in-8,942
Air Travel Accident* 1-in-20,000
Flood* (included also in Natural Forces above) 1-in-30,000
Legal Execution 1-in-58,618
Tornado* (included also in Natural Forces above) 1-in-60,000
Lightning Strike (included also in Natural Forces above) 1-in-83,930
Snake, Bee or other Venomous Bite or Sting* 1-in-100,000
Earthquake (included also in Natural Forces above) 1-in-131,890
Dog Attack 1-in-147,717
Asteroid Impact* 1-in-200,000**
Tsunami* 1-in-500,000
Fireworks Discharge 1-in-615,488





Earth To Narrowly Avoid Collision With 150-Foot Wide Asteroid Today. Hey, have that extra large decaf latte! And you may want to hold your breath and click your heels a few times – for luck – around 1:24 pm. Here’s an excerpt of a story at The Washington Post: “Early (this) afternoon (2:24 p.m. EST), planet Earth will be buzzed by an asteroid some 150 feet wide, identified as 2012 DA14, as it intersects Earth’s orbit just 17,500 miles above our heads. According to NASA, this is the closest documented encounter of an asteroid this large (excluding ones which actually smashed into the Earth). While this might not seem at first even a close miss, on the cosmic scale of the solar system, it certainly qualifies as a very close call…”
Image credit here.

Asteroids And Solar Flares: What Are The Risks? We really don’t have to worry about today’s near-miss with the asteroid, but there is a fair amount of paranoia about the solar cycle and the risk of an (historic) solar flare. Here’s a 2:30 YouTube explainer, courtesy of WeatherNation TV: “Meteorologist Paul Douglas looks at the upcoming close encounter of Asteroid 2012 DA14 plus the potential for a once in a century solar flare. Where do these events fall on the worry scale?


Another Near Miss? ECMWF model guidance is trending next week’s storm too far south/east of Minnesota for significant snow; a better chance of a plowable accumulation from Iowa into Wisconsin – the atmosphere warm enough for rain over much of the Ohio Valley and East Coast. Map above valid next Friday morning courtesy of WSI.

NHC: Hurricane Sandy Caused $50 Billion In Damage, Killed 147. Here’s an excerpt of good summary of a recent NOAA report on Sandy from The Sun-Sentinel: “Hurricane Sandy caused almost $50 billion in damage when it struck the East Coast in October, making it the second costliest storm behind Hurricane Katrina  to hit the United States since 1900. That’s according to the final Sandy report, released by the National Hurricane Center on Tuesday. The report also noted that Sandy killed a total of 147 people, with 72 of those in the Mid-Atlantic and Northeast U.S. Sandy was a “a classic late-season hurricane in the southwestern Caribbean Sea,” the report said. Before striking the U.S. coastline, it hit Jamaica as a Category 1 hurricane, Cuba as a Category 3 and the Bahamas as a Category 1…” (Sandy photo courtesy of FEMA).

* Sandy was America’s second costliest storm, second only to Katrina in 2005. Details from Huffington Post.

Hurricane’s Downgrade Undercut Warnings, Report Finds. Sandy was a (freak) mash-up of fading hurricane and major Nor’easter. Technically it wasn’t a hurricane as it approached the New Jersey shoreline, and not using the hurricane terminology (“Hurricane Warnings”, etc) may have given the impression that Sandy wasn’t a dangerous storms. Of course nothing could be further from the truth. Here’s an excerpt from a New York Times story: “…Issuing a hurricane warning and then downgrading the storm to a post-tropical cyclone could have devastating consequences, emergency management officials across the region warned agency officials, with people deciding that the storm did not pose a serious threat. “We could have continued to call it a hurricane for one or two days,” said James Franklin, the chief of hurricane forecasts for the center. But that would have been a lie, he said, and “would have utterly destroyed the credibility of the agency in the long run….”

January 2013 Recap. Nationwide it was the 39th warmest January on record, according to NOAA data. For a complete overview of last month click here.

Royal Academy Of Engineering Says UK Better Prepared For Solar Superstorm. The solar cycle peaks in the coming months, and there’s a fair amount of angst about the risk of a “super-flare”, something that could bring down the grid. Alarmist hype? I certainly hope so. Here’s a snippet of an interesting story at “Britain is better prepared for a solar superstorm than many countries, including the United States. The Royal Academy of Engineering has released a multi-disciplinary report on space weather’s impact on Britain, as part of the UK National Risk Assessment. The declassified portion of the assessment shows the level of UK preparedness in the face of severe solar storms, and outlines the dangers Earth faces from superstorms and how to avoid or mitigate damage…”

Image credit above: “Artist’s impression of the interaction of the Sun and the Earth’s magnetosphere.” (Image: NASA)

Can Emprimus Save Civilization? During every 13 year solar cycle there is a 1 in 9 risk of a once-in-a-century solar storm, potentially big enough to bring down portions of the electrical grid. As if we don’t all have enough to worry about. Here’s an excerpt of a fascinating story from Twin Cities Business: “When George Anderson looks up, he sees national vulnerability. It isn’t asteroids that worry Anderson, and he’s unconcerned about global warming. Instead, he thinks a cloud of magnetically charged gas is going to float down from the sky and scramble our electronics. Data centers from coast to coast will be erased in a flash. Airplanes will fall from the sky. Blackouts will plunge the country into prolonged food and water shortages, eventually leading to lawlessness and chaos. It sounds like the setup for a screenplay by Lost creator J. J. Abrams, but Anderson insists it isn’t science fiction. He’s stockpiling food for his family. He’s also been pouring his personal fortune into a new company called Emprimus that is starting to be noticed, and that he hopes can help save civilization. While he’s not the only one who’s alarmed about the risk, he faces stiff headwinds from a slow-to-change power generating industry. Can a business founded on an iffy doomsday scenario primed to occur as early as next year gain traction in time to make a difference?…”

Image credit above: Photography by Travis Anderson. “Engineer and Emprimus founder George Anderson“.

More Signs Point To An Apple iWatch. Dick Tracy, here we come. has the story (and speculation); here’s an excerpt: “What will Apple’s next big product be? Two months ago, if you’d polled a room full of analysts, most would have likely answered a TV set. Recently, though, a picture has been forming of a smaller and more portable innovation: the smartwatch. Three major media outlets have now separately reported that Apple is indeed working on an iWatch. Following previous reports from the New York Times and Wall Street Journal, Bloomberg now adds that Apple has a team of 100 product designers working on the smartwatch. The group – which includes hardware, software, and marketing specialists – has reportedly grown within the last year…”

Good Cyber-Advice. Below find tips from the United States Computer Emergency Readiness Team (US-CERT) on how to protect your personal information online:

·         Be careful supplying personal information – Unless you trust a site, don’t give your address, passwords, or financial information. Look for indications that the site uses SSL to encrypt your information (such as the ‘s’ in ‘https’).


·         Limit cookies – To make sure that other sites are not collecting personal information about you without your knowledge, choose to only allow cookies for the web site you are visiting and block or limit cookies from a third-party. If you are using a public computer, you should make sure that cookies are disabled.


·         Do not use your primary email address in online submissions – Submitting your email address could result in spam. If you do not want your primary email account flooded with unwanted messages, consider opening an additional email account for use online.


·         Avoid using debit cards for online purchases – Credit cards usually offer some protection against identity theft and may limit the monetary amount you will be responsible for paying.


·         Devote one credit card to online purchases – Consider opening a credit card account for use only online. Keep a minimum credit line on the account to limit the amount of charges an attacker can accumulate.


TV Zombie Attack Warning A False Alarm. Really? And here I’ve been hiding in my safe room for the last 48 hours. This is funny, in a tragic sort of way. Here’s an excerpt from The LaCrosse Tribune: “A goof-up by some La Crosse disc jockeys caused WKBT-TV viewers to hear a warning of a zombie attack. The message went out shortly after 7:30 a.m. Tuesday when the hosts of the Z-93 morning show were joking about how hackers broke into the Emergency Alert System of a Montana TV station Monday and sent out the bogus warning. The problem: Z-93 is the primary station in the local emergency network, and when they played a tape of the hoax, the alert tones triggered WKBT’s receiver, which automatically rebroadcast the signal…”

An Enlightening Valentines Day. Talk about creative – this is for a true weather enthusiast (storm chaser?) on Valentine’s Day – thanks to Mike Hall for sharing this one.

Clipped Again. Thanks to Diane Baum from Inver Grove Heights for sending in this photo of a snowy parking lot after the 1-1.5″ of fluff that fell Wednesday night.

* photo above from Lewisport, Kentucky courtesy of Mike Hall Photography.

Climate Stories…

Bill McKibben Is Coming To Minnesota Next Week. Environmentalist, author and climate change activist Bill McKibben is coming to Minnesota next week, to ski the “Birkie”, and to talk about his research and findings, and what they mean for Minnesota. “Getting Bill McKibben (author and founder of to come and ski the Birkie has been a ten year project for me“, said Paul Thompson, co-founder of Cool Planet, the host of McKibben’s 5-day visit to Minnesota and Wisconsin February 20-24. “It is a huge honor for the global leader of the climate solutions movement to take this kind of time to do what he loves, cross country ski, and to share his love of winter with all of us.”

Here’s what Bill is saying about the Birkebeiner Ski Marathon and his efforts to preserve winter for future generations:

The Birkie is one of the temporary and unofficial – but completely wonderful – capitals of North American Winter. So it’s the perfect place to talk about what we have to do to keep this season skiable forever!

In McKibben’s presentations at the University of St. Thomas (2/20, 7 pm) and Macalaster College (2/21, noon) he’ll talk about the current state of climate science, and the necessary scale and pace of our efforts to do something about global warming. In particular, Bill will discuss the leading role colleges can play now as fossil fuel divestment has become the hottest student movement in several decades. We hope to see you there. Details at

Arctic Death Spiral Bombshell: Cryo-Sat2 Confirms Sea Ice Volume Has Collapsed. This is the most troubling news I’ve heard in a long time, confirmation that not only aerial extent, but (more even more importantly) arctic sea ice volume has diminished – dramatically. Here’s an excerpt from Think Progress: “The sharp drop in Arctic sea ice area has been matched by a harder-to-see, but equally sharp, drop in sea ice thickness. The combined result has been a collapse in total sea ice volume — to one fifth of its level in 1980. Back in September, Climate Progress reported that the European Space Agency’s CryoSat-2 probe appeared to support the key conclusion of the Pan-Arctic Ice Ocean Modeling and Assimilation System (PIOMAS) at the University of Washington’s Polar Science Center: Arctic sea ice volume has been collapsing much faster than sea ice area (or extent) because the ice has been getting thinner and thinner...”

Secret Funding Helped Build Vast Network Of Climate Denial Thinktanks. The Guardian is doing some terrific reporting; here’s another story that caught my eye, proving that the amount of money in play is staggering. Fossil fuel interests are doing anything and everything to perpetuate confusion (“The science isn’t settled! There is no consensus!”) – hoping to delay any real action on reducing greenhouse gas emissions. Here’s an excerpt: “Conservative billionaires used a secretive funding route to channel nearly $120m (£77m) to more than 100 groups casting doubt about the science behind climate change, the Guardian has learned. The funds, doled out between 2002 and 2010, helped build a vast network of thinktanks and activist groups working to a single purpose: to redefine climate change from neutral scientific fact to a highly polarising “wedge issue” for hardcore conservatives. The millions were routed through two trusts, Donors Trust and the Donors Capital Fund, operating out of a generic town house in the northern Virginia suburbs of Washington DC. Donors Capital caters to those making donations of $1m or more…”

Five Myths About Keystone XL, Debunked. Media Matters has the story – here’s the intro: “As the State Department nears a decision on whether or not to approve the Keystone XL pipeline, the media is exaggerating its economic benefits and downplaying environmental risks to advocate for the project. Here, Media Matters takes on five of the prevailing media myths about Keystone XL;”

  1. Would Keystone XL contribute to climate change?
  2. Does the new pipeline route resolve local environmental concerns?
  3. How would the pipeline impact U.S. energy security?
  4. How many jobs would building the pipeline create?
  5. Would Keystone XL affect gasoline prices?


Climate Change: Congress Warned About “High Risk” Posed By Global Shifts. Think anyone in Congress will listen – or care? Here’s an excerpt from Huffington Post: “The federal government’s official watchdog had a message for Congress on Thursday: Hey, Stupid, the climate is changing. The Government Accountability Office delivered that warning in its update of the greatest threats the government faces in carrying out federal programs. Generally the GAO identifies things like flaws in the defense contracting process and fraud in health care programs. This year’s update of the High-Risk Series report included the increasingly obvious and growing external threat of climate change — in spite of the continued insistence from many members of Congress that fears over global warming are overblown…”

* The GAO (General Accounting Office) report is here. An excerpt:

  • Limiting the Federal Government’s Fiscal Exposure by Better Managing Climate Change Risks. Climate change creates significant financial risks for the federal government, which owns extensive infrastructure, such as defense installations; insures property through the National Flood Insurance Program; and provides emergency aid in response to natural disasters. The federal government is not well positioned to address the fiscal exposure presented by climate change, and needs a government wide strategic approach with strong leadership to manage related risks.


  • Mitigating Gaps in Weather Satellite Data. Potential gaps in environmental satellite data beginning as early as 2014 and lasting as long as 53 months have led to concerns that future weather forecasts and warnings–including warnings of extreme events such as hurricanes, storm surges, and floods–will be less accurate and timely. A number of decisions are needed to ensure contingency and continuity plans can be implemented effectively.

Two-Thirds Of Americans Want Obama To Act On Climate Change, Says Poll. Here’s an excerpt from the U.K. Guardian: “Two-thirds of Americans want President Barack Obama to act now on climate change, adding momentum to his state of the union promise to take up the challenge with or without Congress. Two new polls commissioned by environmental groups and released on Wednesday showed clear majorities of Americans supporting Obama taking significant action on climate change. A poll for the League of Conservation Voters showed that 65% of Americans want Obama to take “significant steps” to prevent climate change. Pollster Joel Benenson said public support – which cut across race and age – gave Obama extra leverage on his central promise to make climate change a central component of his second-term agenda. “This is across a broad spectrum of Americans,” Benenson told a conference call…”

Satellite Confirms Controversial Analysis Of Arctic Sea-Ice Volume; Major Ice Loss Revealed. The Science Recorder has the story – here’s a clip: “New observations from a European Space Agency satellite confirm a University of Washington analysis of Arctic sea-ice volume. The findings reveal that the Arctic has lost more than a third of summer sea-ice volume since a decade ago, when a U.S. satellite gathered similar data. Merging the UW analysis and the new ESA satellite observations reveals the summer minimum in Arctic sea ice is one-fifth of what it was in 1980. According to the UW’s Polar Science Center, sea ice volume is a key climate indicator. However, Arctic sea ice volume cannot currently be observed continuously. Observations from a variety of sources, including satellites and submarines, are all limited in space and time. The UW model enables scientists to estimate sea ice volume changes on a continuous basis by combining observations from a variety of sources…”

Bob Inglis: The Republican Who Believes In Climate Change. He’s not the only Republican, but it’s a small, lonely club. Trust me. The Guardian has the story – here’s an excerpt: “Heresy may have cost Bob Inglis his seat in the U.S. Congress. As a six-term Republican congressman from one of South Carolina’s most conservative districts, Inglis told an audience at a 2010 campaign event that he believed in human-caused climate change. The fallout from that comment helped ensure his defeat by a Tea Party-backed candidate. After leaving Congress, Inglis established the Energy and Enterprise Initiative at George Mason University. The organization has taken on a daunting mission – to convince American conservatives that climate change is real and that free enterprise principles hold the keys for dealing with it. Inglis favors removing all fuel subsidies – from solar and wind to fossil fuels – and imposing a carbon tax as the fairest way to make polluters pay for the greenhouse gas emissions they cause…”

“…A recent review of every peer-reviewed scientific study published on climate change science in the last two decades (13,950) by James Powell, the former president of three prestigious American universities, found just 24 of them questioned whether climate change was real, and was caused by greenhouse gas emissions…” – from a U.S. News and World Report Op-Ed below.

Obama Needs To Lay Out A Plan On Climate Crisis. Here’s a video and portion of an Op-Ed from “…As if the warnings from scientists weren’t enough, in 2012 — the hottest year on record in the contiguous U.S. — we saw the true face of climate change: freak storms, raging wildfires, a new Dust Bowl in the heartland and devastating damages. Most heartbreakingly, innocent lives were lost. Here’s what Obama can do to help stop climate change — and what he should announce in his speech on Tuesday night.



1. Negotiate a bilateral agreement with China



New Secretary of State John Kerry declared climate change a “life-threatening issue” at his confirmation hearing. Obama should make his chief diplomat’s top priority the crafting of a bilateral agreement with China to reduce carbon pollution and accelerate clean energy...”



Obama Cites Storms, Drought, To Build Case For Climate Action. Here’s a snippet from a story at The National Journal: “...If Congress won’t act soon to protect future generations, I will,”  he said. That means he’s preparing to work with the heads of all his Cabinet agencies on a suite of executive-level climate change actions that he can enact on his own. Chief among them: Environmental Protection Agency regulations that would force existing coal-fired power plants to cut their carbon pollution, and a slate of actions across agencies aimed at preparing U.S. cities and towns to adapt to the impacts of climate change, including increased flooding, drought, and more extreme storms. He also plans to create an Energy Security Trust Fund, which will take revenue generated by oil and gas drilling on public funds and channel it for clean energy research and development (while the White House can use its authority to create the fund, it will need Congress to act to allow it to use the fossil-fuel revenue for clean-tech research)…”

Photo credit above: AP Photo/Charles Dharapak, Pool



On Climate Change Obama Delivered. The rhetoric was powerful in his State of the Union address, but will the words be backed up by deeds, by real action? With a hopelessly divided Congress will anything (tangible) get done? Here’s an excerpt of an Op Ed at Politico: “…We just wrapped up the hottest year on record across the continental United States, accompanied by the worst drought in half a century. Folks are hurting in the heartland, where crops have withered and pastures died. Businesses are suffering across the nation’s great middle, where barges drag bottom in the Mississippi. And cities are reeling from devastation and loss from hurricanes and so-called super storms. The president has seen in this hardship the face of climate change and the rising costs it brings. That toll, he rightly asserted in his State of the Union address, will only continue to climb unless we decide, as a nation, to take a stand…”

Photo credit above: “The author says this isn’t a time for hesitation and half-hearted measures“. | John Shinkle at POLITICO


Why Tokyo Has More To Fear From Sea Level Rise Than Vancouver. Not all coastal areas are (equally) threatened by rising sea levels, the result of warming/expansion and melting of Greenland and Antarctic ice. Here’s an excerpt of a story at The Washington Post: “…Some coastal areas have more to fear from climate change than others. Tokyo and Sydney, for instance, are likely to see bigger sea-level rises than Vancouver or London. That’s according to a new study that attempts to model the oddities of the rising oceans.  Climatologists have known for many years that the seas are creeping up on us. As humans warm the planet, the world’s ice caps and glaciers are melting and the oceans are expanding. Various projections have sea levels on pace to rise between 2 and 7 feet by 2100. What makes this so tricky to prepare for, however, is that sea levels won’t rise evenly everywhere. There are huge variations. In some regions, like the Mississippi Delta, the land is sinking, due to sediment erosion or oil drilling. In other places, strong wind and ocean currents can warp the waters and affect local sea levels. Meanwhile, the shrinking ice sheets in Greenland and Antarctica have their own gravitational pull, creating further imbalances….”

* graphic above courtesy of New Scientist, which has an interactive graphic showing how sea level rise will vary across the globe. Coastal New England is much more vulnerable than the Pacific Northwest.



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Welcome to the WeatherNation blog. Every day I sift through hundreds of stories, maps, graphics and meteorological web sites, trying to capture some of the most interesting weather nuggets, the stories behind the forecast. I’ll link to stories and share some of the web sites I use. I’m still passionate about the weather, have been ever since Tropical Storm Agnes flooded my home in Lancaster, PA in 1972. I’ve started 5 weather-related companies. “EarthWatch” created the world’s first 3-D weather graphics for TV stations – Steven Spielberg used our software in “Jurassic Park” and “Twister”. My last company, “Digital Cyclone”, personalized weather for cell phones. “My-Cast” was launched in 2001 and is still going strong on iPhone, Android and Blackberry. I sold DCI to Garmin in 2007 so I could focus on my latest venture: WeatherNation. I also write a daily weather column for The Star Tribune And if you’re on Twitter, you’ll find me @pdouglasweather

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