A Plea for Help: Colorado Springs and the Waldo Canyon Fire

For the last twenty-four hours my eyes have been glued to reports – television, multiple websites, and friends – about the Waldo Canyon wildfire. This fire has exploded in that time, and is now twice the size it was this time yesterday. It is jumping reservoir lakes and is threatening to jump I-25 in and around Colorado Springs, or as I know it, CoSpr.

I have friends who live there. I have been there many times. I recognize the scenes, the neighborhoods and mountainsides that are burning. They are places I have talked about in my Displaced Detective series, which is based in the CoSpr area. I am terrified for my friends, I am horrified at the destruction, and I am dreading the potential loss of the historic district. When I read the evacuation orders and the boundaries of the evac zones, I recognize the landmarks they are using. This whole thing is a living nightmare. I cannot even imagine the mental state of those who are living it.

There are many homes being burned in this fire. There are numerous reasons for this. One is that, between the USAF Academy, Peterson AFB, Schriever AFB, and Cheyenne Mountain, with their associated civilian contractors, there is a continual flux of people moving into and out of the area. People who have never lived in what is a kind of high desert before do not know how to protect themselves against wildfires. They pick a home site based upon its view, its aesthetics, then build a home like what they are used to, or what they envision is appropriate (e.g. a log cabin style), and landscape as they would in a well-watered area in the East. This is a recipe for disaster.

Aesthetic views notwithstanding, the homes should be as fireproof on the outside as possible. Nearby trees should be removed, so that they cannot catch fire and fall atop the house. Landscaping should be kept well AWAY from the house, and be of plantings that are relatively inflammable (although at temperatures hot enough to melt iron and steel, that can be a moot point). Plants should be surrounded by stones and pebbles, not organic mulch.

But in general this doesn’t happen and outside the city limits proper there are no rules about such things. (I’m not sure what rules there are within the city limits either, but you get the idea.) And there are always things that happen: I was informed that only about a week or so ago a tremendous hailstorm came through that did severe damage to the flame-resistant shake roofs, breaking tiles galore, and many have not yet had a chance to repair the damage. Gaping hole in the fire defense.

So this is happening. And people are in harm’s way. People are losing their homes and businesses. What can we do?

Go here : https://american.redcross.org/site/Donation2?idb=160451275&df_id=3791&3791.donation=form1

This is the donation site for the Colorado Red Cross. You are welcome to donate whatever you like to whatever you like, but the Red Cross chapter for CoSpr is known as the Pikes Peak chapter, in the pull-down menu. I know that the son of a friend in the area has volunteered for Red Cross service – I think as a medic/EMT, though I could be wrong – despite the possibility that his home may be under evacuation notice at any time. I know people who are likely on the front line of that fire somewhere. Maybe we aren’t there, but we can “get their backs.” Donate, please, I urge you.

-Stephanie Osborn

Solar-Earth DefCon Levels, Part 1

by Stephanie Osborn, “Interstellar Woman of Mystery,” Rocket Scientist and Novelist

As I told you last week, NOAA has a scale of geomagnetic activity that ranges from G0 to G5, where G0 is quiescent, and G5 is the worst geomagnetic storm around. Now, we’ve already talked a little bit about what geomagnetic storms do…

No, we didn’t, you say?

Ah, but we did. Back when I told you about all the effects that Coronal Mass Ejections can have. (Solar, Space, and Geomagnetic Weather, Part 4.) Because those sorts of things are what cause the geomagnetic storms.

But probably the best way I can tell you about the effects is simply to quote from NOAA’s scale itself (which can be found here: http://www.swpc.noaa.gov/NOAAscales/#GeomagneticStorms)

As I mentioned last week, a G0 is the normal, quiescent geomagnetic field. This holds until the Kp index reaches 5, and then we begin minor geomagnetic storming, with the scale hitting G1. According to NOAA, “Power systems: weak power grid fluctuations can occur. Spacecraft operations: minor impact on satellite operations possible. Other systems: migratory animals are affected at this and higher levels; aurora is commonly visible at high latitudes (northern Michigan and Maine).” These are fairly frequent, with on average close to 2000 per 11-year solar cycle.

At Kp=6, G2 is considered a moderate storm. “Power systems: high-latitude power systems may experience voltage alarms, long-duration storms may cause transformer damage. Spacecraft operations: corrective actions to orientation may be required by ground control; possible changes in drag affect orbit predictions. Other systems: HF radio propagation can fade at higher latitudes, and aurora has been seen as low as New York and Idaho (typically 55° geomagnetic lat.).” These are a little less frequent than G1, but still occur at a rate of about 600 every solar cycle.

When Kp=7, G3 is a strong geomagnetic storm. “Power systems: voltage corrections may be required, false alarms triggered on some protection devices. Spacecraft operations: surface charging [static electricity buildup; this can lead to arcing]may occur on satellite components, drag may increase on low-Earth-orbit satellites, and corrections may be needed for orientation problems. Other systems: intermittent satellite navigation and low-frequency radio navigation problems may occur, HF radio may be intermittent, and aurora has been seen as low as Illinois and Oregon (typically 50° geomagnetic lat.).” These are less frequent still, with on average 200 per solar cycle. Also, as the geomagnetic storms increase in strength, their likelihood of occurrence tends to concentrate around solar maximum, though this is not a hard and fast rule.

At Kp=8, G4 is a severe geomagnetic storm. “Power systems: possible widespread voltage control problems and some protective systems will mistakenly trip out key assets from the grid. Spacecraft operations: may experience surface charging and tracking problems, corrections may be needed for orientation problems. Other systems: induced pipeline currents affect preventive measures, HF radio propagation sporadic, satellite navigation degraded for hours, low-frequency radio navigation disrupted, and aurora has been seen as low as Alabama and northern California (typically 45° geomagnetic lat.). These are rarer still, with only about 100 seen per solar cycle.

And then there’s the big boys. Kp=9 means a G5 extreme geomagnetic storm. “Power systems: widespread voltage control problems and protective system problems can occur, some grid systems may experience complete collapse or blackouts. Transformers may experience damage. Spacecraft operations: may experience extensive surface charging, problems with orientation, uplink/downlink and tracking satellites. Other systems: pipeline currents can reach hundreds of amps, HF (high frequency) radio propagation may be impossible in many areas for one to two days, satellite navigation may be degraded for days, low-frequency radio navigation can be out for hours, and aurora has been seen as low as Florida and southern Texas (typically 40° geomagnetic lat.).” These are the rarest of all, but still occur on average 4 per solar cycle.

-Stephanie Osborn


What is Up?

Reviewing papers. I’m neck deep in other people’s work. Had a fellow… I’ll not expose his work to the real public, but he was brave enough to take this paper to conference.. He did radiation effects work without involving a professional radiation effects engineer.  Um… Oddly enough, some of his equipment malfunctioned in the radiation environment he was attempting to test. He got no results, because of equipment malfuction. Had he involved one of the 50 qualified people in the room – he would have had meritorious results. *strangle*

It keeps one busy. JRERE will have more than30 papers this year, even if we throw out the trash non-results. (Advertising papers, people who can’t find their shoes with an x-ray device, folks who imagine that the future is easier if they don’t check their math. etc.

Sorry for being quiet. Not a lot to talk about in my day-job. Looking at Nuclear, Biological, and Chemical Contamination Survivability. A very interesting topic, mostly non-classified, so I may discuss it at a future convention. 

Solar Activity and the Activity Indices

by Stephanie Osborn, “Interstellar Woman of Mystery,” Rocket Scientist and Novelist

Okay, back to bar magnets again. Because the Earth has one. But of course it’s three-dimensional, not like our iron filings on paper example. Imagine picking up the bar magnet with the iron filings and paper attached, and rotating it 360º, letting the iron filings remain in the areas they move through. Now you have an image of what a three-dimensional dipolar (2-pole) magnetic field looks like – sort of like a giant pumpkin. With the solar wind (which is probably the largest influence on the interplanetary magnetic field) pushing on it from the Sun direction, the side of the pumpkin facing the Sun tends to smush in, but the side away from the Sun tends to stretch out and form a long tail. (You can see a really good animation of how this works here: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Animati3.gif) This is all to say that you HAVE to think of the geomagnetic field three-dimensionally. And if it is three-dimensional, then each part of the field has an x-, a y-, and a z-coordinate component.

Let’s simplify for a minute. Let’s say that we’re going to look at the component of the geomagnetic field that is running horizontally to the Earth’s surface at any given point. Now because the Earth is curved, this is a tangent line that is continually changing as you move around the Earth. Now let’s look at the disturbances from normal, caused by solar weather – coronal holes, CMEs, what have you.

So we have these variations, that are going to be different for different parts of the Earth for the same event. How do we measure it? It’s a little like a Richter scale for geosolar storms. It runs from zero to nine, and there’s a special formula that enables it to be calculated regardless of the location of the observatory, just like the Richter magnitude of a quake can be determined from seismographs on the opposite side of the globe. This scale for solar-induced geomagnetic activity is called the K-index. Zero is essentially no activity; anything above 5 is considered a storm level of activity. The bigger the number, the greater the effects seen on the ground, and the farther south the auroral oval can be seen. At a K=9, the aurora can be seen…in the TROPICS.

(Just for the sake of more information, the letter K was derived from the German word “kennziffer,” which apparently means “characteristic number.” Us scientists, we love our imaginative names, you know?)

Now if we reference the Kp index, we’re talking about the interplanetary K index, not the geomagnetic K index. This is an average of all the K indices from all of the observatories, weighted as appropriate (remember, you won’t get the same measurements from the various observation sites, so you have to factor that in, as well as the fact that the geomagnetic field is constantly changing). This gives us an indication of what the interplanetary magnetic field (IMF) is doing. BUT – not all of the stations report in at the same time. So then scientists have to calculate something called the “estimated Kp” which is just what it sounds like – an estimate for those stations that haven’t reported in yet. This can sometimes be a very good predictor of what the magnetic field is going to do, and sometimes not so much. We’re still very much learning this particular science.

But we’re not done with indexes. There’s also something called the a index. This is based on the AMPLITUDES (yep, there’s the reason for using an a) of the deviations from geomagnetic normal, taken over a three-hour period. Then there’s the A index, which is an AVERAGE (yep, that’s where the A came from) of all the a-indices for a 24-hour period.

One more index we need to look at is the G scale, which is the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s (NOAA) way of quantifying the strength of the geomagnetic disturbance. For any K index of 4 or less, the scale shows G0. At K=5, we jump to G1 – minor storming. For K=6, we have G2. For K=7, G3. At K=8, we have a storm level of G4, and at the maximum K=9, we have maximum storming of G5. Think of it like the Earth’s solar DefCon level.

Next week we’ll go into those DefCon levels in detail.

-Stephanie Osborn


Solar, Space, and Geomagnetic Weather, Part 4

by Stephanie Osborn, “Interstellar Woman of Mystery,” rocket scientist and novelist

So what the heck are CMEs?

Coronal Mass Ejections are gigantic explosions that occur, usually in the vicinity of particularly active sunspot groups (though not always). We’re still discovering what they are, how they occur, and why they do what they do. It seems to get into some complicated electromagnetic physics and something called “magnetic reconnection.”

Think about it like this. Suppose you have two bar magnets, lying near each other but, say, perpendicular to each other. Each has its own magnetic field, with field lines that go out from one pole and arc around to the other pole (remember our discussion of iron filings a couple weeks ago?), but now we’ve got them close enough that those magnetic fields interact.

Suppose – just suppose – a field line broke away from its parent magnet and attached the opposite end to the other magnet? Now suppose a whole SEGMENT of field lines did that. Those bar magnets would start dancing a whirligig, and the magnetic field would go crazy.

Now suppose that the bar magnets are swirling plasma gases, and the field lines are running through more swirling plasma.

THAT is magnetic reconnection. The end result is that a whole bunch of energy gets transferred from the field into kinetic energy. This heats up the plasma AND accelerates it, and, at least on the surface of a star like our Sun, a titanic explosion is the result. A great big blob of plasma goes flying out into space, and that blob is a “coronal mass ejection,” because a big mass of the corona just got ejected from the Sun. (Imaginative name, huh?)

The vast majority of them aren’t THAT big, and aren’t even Earth-directed. The chances of one smacking Earth aren’t that big. But because there are a lot of them, especially at solar max, it happens fairly often. Sometimes it’s just the edge of the expanding bubble, but sometimes it whacks Earth upside the head. And when they come in, they’re coming fast.

So what are the general parameters of a CME? Depends on where in the solar cycle you are. If you’re near solar minimum, they occur about one every 5 days or so. If you’re around solar max, expect one every 6 or 7 hours. How big are they? If you’re talking volume, that’s gonna depend on how far out from the Sun they are, and how well the interplanetary medium is allowing them to hold together. If you’re talking how massive, well, on average they’re about 3,520,000,000 lb (1,600,000,000,000 kg). That’s over three and a half billion pounds of plasma. On average, their speed is about 304 mi/s or 1.1 million mph (490km/s). IF, however, one follows close on the heels of another, so that the first one has swept most of the interplanetary medium out of the way (decreasing drag), the speed can increase to 2,000 mi/s or 7.2 million mph (3,200 km/s). And with the Sun 93 million miles away, that means a fast CME can reach Earth in just under 13 hours.

-Stephanie Osborn


Solar, Space, and Geomagnetic Weather, Part 3

  by Stephanie Osborn, “Interstellar Woman of Mystery,” rocket scientist and novelist

Effects of coronal hole winds and Coronal Mass Ejections (CMEs):

They can actually raise the temperature of the outer layers of the Earth’s atmosphere (the thermosphere, aptly named) sufficient to cause it to expand. This affects us, because that increases drag on satellites and spacecraft, and can cause the orbits of satellites to decay and re-enter well before they were intended. This is really bad if it’s something important, like a weather satellite during hurricane season. After all, if the people of Galveston had had weather satellites in 1900, the city could have been evacuated well before it got hit, because they would have known it was coming for days. If we DON’T have weather satellites because we’ve lost ’em to increased atmospheric drag, we might as well go back to those days, as far as weather prediction is concerned. Ditto communications satellites. Don’t even mention GPS.

Disruption of the Earth’s magnetic field can be a problem. It can disrupt radio communication (including cell phones) rather severely. It can damage satellites that remain in orbit. It can generate “induced current” in any lengthy conductor. Let’s pause for a moment and talk about that.

Induced current is a way of using magnetic fields to generate electicity. Remember how I said, in part 1, that the “current” of plasma created by the Sun’s rotation on its axis generated a magnetic field? The reverse is also true. A moving magnetic field can generate an electrical current in any conductor placed within the field. So the disruption of the geomagnetic field constitutes a “moving” magnetic field and will induce electrical currents in everything from power lines to pipes and conduits.

When these truly huge induced currents hit things like transformers and circuit breakers and power stations, they can quickly overload them. This, in turn, can (and has) cause(d) blackouts and brownouts, particularly in parts of the country/world where the power grid is not robust enough to handle significant surges.

Long pipelines, like the Alaskan Pipeline, can be affected as well. In fact corrosion is occurring at a higher rate than expected because its northerly location exposes it to such induced currents all the time (remember that the ends of a bar magnet’s field are open).

And it causes the aurorae. Most of you reading this have heard of the Northern Lights, properly termed the Aurora Borealis, but there are also the Southern Lights, the Aurora Australis. These are actually ovals that circle the magnetic poles of Earth (and most other planets with magnetic fields, by the way. They’ve been photographed on Jupiter.) They are where the charged particles that have been caught up from the solar wind or CME into the geomagnetic field follow the field lines down into the atmosphere. The gas molecules become excited into a higher energy state, then discharge that extra energy as light. This is very similar – in fact, essentially the same – as a fluorescent light bulb, only natural and not contained. The colors are determined mostly by the main gas that is fluorescing. Carbon dioxide produces white light; nitrogen, pink or red; oxygen, green or blue. (It can also generate ozone.)

Now, having talked about all of this radiation that an increased solar wind and coronal mass ejections pump into our Earth’s system in general, and the fact that there are more of these things when there are more sunspots, when do you think the Sun is sending out more energy, Solar Max, or Solar Min? Yup, despite the logic of sunspots being cooler, the Sun actually sends out more energy during Solar Max, when there are the most sunspots.

 -Stephanie Osborn


Preorder A New American Space Plan by Travis S. Taylor and Stephanie Osborn at Amazon and BN.com!

CMEs are Really Really Complicated

This is something I’ve actually studied. I went to a presentation at UAH the other year and they told me I had it completely wrong. SO, while I understood the professor’s talk, I’m not sure I want to believe it. The one thing we agree on, the filament holds the bubble together.

“What?” you ask.
See Explanation.  Clicking on the picture will download the highest resolution version available.

Picture stolen from Astronomy Picture of the Day.

Filaments are tubes of plasma. They surround the bubble of magnetic force that is essentially empty. The real question ishow the bubble of magnetic force becomes full of hot plasma at 50 MeV. There are two explanations for that. 1) Magnetohydrodynamic heating (my favorite because it is my field.) 2) preferential osmosis. Ok, the way the professor explained it was this – the bubble excludes all plasma, unless it is very hot, so only very hot gas can get into it. Since the bubble is essentially empty as far as the sun is concerned, there is a lot of pressure from a mixed temperature gas. Only the hottest elements get in. Like a Hall effect thruster, only the hot gas gets into the bubble.

Sooner or later one of two things occur. The filament shorts out or the base of the bubble reconnects. Either one leads to a lot of the bubble being thrown free from the surface of the sun, but the first starts an x-ray event which – given the temperature of the bubble and the height of the prominence – tells us about how big a bubble to expect.
A B C (Yawn) M (hey, radio blackouts) X (OMG!) X1 is a good flare X28 blows out the sensors and tears up our space hardware.

You can have a solar flare without the coronal mass ejection. You can have a coronal mass ejection without a solar flare, but it seems that the prominences cause filaments, which cause flares. Those same filaments can in some circumstances cause CME.

That probably was as clear as mud, but hey, I tried.