New freelance writings: Solar storm preparedness, COVID surveillance

In case you missed them, here’s a few pieces I’ve recently written and published in Science News magazine and on Substack.

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Solar storms can wreak havoc. We need better space weather forecasts

Scientists are expanding efforts to probe outbursts from the sun and understand their occasionally Earthbound paths

Since December 2019, the sun has been moving into a busier part of its cycle, when increasingly intense pulses of energy can shoot out in all directions. Some of these large bursts of charged particles head right toward Earth. Without a good way to anticipate these solar storms, we’re vulnerable. A big one could take out a swath of our communication systems and power grids before we even knew what hit us.

A recent near miss occurred in the summer of 2012. A giant solar storm hurled a radiation-packed blob in Earth’s direction at more than 9 million kilometers per hour. The potentially debilitating burst quickly traversed the nearly 150 million kilometers toward our planet, and would have hit Earth had it come just a week earlier. Scientists learned about it after the fact, only because it struck a NASA satellite designed to watch for this kind of space weather.

That 2012 storm was the most intense researchers have measured since 1859. When a powerful storm hit the Northern Hemisphere in September of that year, people were not so lucky. Many telegraph systems throughout Europe and North America failed, and the electrified lines shocked some telegraph operators. It came to be known as the Carrington Event, named after British astronomer Richard Carrington, who witnessed intensely bright patches of light in the sky and recorded what he saw.

The world has moved way beyond telegraph systems. A Carrington-level impact today would knock out satellites, disrupting GPS, mobile phone networks and internet connections. Banking systems, aviation, trains and traffic signals would take a hit as well. Damaged power grids would take months or more to repair…

[Read the entire cover story in Science News magazine, published on 26 February 2021.]

Let’s rein in the surveillance as we get COVID under control

I’m looking forward to when we have widespread access to COVID-19 vaccinations throughout the United States, which will surely help limit the spread of the disease and its variants. Right now, most states are still struggling in the wake of holiday season get-togethers and the Trump administration’s disastrous handling of this public health crisis, which could last a while. Vaccines probably won’t be widely available until the end of the summer, and we don’t know how long they’ll give people immunity. In other words, COVID isn’t leaving us anytime soon.

To better track the virus’s spread, improve contact tracing and minimize the extent of outbreaks, the US and some other countries have been using the ubiquitous thing most of us have in our pockets: our mobile phones. Tracking apps seem to be one of many useful tools for keeping tabs on where people with the coronavirus have been, who they might have inadvertently infected, and whether you’ve been exposed. Some researchers have also proposed watching for “sick posts” on social media to track new COVID-19 cases, as has been done in China.

But even though we’re an entire year into the pandemic, with more than one in 12 Americans already infected and nearly half a million dead, there has still been little regulation of how these COVID surveillance tools are deployed and what authorities and companies can do with all the data they collect and transmit. Researchers at the RAND think tank point out that any limits on Apple’s and Google’s apps are merely voluntary, and the companies haven’t disclosed how long the apps would be active, how the data would be stored, or whether we can find out exactly what data has been collected about us, according to their recent report

[Read my whole Substack post here, published on 18 February 2021.]

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