Magnetic-Shield Cracks Found; Big Solar Storms Expected
| Victoria Jaggard in San Francisco |
National Geographic News
|December 17, 2008|
| An unexpected, thick layer of solar particles inside Earth's magnetic field suggests there are huge breaches in our planet's solar defenses, scientists said. |
These breaches indicate that during the next period of high solar activity, due to start in 2012, Earth will experience some of the worst solar storms seen in decades.
Solar winds—charged particles from the sun—help create auroras, the brightly colored lights that sometimes appear above the Earth's poles.
But the winds also trigger storms that can interfere with satellites' power sources, endanger spacewalkers, and even knock out power grids on Earth.
"The sequence we're expecting … is just right to put particles in and energize them to create the biggest geomagnetic storms, the brightest auroras, the biggest disturbances in Earth's radiation belts," said David Sibeck, a space-weather expert at NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center in Maryland.
"So if all of this is true, it should be that we're in for a tough time in the next 11 years."
(Related: "Sun's Power Hits New Low, May Endanger Earth?" [September 24, 2008].)
Into the Breach
Data from NASA's THEMIS satellite showed that a 4,000-mile-thick (6,437-kilometer-thick) layer of solar particles has gathered and is rapidly growing within the outermost part of the magnetosphere, a protective bubble created by Earth's magnetic field.
Normally the magnetosphere blocks most of the solar wind, flowing outward from the sun at about a million miles (1.6 million kilometers) an hour.
"The solar wind is constantly changing, and the Earth's magnetic field is buffeted like a wind sock in gale-force winds, fluttering back and forth in response to the solar wind," Sibeck said this week during a meeting of the American Geophysical Union in San Francisco.
Earth's magnetic field lines align themselves in different directions over various regions of the planet.
Near Earth's Equator, where solar winds press against the magnetosphere, the field lines point north.
Solar winds also carry magnetic field lines toward Earth, and those solar field lines point in different directions during the sun's 11-year cycle of activity.
Conventional thinking had suggested that north-pointing field lines would act like reinforcements to Earth's northward field, causing the planet to "raise shields" against solar winds.
The idea is based, in part, on the fact that auroras are brighter and space-weather hazards increase when solar winds carry southward-pointing field lines, Sibeck said.
"So it's reasonable to think that during periods when the sun's magnetic field lines point south, that's when the most particles get into Earth's magnetosphere."
THEMIS, however, showed that the opposite is true.
The satellite system "found the solar particle layer is much thicker when the two fields are pointing in the same direction," said Marit Øieroset, a THEMIS scientist based at the University of California, Berkeley, who first saw the effect.
In fact, 20 times more particles get through Earth's magnetic shield when the field lines are aligned than when they are opposed, she said.
To find the mechanism behind this discovery, Oieroset and Sibeck turned to computer models that could simulate the conditions observed by THEMIS.
The models showed that the likely driver is north-facing field lines connecting with Earth's magnetosphere, said Jimmy Raeder, a physicist at the University of New Hampshire in Durham who helped build the simulations.
As a field line approaches, it latches onto the poles and wraps around the planet like an octopus using a tentacle to snare its prey, he said.
The latching, known as magnetic reconnection, tears huge cracks in the magnetosphere and allows solar plasma to leak in.
"We have other observations from other satellites that this reconnection process happens over the poles at times, but we had never appreciated what it actually does," Raeder said.
A thicker layer of solar particles, however, isn't enough by itself to create geomagnetic troubles for Earth.
Right now the planet is enjoying a period of low activity called solar minimum. But particles have been building up inside the magnetosphere as the solar wind carries northward-facing field lines to Earth.
During the next solar cycle, the winds are expected to carry southward-facing field lines, which connect with the magnetosphere in such a way that they provide extra charge to any plasma inside the shield.
"You can sort of compare [the situation] to a gas stove," Raeder said.
"If you turn on the gas and you light it right away, nothing will happen—the gas stove will go on and there will be a flame.
"But if you turn on a gas stove and you don't do anything for a while and then you throw in a match, what will happen? It will say, Boom!"
Sunday, December 28, 2008
Monday, December 15, 2008
Ending Torture, Prosecuting the Torturers
By BENJAMIN G. DAVIS
Recently released reports confirm that the United States still has very important unfinished business with regard to torture. Civilians at the highest levels of government as well as military generals have committed crimes. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, State Department Legal Adviser John Bellinger, and documents from 2003 and 2004 provide further evidence that the White House endorsed the use of torture. The Department of Justice, Department of Defense, Department of State, Intelligence, and other leadership have all been complicit. Congressional leadership has been far too passive and encouraged these acts. These are bipartisan crimes. They are crimes against the United States and the world community.
As usual, we read in the press that no one will prosecute these crimes. They will if we insist.
We need to criminally prosecute the perpetrators. We must prosecute them because low-level soldiers ordered to do their bidding have been prosecuted. Soldiers who served at Bagram and Abu Ghraib have been court-martialed for the heinous acts they were ordered to and urged to perform on detainees. These soldiers, sons and daughters from decent, ordinary American families, are serving life sentences for betraying their oath. It is time that their leaders who ordered them to betray their oath face the music. No one gets a pass just because they are high up.
These leaders not only consider themselves above the law, but above the United States. We need to prosecute them to reaffirm who we are as Americans. We are not vicious torturers. These people have no place in our city on the hill.
In September, the Massachusetts School of Law hosted a conference that resulted in ordinary American citizens coming together and forming a Steering Committee to develop the political will and the actual prosecution of these high-level civilians and military leaders. We ask all persons of goodwill to join us in this effort.
The range of actions we encourage are:
1) impeaching President George Bush before he leaves office particularly if prior to leaving office he tries to pardon himself and those who have done his bidding in violation of United States law. In the absence of that impeachment and consistent with precedent we should impeach him after he leaves office for crimes committed. Impeachment would ensure that President Bush could not hold any federal office on commission etc. for the rest of his life.
2) impeaching Judge Jay Bybee of the Ninth Circuit. Judge Bybee signed the infamous August 1, 2002 torture memo ascribed also to Professor John Yoo at the University of Berkeley School of Law. It shocks the conscience that a person who enabled torture is permitted to sit on a federal bench.
3) criminally prosecuting high-level civilians in state courts. The legendary Vincent Bugliosi knows how to do it.
4) criminally prosecuting civilian and military leaders in federal and military courts. There are 2700 state prosecutors across the country. American families all over have suffered the loss of a loved one or live with an injured member who served in wars started by President George Bush. Some of these families are willing to assist their state prosecutors in seeking criminal trials. If a sufficient number of these cases are brought forth, a federal prosecutor might initiate a prosecution, notwithstanding Attorney General Mukasey's unwillingness to faithfully execute our federal laws with regard to criminal prosecution of these leaders.
5) removing from academia former Bush administration officials who created and put in place the torture policies and practices. Ordering and abetting torture has nothing to do with academic freedom.
6) encouraging, to the extent courts allow, "citizen prosecutors" to exercise citizen mandamus and step in to prosecute where their state or federal prosecutors have failed to act. This was attempted recently in Minnesota to permit a citizen arrest of President Bush for murder if he came into St. Paul to attend the Republican Convention.
7) organizing peaceful civil actions that convey to those holding the levers of power in the Executive, Legislative and Judicial branches that we intend to vindicate United States law and United States international obligations and hold them accountable.
8) Seeking assistance from foreign and international tribunals to make sure that these perpetrators serve time for their crimes.
It is abundantly clear that President George Bush ordered torture. By dehumanizing others through torture and murder he dehumanizes America and Americans. Criminal prosecution is a viable means to demonstrate the importance for Americans of the most basic rules of US and international law. Let the world know that we are not barbarians.
Benjamin G. Davis is an Association Professor of Law at the University of Toledo School of Law.