Out in the rain without an umbrella

“I don’t know how it is around here, but where I come from we take pity on people too stupid to come in from the rain.”

When I lived in Alabama, having an umbrella was a necessity.  Afternoon thundershowers were a near-daily occurrence and only the foolish were caught unprepared.  I had two or three umbrellas in my car and another few or so in my office so there would always be one on hand.  Things changed when I moved to New Mexico where the average rainfall is about nine inches a year.  (It’s closer to fifty four inches a year in Alabama.)  Moreover, most of New Mexico’s rain comes in a three to four month monsoon season.  As a consequence you don’t get daily reminders about sky leaks.  So it was inevitable that I’d get caught unprepared.  That first time I got caught in the rain without an umbrella I realized I was now officially a fool.

Sometimes, however, your umbrella leaves you behind.  You are no longer foolish, but may be doomed.  In my previous life I was a space scientist who studied the interaction between Earth’s atmosphere and the solar wind streaming from the sun.  The solar wind is serious stuff, a plasma pushing out at a million miles an hour.  That’s enough to remove the atmosphere from an unprotected planet.  Just ask Mars how that works.

Fortunately, Earth is protected by our magnetic field which functions somewhat like the shields on the starship Enterprise.  So we’re safe, as long as our magnetic field is in place.  No problem, right?

Wrong.

This article on Gizmodo outlines how Earth’s magnetic field is not constant, but changes over (a very long) time.  Eventually, its polarity will switch with magnetic north becoming south.  A similar process drives the eleven-year sunspot cycle but the polarity switch at Earth takes much longer, every 200,000 to 300,000 years.

The polarity switch is not the main problem.  It has happened before and Earth is still here, pretty much unperturbed by the whole thing.  The problem is what happens while the polarity is switching.  It’s not like throwing a switch to make the change.  The magnetic field gradually weakens to near-nothing and then strengthens again with its new polarity.  The change is rapid only on geologic time scales so we might be faced with thousands of years without an effective shield from the solar wind.  The planet Earth has survived this in the past but humanity has not, especially a humanity dependent on iPhones, power grids and satellites.  And being an astronaut would not be popular, at least not if you plan to live long.

The good news is that such a change is still a way off in human terms.  Not the sort of thing to worry too much.  The not so good news is that there is evidence that some past pole reversals have happened very quickly, meaning that it might be closer than we thought.

Still, I’m banking on humanity during this potential crisis.  There’s always someone willing to mend broken umbrellas.

Toodle – luma luma
Toodle – luma luma
Toodle – oh lay
Any umbrellas, any umbrellas
To fix today?
Bring your parasol, it may be small. It may be big
He will fix them all with what you call a thing-a-ma-jig
Pitter patter patter! Pitter patter patter!
It looks like rain.
Let it pitter patter. Let it pitter patter.
Don’t mind rain
He’ll mend your umbrella, then go on his way
Singing toodle luma luma. Toodle lay.
Singing toodle luma luma. Toodle lay.

The Umbrella Man
Kay Kyser

 

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