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Outside/In: How Should a Society Prepare for a Disaster That Seems Unlikely ... Until It Doesn't?

Massive solar flares, mental health in the time of coronavirus and all the time, and taking a deep breath about "murder hornets."

The Carrington Event

Taylor Quimby & Sam Evans-Brown

In late summer of 1859, amateur astronomer Richard Carrington was making observations of the sun when he saw a bright flash of light. Solar flares are common on the sun, but this one was especially powerful.

Writings of Richard Carrington (1826-1875), the English astronomer

“Typically, there are flares, large emission of light from the sun, every day. But they are mostly visible in the UV and X-ray vision, so unless you have an extra filter, which at the time people didn’t have," explained Noe Lugaz of the Space Science Center at the University of New Hampshire. "But this one was so bright that you actually see it in the emission of the sun, just like a light bulb exploding, so it’s something you [could see] with the naked eye without any equipment.” 

What followed, over the next few nights, were some of the most brilliant and perplexing displays of the Northern Lights ever documented. Newspapers and weather observers described brilliant auroras from Canada to Cuba, from Japan to Australia. This peculiar display is what we now call, “The Carrington Event.”

The aurora borealis as seen from space

Today we understand that the Carrington Event was caused by a CME, or coronal mass ejection. These solar explosions send particles flying out into space and are very common. However, very large CMEs that strike the Earth can have all sorts of impacts on modern technology that weren’t around when Carrington was alive - namely GPS, radio signals, satellites, and electrical grids.

Scientists have warned that the impact from a “Carrington-Level CME” could be catastrophic for the United States. But, as society has recently discovered with the Covid-19 pandemic, preparing for inevitable but rare disasters is a complicated business.

Mental health in the time of disaster
Justine Paradis

A massive solar flare is, of course, not the only large-scale disaster that many of us could be facing in our lifetimes. Climate change presents a number of grim possibilities, like sea level rise and increasingly unpredictable weather events, not to mention the ongoing coronavirus pandemic: an invisible but ever-present life-threatening danger.

All that ambient noise affects our brains.

Credit Stephanie Foo for Vox

"It constantly keeps our brain in a panic mode," said Stephanie Foo. She's a journalist, former producer for This American Life and Snap Judgment, and a Rosalynn Carter 2019/2020 Mental Health Fellow. She's writing a book about what it's like to heal from Complex PTSD, a form of post-traumatic stress disorder caused when trauma is recurring - like in cases of child abuse or neglect.

"When we’re afraid, our bodies and our brains pump stress chemicals through our body, like cortisol and adrenaline. These activate panic centers in our brain," said Foo. "They can turn off our prefrontal cortex, which is the part of our brain that controls logic and reasoning and set off our amygdala, which is the part of the brain that controls the fight or flight response."

Last week, Foo wrote an article for Vox, titled “My PTSD can be a weight. But in this pandemic, it feels like a superpower,” where she explored how her response to the pandemic helped her rethink her experiences with C-PTSD. She writes about how she sees her own PTSD as a resource to help others cope with mental health crises, and her hope that the pandemic could be an opportunity for empathy and the erasure of shame around mental health issues.

"I really think that trauma is the most contagious disease there is," said Foo. "When you have so much trauma abounding, the way to prevent that trauma from having these shock waves of hurt that just keep resonating within our community is to protect mental health ... so instead we are able to spread kindness."

Murder hornet lessons

Sam Evans-Brown

Last week, the New York Times covered the arrival of "murder hornets" (also known as Asian giant hornets) in the United States, and the story blew up -- a rare instance in which a story about conservation biology goes viral. But it is possible that we should all take a collective deep breath.

Wasps are important predators that regulate other insects - for instance,this native-to-the-U.S. giant cicada killeris an important predator and murder hornet look-alike. Now more than ever, bugs of all stripes (as we've covered on the podcast) need our attention and understanding.

Plus, precisely two individual hornets have been found in a small town on the border between Washington State and British Columbia. Another two nests were found in the fall of last year on Vancouver Island in Canada.

So, while it does seem that it’s possible that the species is starting to establish itself, the odds that you will have to worry about being stung by a giant invasive hornet any time in the near future are vanishingly small - so, for now, don't add “getting stung by murder hornets” to your list of things to worry about.

But, the fact that the odds of encountering one of these terrifying bugs is so small also offers up a tantalizing possibility: might it still be possible to halt the invasion of the murder hornets, before it’s too late?

Monica Cooper, a farm advisor with the University of California, explained how she helped Napa County grape vineyards successfully manage an infestation of the European grapevine moth - and what lessons we might draw about containing the spread of the Asian giant hornet.

Outside/In is a show where curiosity and the natural world collide. Click here for podcast episodes and more.
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