Friday, August 27, 2010

How not to write a story - 2012 + Solar Cycles + Sensationalism = Stupid

I've written about bad science journalism before. In fact, every time I've used my Science Journalism tag, it's been a bad article. And guess what. Here's another one:

Yahoo News is reporting a solar storm in 2012 is about to hit the Earth with a force of "100 million hydrogen bombs".

Let's work this out a little. A hydrogen bomb releases about 240,000 x 1012 Joules of energy. Multiplying that by 100 million means we'd get 2.4 x 1025 Joules of energy. The specific heat of air is ~1 J/(gºK) and there's about 5 x 1021 g of air on the Earth.

Multiply all that together in the proper manner and you get that the energy dumped into the Earth would raise the atmospheric temperature by 4,800ºK or 8,200ºF. In essence, Yahoo is claiming that the world is about to end.

But what is the author worried about? Only that this approaching storm has "the potential to wipe out the entire planet's power grid." Well damn! I mean, being dead sucks but no power?! Really?

Obviously something's wrong here. The number quoted isn't the actual amount of energy that would hit the Earth. It's the energy released in a large solar eruption. But almost none of it will hit the Earth. We're just too small a target and that energy is spread out way too much.

So does that mean there's no danger?

No. There is some, and the article hits on it. Large solar storms have the potential to destroy satellite's delicate circuit systems, destroy ozone, and all sorts of other effects. But is it something to really be worried about?

The answer is, who knows? Solar levels are damned near impossible to predict because most of what drives them is taking place inside the sun, where we can't really see it. In fact, the most recent solar cycle was supposed to have gotten underway last year. But it's been slacking. There's been a curious lack of solar activity as generally indicated by sunspots. They're starting to appear now, but no one's really sure why the extra long lapse.

So making predictions is a really tricky business. Looking too far ahead has large uncertainties associated with it. But that doesn't stop people from trying. In fact, there's large groups of astronomers that work on it. Check out NASA's page on Solar Prediction. There's a nice little graph on that page showing the sunspot activity predicted for this year based on ratios "between the size of the next cycle maximum and the length of the previous cycle, the level of activity at sunspot minimum, and the size of the previous cycle."

Given that, there can be some decent predictions and what does next year's look like? It's about half as active as last year's. Yet Yahoo's source (an amateur astronomer from Australia), claims that "[t]he general consensus among general astronomers (and certainly solar astronomers) is that this coming Solar maximum (2012 but possibly later into 2013) will be the most violent in 100 years".

ORLY?

And where is the peak on that graph? It's certainly NOT 2012. It's well into 2013. Radio flux predictions agree.

So why the 2012 bullshit? The article outright says it: "those who put the date of Solar Max in 2012 are getting the most press."

The media is playing on a feeding frenzy, reporting sensationalistic science without context, understanding what the quotes mean, or checking their facts.....

No way....

EDIT: One more irony - The amateur astronomer from which they're getting a lot of their clueless quote mining has this to say: "solar storms that will cause the Sun to reach temperatures of more than 10,000°F occur only a few times over a person’s life."

Hmmm.... last I checked the normal surface temperature of the Sun is 5,778ºK which is (drumroll please!) ~10,000ºF. So only a few times over a person's life are solar storms energetic enough to..... not change the temperature of the Sun.....

Right. I'm done with this one.

1 comment:

Anthony said...

nice writing!