From the editor's desk: The gods must be angry

April 2022 News

At the time of writing, parts of KwaZulu-Natal are coming to grips with the magnitude of the damage caused by flooding of catastrophic proportions, with more rain forecast over the Easter weekend. The stories of utter despair being suffered by so many are at times too heart-wrenching to bear, never mind repeat. By the time you read this the toll will no doubt have been counted – in Rands and cents and in lives lost – but it will take some time yet before the province and its citizens are truly able to recover.

Brett van den Bosch, Editor

To those of you who have suffered damage to or loss of property, livelihoods or, most tragically, loved ones, the thoughts and prayers of all of us on the SA Instrumentation & Control team go out to you. Three of our members are in fact currently working from the only one of their homes with power, running water and Internet connectivity and soldiering on to get this edition to print while living through what one of them aptly described as being ‘like a movie set’.

Being based at our Johannesburg offices myself, this serves as a stark reminder that things like Stage 2 load-shedding are no more than inconveniences on a personal level and while it does impose business expenses, money is, after all, just money. There is never a good time for a disaster to happen, but during the ongoing pandemic the last thing we need is for people, particularly the poorest members of society, to be huddling together wherever they can find safe refuge from the cold and rain.

As if we didn’t have weather worries enough, even our own star is now due to slam us with a storm of a different kind. As of 13 April, various news outlets are reporting that a solar storm is traversing the deep, dark expanse between the sun and Earth. Sadly, although Google is spitting out a related link under the space weather category of the South African National Space Agency’s website, the page itself is unreachable. This forces me to delve into the deep, dark expanse that is British tabloid journalism.

As per the Daily Express, a publication which is regarded as falling halfway between sensationalism and respectability on the journalism spectrum, said solar storm is on a direct collision course with Earth on 14 April and is “expected to intensify, which could cause chaos to satellites and spark power grid fluctuations.” The newspaper cites forecast models from both NASA and the NOAA (National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration), while the latest update on the NOAA’s website issues a G2 (moderate) geomagnetic storm warning for the 14th and a G1 (minor) one for the 15th. What this means is that the effects will likely be experienced by we Earthlings as more ‘suddenly, nothing happened’ than ‘chaos to satellites’ and risk of radio blackout as reported by aforementioned publication.

All of which is not to say that solar storms and solar flares are to be taken lightly. Industrial electronic equipment is somewhat more resilient to their effects than consumer-grade devices, since it is often housed in EMI-resistant enclosures and some of the major electronic components used are rated as dual-purpose for space and industrial use – more resilient, but not immune. Solar storms and flares can and have caused major telecommunications and power outages in the past, to wit: in 1972 they knocked out long-distance phone communication across several US states, causing AT&T; to redesign its power system for transatlantic cables; in 1989 they caused a power blackout in Canada that left six million people without electricity; in 2000 they caused some satellites to short-circuit; and in 2003 a solar storm was so strong it overwhelmed the spacecraft sensor measuring it.

For those interested in the topic, there is a fascinating video by Veritasium entitled ‘The Universe is hostile to computers’ which looks at how such phenomena have caused false vote counts (conspiracy theorists, rejoice!) and might even have been to blame for Toyota’s infamous recall of millions of its cars in the 2009-2011 period. Go to*apr22-sol to watch the video.


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