Thursday, January 03, 2013

Discovery's "Planet Storms": dust haboobs, supercanes, and a solar storm that fries Earth

The Discovery Channel’s 2001 film “Planet Storm”  (directed by Nic Young)  in its natural history series, presents several “superstorm” situations on other bodies in our solar system, and shows how the Earth’s thick atmosphere and relatively varied surface prevents these from happening here.  But there is a warning at the end.

The first topic is the huge dust storms on Mars.  These can apparently be generated by relatively small dust devils in a thin atmosphere.  In 1991, there was a tremendous dust storm on I-5 in California stat appears to have gotten generated in clear air by dust devils that scraped sand away and set up a feedback loop. (Another such storm or haboob engulfed Melbourne Australia.)  A severe enough dust storm could pick up dust as fine as talcum that enters houses, as in the Dust Bowl of the 1930s.

The next topic was super-hurricanes, illustrated by the Great Red Spot on Jupiter, larger than Earth.  A similar hurricane, relative to Earth, would generate 400 mph winds and could blow down skyscrapers.  The movie simulates such a fictitious hurricane striking Miami.  There apparently are 700 mph winds on Neptune and 1000 mph winds in the upper atmosphere of Saturn.

The atmospheric hurricanes on Jupiter also produce lightning blasts the size of atomic explosions. The film compares Jovian thunderstorms to Kansas supercells (with tornadoes) where the thunder clouds are limited in height to about 10 miles. 
The most ominous part of the film concerns solar weather.  I’ve covered the issue of coronal mass ejections and the possibility that they can produce long-term damage to the power grid (as with the 1989 power failure in Quebec).  The film does not mention the 1859 Carrington Event.  Instead, it simulates a tremendous solar superstorm  over Toronto, starting with gigantic aurora displays over the city.  It digresses to show the effect of solar storms on Io (a volcanic moon of Jupiter with a temporary “atmosphere” of sulfur dioxide).  It then returns to show a nighttime power failure over Toronto.  The next morning, when the sun comes out, a young man sits on a park bench and his face is burned raw by the sun, with the ozone layers having been peeled away but the solar blast.  I don’t know whether a solar storm on this scale, creating a total mass extinction event,  is even possible right now.  This presentation predates the more recent concerns about CME’s and space weather by about a decade since this show was filmed in 2001.

The film also maintains that influenza epidemics have been stronger in years with major CME’s. 

Wikipedia attribution link for Jupiter atmosphere NASA image.  

The actual title of the film is singluar ("Planet Storm") although "Planet Storms" (plural) makes more sense.  

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