A solar flare has the ability to destroy the electronic systems our lives rely on. It happened in 1859, and could again today -- which is why Rocky Rawlins created the Survivor Library. Bob speaks with Rawlins about how he has prepared for a possible pre-digital age.
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BOB: The residents of Quebec discovered the implications of solar flares in 1989, when they experienced a series of blackouts from which the power company struggled to recover. This from the CBC archives:
There was a sudden power surge in Northern Quebec, just a fraction of a second. And then, like a big circuit breaker, the whole system shut down. They don’t know, but they suspect it may have something to do with solar flares. Over the last week, scientists have recorded some of the largest flares this century.
Count IT Specialist Rocky Rawlins among those haunted by the idea that a modern-day sequel to Carrington could have devastating consequences. Rawlins is the founder of a website called survivor library dot com, and he says we’ve been warned of the sun’s destructive potential as recently as 2012.
RAWLINS: That was almost as large as the Carrington Event. Fortunately, it missed us. If it had hit us, we’d be living in the 1800’s right now. What got me started in this was when i used to work for the government and we had to deal with making sure that computers were tempest hardened so that they would survive an EMP effect in case there was a nuclear exchange in a war.
BOB: EMP that's electromagnetic pulse.
RAWLINS: Exactly. A nuclear weapon explosion creates an electromagnetic pulse which generates current, high amperage current in any kind of electrical circuit it hits. In 2001, Congress set up a committee primarily concerned with what would happen if a rogue nation like North Korea or iran got a hold of a nuclear weapon and used it to launch an EMP attack on the United States by detonating a high altitude nuclear weapon. Then they also began to understand that there was the potential of a solar caused EMP.
BOB: Now you can sort of negotiate with north korea, you can't negotiate with the sun.
BOB: What did Congress in its wisdom decided to do about that kind of scenario.
RAWLINS: Up til now they've done nothing. The UK is taking it seriously enough that they built an alternate navigation system for their merchant fleets in case the GPS satellites are damaged or destroyed, so that their ships will be able to navigate, which ours won't be.
BOB: If you were the president, what would you do to protect this against electromagnetic pulses?
RAWLINS: Spend about 3 billion dollars and harden the power grid. We don't keep back up transformers, they come from Europe and they take a year to make. Simply by shielding the transformers on our power grid it would ensure that even if everything else went down the power grid would stay up and if the power grid stays up that's 90% of the battle right there.
Several Congressmen and senators have put forward bills to protect the grid. So far it's never even make it to a vote or a committee.
BOB: So tell me about the survivor library, what's in it?
RAWLINS: Mostly books that range from the early 1800s through the early 1900s, Essentially it's a codex of knowledge and skills and technology as it existed before the widespread use of electronics. Pretty much everything you would need to know to rebuild an 1800s early 1900s industrial and technological infrastructure.
BOB: So you navigate not by GPS but by sextant and dead reckoning.
BOB: And what else is in there?
RAWLINS: Medical books, how to build steam engines, how to operate steam locomotives, how to build sailing ships, uh, how to build a lumber mill using water power. How to plow a field with a mule instead of a tractor. How to build simple airplanes.
BOB: You got livestock sheep, livestock swine... medical anaesthesia, pottery, poultry, printing, embalming. What's the coolest category in this archive?
RAWLINS: It's hard to say, I mean everytime I come across a new one, that one becomes the most fascinating for a while. Like right now I'm just putting a meteorology group up there, which is everything you need to know to do weather predictions and weather forecasting without radars and satellites.
BOB: There's a category for morality --
BOB: -- the elements of moral science, 1865, the crisis in morals, 1891, and principles of religion and morality from 1807. This is really one stop shopping for building a society.
RAWLINS: I've read a lot of these books, or at least looked through them in great depth. I do not want to live in the 1800s. Heaven forbid. I know too much from reading these books what living in the 1800s was like. it was a harsh and brutal period of time compared to today. But if an EMP event occurs, living in the 1800s and early 1900s is a lot better than reverting to the 14 or 1500s which is what we would have for a while.
BOB: One last thing, Rocky.
BOB: Let's say there's a solar storm. Electromagnetic pulses that fry everything. We rush to our computers, we type in survivor library.com, but dude! The network is down!
RAWLINS: We've got at this point it looks like about 7000 people downloading these books just off of my site. most of the people downloading these things are doing what we're all doing: we're dumping copies of them on DVDs, or CDs, or small portable hard drives, taking those and a spare laptop and shoving them in a faraday cage in a closet someplace just in case. And even if an EMP occurred, probably some of the computers would survive, then you got a community project where people start bringing these books up, dumping them to printers, binding them, putting covers on them, labelling them, putting them on shelves, and start building a physical library that everybody in the community can use.
BOB: Build some furniture, embalm the dead, and do it all morally. rocky, thank you very much.
RAWLINS: You're welcome.
BOB: Rocky Rawlins works in IT support for an online retailer. He is the archivist and creator of survivor library dot com.