HAMNET Report 24th July 2022

Across Western Europe, the wildfires continue. Portugal reports five active fires, and several deaths, including a firefighter aeroplane pilot, and a tally of 728 firefighters deployed in the five areas.

Spain is experiencing at least 30 active fires, and at least 7500 people have been evacuated away from the danger areas. Two deaths were reported on Wednesday.

In France, more than 19000 hectares of vegetation has been destroyed since the 12th of July, and about 43000 people have had to be moved to safety.

The fire risks in all these countries are reported to be extreme, as the heatwave continues, and the vegetation remains tinder-dry.

And north-eastern Italy, Greece and Slovenia are the latest countries to be experiencing wild fires, according to reports from GDACS on Thursday and Friday.

Psychology Today has an interesting article on the positive effects of being exposed to a major stressful situation.

Mark Travers says that a new study published in the Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin informs us that the aftermath of a mass trauma or natural disaster could benefit an individual’s mental health because of “psychosocial gains from adversity.” The study suggests that these benefits could be a direct result of a spike in perceived social support and social resources.

Lead author Anthony Mancini of Pace University in New York cites the example of the Virginia Tech campus shootings, which inspired his research, to illustrate this concept.

A study conducted at Virginia Tech on participants with anxiety and depression before the shootings happened revealed that nearly half of the group showed significant improvement in their mental state in its aftermath.

After realizing that this wasn’t an uncommon phenomenon and formulating the “psychosocial gain from adversity” theory, Mancini got the rare opportunity to test it out in real-time, using the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy in New York.

Mancini and his colleagues were conducting a study on adaptation to college, which placed them in the unique position of having already conducted an assessment of the student body before the hurricane hit, which they were able to repeat in its aftermath. The team went a step further two semesters later, studying another cohort of students which had not had any hurricane exposure.

“Both comparisons showed that the hurricane cohort was doing better,” Mancini reports. “When we compared their functioning before and after, the hurricane cohort experienced reduced distress, negative emotion, and attachment avoidance.”

The students also reported an increase in social support. The hurricane cohort, compared to the cohort one year later, had more social support, less attachment anxiety, and less attachment avoidance. This means that the hurricane cohort was actually better off as a result of the hurricane.

Mancini explains that our instinct to affiliate with others after disaster exposure most likely has evolutionary roots, is related to the attachment system, and helps us cope with adversity generally. “Because social behaviour and relationships are critical to mental health, stress can then have surprising benefits on our level of distress, our concerns about our relationships, and the level of responsiveness we experience from others,” he explains.

For anyone who has weathered a natural disaster or faced a similar stressor in their life recently, he has the following advice: “Obey the instinct to affiliate with others after stressful experiences. They will likely be receptive and you may find that you have forged a new relationship or strengthened an existing one, both of which will be to your benefit in the future.”

Thanks to Psychology Today for these excerpts.

In the light of the glancing blows the earth received from a coronal mass ejection this week, which could have had a serious impact, The Irish Times reports that an innovative plan by Irish scientists to provide an early warning system for the arrival of solar storms powerful enough to disrupt critical infrastructure on Earth — using six tiny satellites — has received European Space Agency (ESA) backing.

The Sun regularly produces solar eruptions in the form of flares, or bigger solar storms, which then travel rapidly across space and disrupt navigation systems, radio communications, power grids and spacecraft instrumentation upon reaching the Earth’s atmosphere.

The Surround mission, a collaboration involving scientists at the Dublin Institute for Advanced Studies (DIAS) and engineers at the University of Manchester is to explore new ways to track reliably the precise direction in which a solar storm is travelling.

Scientists understand that whether the storm’s magnetic field is pointing upwards, downwards, left or right determines whether it has a minimal or large impact on Earth. A major problem now is that because solar storm prediction is unreliable, there are a lot of “false calls” on how impactful a solar storm will be on reaching us.

“What we particularly care about is trying to triangulate their positions and track [solar storms],” says Prof Peter Gallagher, head of astrophysics at DIAS and its lead space weather research investigator. “You can then work out accurate arrival times at Earth; that’s the holy grail.”

The size of solar storms varies, says Gallagher, but some can be many times the size of Earth, and completely envelop the planet. “If they give us a glancing blow, they are not as effective, or ‘geo-effective’ we call it. If there is a full head-on impact, they will envelop the whole Earth, cause the Aurora Borealis, and problems with shortwave communications and GPS.”

When solar storms erupt they fire off electrons and protons held in a superheated gas (or plasma), which is carried across space by a solar wind — a stream of particles travelling from the sun at about a million miles per hour. The storms are a health hazard to astronauts and flight crews flying over the poles, where their impact is greatest.

The Surround mission is proposing to use a constellation of CubeSats better to track, monitor and predict solar storms. The plan is to launch six CubeSats, each with radio spectrometers to track the solar radio bursts associated with solar storms that can disrupt our global navigation satellite systems by interfering with radio waves. The CubeSats, which will each sit in separate locations in space, will combine to track solar storms from multiple angles.

I wonder if there is an English word describing to “triangulate” from six directions?

This is Dave Reece ZS1DFR reporting for HAMNET in South Africa.