Monthly Archives: August 2015

Space Weather Preparedness Strategy: A Faraday Cage?

SunandMagnetosphere_400 203804 courtesy of NASA

The sun interacting with the Earth’s magnetosphere, courtesy of NASA

So, after my last post, where I was writing about the UK government’s report on space weather, this post is about the linkup that’s made in prepping circles to a Faraday Cage (FC), and how to make one. And about a couple of expedient ( read “emergency”) FCs if the Met Office tell us that a ginormous storm is on the way.

We need to know what an FC actually is. This is the Wiki definition, and I’ve listed the important bits below:

  • the enclosure is formed by conductive material.
  • it works if the conductor is thick enough and if any holes are significantly smaller than the wavelength of the radiation.

But … but … hang on. The recommendations about whether or not a Faraday cage is actually helpful to protect from geomagnetic storms/CMEs are really contradictory, and maybe this is because the science is so new. It got so confusing that I started to make a list of who thought they’d help, and who didn’t, in both the mainstream scientific websites and the preparedness websites. And I stopped that, almost straight away, so here’s what I’ve learned: there’s a huge amount of disagreement about whether FCs are of any use in protecting electrical and electronic equipment from geomagnetic storms. Nearly all the American discussions tend to be in terms of nuclear attack, whether by full scale war or just a few high-altitude explosions to use the EMP pulse against them. That’s the scenario in One Second After, William Fortschen’s novel (which is a really great read, very powerful) about just such a war.  There’s an Amazon link at the bottom of this page, and his own website is listed on my Links page.

Anyway  … I had no idea the disagreements on FCs were as wide-ranging as they seem to be, so I’m simply going to base the rest of this post on three statements:

Firstly, geomagnetic storms will continue to occur, as they always have done, and some of them, at some stage in the future, will be at least as strong as the Carrington Event of 1859. The Met Office has some helpful descriptions here (though see a couple of paragraphs below).

Secondly, the UK National Grid will very probably be disrupted to some extent, probably for months: at the very least, you should ensure your stocks of food, water, medicine, cash etc are sufficient to see you through the initial confusion of this break in supply, so that you don’t suffer too much (and can maybe help out a bit locally) while emergency supplies are distributed. If those emergency supplies don’t materialise for months, your well-stocked food cupboard could literally be a lifesaver for you.

Thirdly, after you’ve unplugged your electrical and electronic goods, you could indeed put them in a n FC – nothing I’ve read, anywhere at all, indicates that the cages attract electrical surges, so as long as you don’t make yourself suffer to build one, then why not? They might save your stuff. They might not be necessary, in which case your stuff will be safe anyway.

Hmm. Those “helpful descriptions” by the Met Office, referred to above in the first point. Are things really that rosy in the UK, compared to a lot of other places? Because our National Grid lines are short and the authorities have been upgrading transformers? I’d love to believe it, but I’ve always had a certain scepticism about government statements and government figures. Most people share that scepticism, to some degree or another. So while I no longer think that a geomagnetic storm is something that’s highly dangerous to me as a prepper, I do still think it’s worth taking some precautions against it, just in case, because I don’t 100% believe the government, to be frank. And in any case, it’s such a new area to be researched, all the answers aren’t known yet.

What if you had the chance to make a cage and didn’t do it, then all your stuff got wiped out by a geomagnetic storm? Even when the National Grid transformers are eventually replaced (in 6 – 12 months, in a bad storm? Who knows!) is your insurance company still making good on claims? If it’s gone bust, how’s the government’s fallback scheme going? Is it overwhelmed? How far back in the queue are you? This is the crux of the probability vs impact scenarios: I won’t even call this “low probability/ high impact”, because the probability seems to be higher than that, approximately 1% in any one year.

I should make it clear again that I’m completely ignoring the whole issue of high-altitude attacks by other states or by terrorists, or a full-scale nuclear war. If you search online, you’ll find a huge amount of American material about that. I’m not going to touch it, this whole post is about the UK Government report on the potential threats from space weather, published in July of this year.

And I’m suggesting that it’s very possible to construct a Faraday Cage from the simplest materials. A couple of nested cardboard boxes. Heavy duty aluminium foil. The boxes are free at many supermarkets, or you can buy them at a poundstore or a stationer’s. It makes sense to buy the heavy duty foil: this one had a lot of customers recommending it.    Some of the products on Amazon have even better reviews.   

And there’s aluminium tape too, to make sure the edges don’t undermine the integrity of the insulation, though it seems you can get away with folding over (at least twice) the foil edges that you want to join.

So, here are the steps:

  • get two cardboard boxes, sized so that one will fit inside the other.
  • check that all the goods you want to protect will fit inside, even when they’re wrapped up in another few layers of insulating material and foil.
  • wrap the body of the box in a couple of layers of foil. Pay particular attention to where the foil edges meet one another: fold the edges over, and/or use that aluminium tape on them, if you can.
  • it’s really important that the foil doesn’t tear: that’s why I’m suggesting nesting cardboard boxes. The outer box is only for the protection of the inner box, which is the one covered in aluminium foil.
  • I recommend each item be wrapped in an insulating layer, a foil layer, another insulating layer, another foil layer. Sheets of bubble wrap and the like are fine.
  • don’t overfill, you need to be sure that you can tape down the lid very, very snugly. FCs only succeed if the gaps in them are substantially smaller than the wavelength of the solar radiation involved. And, as wiki sums up so admirably, radio frequencies go down to 0.1mm,though to be fair these have the attractive name of “Tremendously High Frequency”. Very little of this radiation usually gets down to ground surface, but in a big geomagnetic storm, some might. Reason enough to make sure you seal the box carefully.

That’s it!  Warnings of space weather severe enough to do damage would be all over the media. You could also check space weather warnings daily here,  and that would mean you don’t even need to have your FC sealed up, especially bearing in mind that there’s a fairly low probability of a severe geomagnetic storm in any one year. Sooner or later, random chance means that it will happen, of course – maybe many years from now, maybe tomorrow.

So, given how easy it is to provide a prepper-level protection against geomagnetic storms (as opposed to a scientific lab with equipment worth millions of pounds) I recommend keeping the makings of a Faraday Cage handily available – in the loft would be good enough. Two cardboard boxes, a couple of rolls of supermarket level heavy duty foil, and maybe a roll of aluminium tape, plus insulating material, such as pillow cases, used bubble wrap, anything non-conductive. Along with keeping an ear out for space weather forecasts, the same as checking for forecasts of extreme heat/cold/rain etc.

I hope this is helpful!


Space Weather Preparedness Strategy: UK Government Report

Magnificent Outburst PIA18167 courtesy of NASA

A magnificent outburst!  Courtesy of NASA

The updated UK strategy document was published in July 2015 by the government, and the full text can be found here.  There’s obviously some joined-up thinking going on behind the scenes about this; it remains to be seen whether there’s any joined-up action too. Be that as it may, the actions recommended are as follows:

– designing mitigation into infrastructure where possible
No individual preparedness can be of any use in relation to infrastructure (National Grid) mitigation.

– developing the ability to provide alerts and warnings of space weather and its potential impacts, having in place plans to respond to severe events
Alerts and warnings aren’t something we individuals can do, either: though what we can do is make sure we can receive those alerts. More of that in a moment.

– preparation is needed to the national level, with the support of local capabilities to deal with the consequences.
Preparation both nationally and locally to deal with the consequences. Local preparation is more like it!

What are the risks?
Disruption might come from lack of electricity, as parts or (worst case) all of the National Grid breaks down.

Disruption of the aviation industry: anyone in the air, staff or passengers, would receive more radiation, especially on the transpolar routes. Schedules would probably be badly interrupted.

Communication loss, especially radio systems and trans-oceanic communications.

Satellite systems would certainly be disturbed, and might even be lost, including GPS. A lot depends on satellites in our society, even our financial system.

Pipelines and railway neworks would be affected. For example – flow meters in pipelines would transmit corrupted information.

Many of these items would affect one another too, and very possibly lead to cascading problems, which makes everything even more serious, of course.

In prepping circles, the electronic ignition of cars is often assumed to fail … none of the official sources mention this, so that’s another individual area of knowledge where more research is needed.

There are difficulties with the warnings, however. It’s tricky to forecast events correctly – not as bad as volcanoes, but bad enough – and the timescale is very short, a matter of hours after a warning.

And the big one: space weather isn’t doing anything different nowadays, it’s simply that nowadays, with our reliance on all things electronic, our technology is a lot more vulnerable to the same sorts of space weather that have always been around. The final difficulty is that it’s our vulnerable technology that we’d use to monitor events – the very technology that’s most at risk from space weather! Talk about Catch-22.

The standard that’s being worked to is the Carrington Event, of 1859 – and even then, there were plenty of telegraph wires that were sparking and remained electrified after they were disconnected from their batteries. This is NASA’s description of what happened during and after the Event.

The only help that’ll be out there are the emergency services and utility companies. I suppose the army too, if it gets really bad, but I haven’t found this stated in so many words. But we know from local emergencies that the national scale of events like this would be overwhelming. A big event would probably be international, actually – there wouldn’t be any certainty of help coming from anywhere else, because many other countries would be in as much trouble.

UK Resilience?
All of this sounds okay-ish, as far as it goes. And then you go to the website for the National Grid, where they’re talking about space weather, and you see the headline “Storm In A Teacup?” Oh dear.

There’s a bit of an attitude in this article, which is by an analyst named Andrew Richards, but there’s actually a lot of valuable information here too, about inbuilt mitigations and about what they do if they know there’s a potential event about to happen. Plus, because we’re an island with lots of short, interconnecting webs of powerlines, we’re intrinsically a lot more protected than North America, China and Australia, with their huge long powerlines that go on for ever, with much less redundancy than we have. One of the few advantages of being a smaller, crowded country, I suppose.

However, the Royal Academy of Engineering is quite a bit more realistic, it seems to me, in it’s approach.  Their 70 page report is linked to in the first paragraph on this page.

They say that “since the last peak of the solar cycle, the Great Britain transmission system has developed to become more meshed and more heavily loaded. … there is increased probability of severe geomagnetic storms affecting transmission equipment critical to robust operation of the system” (my emphasis). In other words, the same sort of “just in time” that our supermarkets operate, is operated by the National Grid too – and there would be consequences during a space weather event. It wouldn’t be Armageddon, but there would be problems, probably in more remote regions, where there is less transformer redundancy.

This issue about replacing transformers that have overloaded is the really crucial one. Several transformers are available at almost every site, though fewer in remote areas. “The time for an emergency transformer replacement, when a spare is available, would normally be 8 to 16 weeks although the record is four weeks.” says the Royal Academy of Engineering.

Minimum four weeks of low or no power, even if your consumer goods are okay, especially in areas served by fewer transformers. What if it was during winter? Could you cope?

So what can we do to safeguard ourselves?

There are many things we as individuals can do to increase our resilience to space weather, when the Met Office advises of an incoming storm. Many of the ordinary preparations you’ve probably made will be relevant: alternative methods of cooking, heating and sanitation; plenty of cash, petrol and water.

If you’re booked onto a transpolar flight at just the wrong time, what do you do? What do the airlines say? Plus, you could find out what the Met Office, the Foreign Office, the US-equivalent Foreign Office, and WebMD and NHS are saying.

It’s hard to believe that all flights would go ahead, but some would, and the optimistic assumption is that aircraft would be instructed to lose height, which would give them greater protection from the particles concerned, but that might not be possible – they’d use more fuel, and there may be too many aircraft beneath them, for instance.  Individual risk to each passenger seems to be low, even so, but there hasn’t really been a great deal of research in this area.

The alternative is not to fly: it’s all very well to say “don’t fly” – but trips have often been planned months or even years ahead. It’s hard to cancel them: and your insurance may not even be valid if you do. But is there a survival risk? The science is uncertain, but still young, new research is being done all the time.  If I had a big flight planned, I’d keep my eye on things.

As far as being in our own homes is concerned, there’s definitely positive action that can be taken:
– keep your electronics inside the house – don’t put it in a box in the garden, thinking it will be safer. It won’t.
– everything possible should be unplugged – during the worst of the storm, your freezer too, if possible.
– you could make a home-made Faraday cage: instructions in the next post. But bear in mind that you won’t be able to use anything while it’s in there. It does seem to be possible to make a Faraday cage with openings safe enough that the goods inside can be used safely, but I think that’s currently beyond the initial attempts of amateurs like us – like me, anyway.

An exploration of Faraday Cages is coming next, along with car ignitions.


Amazon Search Box

Amazon has a huge amount of equipment that’s really useful in terms of preparedness, whether you’re preparing for the end of the world, or a three day interruption of the electricity supply. Plenty of my own preps come from Amazon: maps, first aid dressings, an old fashioned gardening book, batteries, a few plants, you name it. It’s incredibly useful to be able to go to one website: just like a supermarket or a department store …

Kindle books too: after all, I’ve published a kindle book myself. And you don’t have to have an actual kindle reader: there’s kindle software that you can download onto your existing computer, and take advantage of the free books, fact and fiction alike.

“Getting Home In An Emergency” kindle book

Earlier this year, I published a book on Amazon’s Kindle, called Getting Home In An Emergency, about how to “bug home”, as it’s called in preparedness circles.  It’s about being able to get home under your own steam if there’s a severe problem that interrupts public transport while you’re out at work, or just out for a day somewhere a good distance away  from your own town.

In this section of my website, I want to publish updates for that book as I find them – new online map sources, for instance, to help plan a route in advance,

And I want to let people know about other books I’ll be writing too.  And I want to let people know about the preparedness goods you can buy on Amazon, there are many more than you’d expect, of a surprising variety too.

But first … here’s the link to my own book!

Dental Care, Part Two

I didn’t expect to need to write a second post about dental care in relation to prepping, but there’s a lot more information available than I managed to fit into the first post.

Right now we have the NHS picking up the basics of dental care, as well as millions of people who pay for private dental care. But what if something really bad happened?  It could be your own unemployment when you can no longer afford even NHS payments, financial crisis worse than 2008, the La Palma earthquake? Even if the current financial situation gets worse for the NHS, many of us could be in trouble. I’ve edited this for flippancy, because it’s very real – in these situations, we might be well and truly stuck if we couldn’t take care of ourselves.

1. Acids in our food

One of the most important things to take on board is about acids in our food. Acids in food and drink can attack teeth in the same way as dental plaque attacks them. Teeth can repair themselves if given time (45 minutes or so after eating), so the advice is not to have sugary substances too often during your day, and not to snack. If you snack, you’ll be spending longer each day in that “recovery” time, when the acids and sugars are in plentiful supply in your mouth, and potentially damaging your teeth.

In addition, we shouldn’t brush our teeth immediately after eating, as that can cause extra damage in itself: the normal acids and sugars from eating are all strongly present in our mouths, and if you brush your teeth at this time, you’re actually helping them to attack your tooth enamel.

If you don’t have a toothbrush, or are in a situation where you can’t brush your teeth, chewing sugar free gum is recommended – this is because it increases the flow of that healthy saliva to fight the plaque-forming acids.

2. Clove Oil

Clove oil is often applied directly to gums, and to aching teeth, for pain relief. and I have some myself, for exactly this reason. However, there are three things to bear in mind, according to the USA site of WebMD, even though medical research bears out the pain relief properties:

– it contains a substance called eugenol, which seems to slow blood clotting.

– it may not be as effective as originally thought at relieving pain (although I’d have thought that something is better than nothing).

– it is almost certainly unsafe for children, with problems including seizures and liver damage.

– heavy adult use may give rise to damage to the gums, tooth pulp, skin and mucous membranes.

In other words, it’s not a miracle application – use sensibly.

3. Losing a tooth

A programme on BBC1 recently about teeth (The Truth About Teeth, broadcast in July of this year) mentioned something very interesting about what to do if you accidentally knock out a tooth (an adult tooth, that is).


– hold it while you take it to your dentist

– scrub it

– put it in ice or water, the cells will explode and die.

– leave it in your pocket


– pick it up by the tip that you normally see, so you don’t damage the sensitive root cells.

– lick it, to get off any dirt.

– stick it back in the gum, in exactly the place it came from. Minutes count.

– get to a dentist, as quickly as possible.

if you can’t bear to put it back in your mouth, put it in milk – that will keep it alive for up to six hours, apparently.

4. Salty Gargle

Gargling salty warm water won’t prevent a toothache, and it won’t prevent a cavity from growing, but it most certainly will work to counter any infection you have, until you can get to a dentist (or a doctor, if the problem isn’t only with your teeth). WebMD US and UK, and my very own dentist, all recommend it, and there’s research to prove it, published here by The US National Library of Medicine.

5. Some links

Here’s one of the biggest and best resources, which I didn’t mention in Part One:   Where there is no dentist

This is an astonishing resource – available to all for free. I’ve linked to the page requested on Hesperian’s website, as this is where they also publish updates. I can’t say enough good things about Hesperian, and I urge everyone who reads this to use that link and download for free, or buy print copies of any of the books that seem remotely relevant to you. It’s mostly meant for people in developing countries – but there are plenty of people in the developed world who need more information about helping themselves too.

There are UK resources specifically for conditions in this country too, of course, and the main one is the patients’ website of the British Dental Association.  There’s a lot of information here, but it’s trying so hard to be “friendly”, it’s fussy and not terribly logical. Root around, though, and you’ll find a lot of information and self-help advice.

The British Dental Health Foundation are an independent charity working to improve dental health internationally. They have a pretty comprehensive list of topics underneath the heading “Tell Me About”, as well as in other areas.

6. Tea Tree Oil

Over at WebMD/US, there’s a specific advisory against using tea tree oil in the mouth (or ears, or eyes). Apparently it can cause results as severe as coma, so the warning is important.

To Conclude

Occasional use of clove oil seems to be the only use for essential oil in dentistry terms.  Salty gargles to help keep the mouth clean are fine. And Over The Counter pain relief is relevant – ibuprofen, aspirin or paracetemol, in the recommended doses. Anecdotally, I’ve heard that packing the affected area with dampened teabags is a relief.  But all in all, all of the above bears out that prevention is better than cure.  Which could be a prepper’s motto in any case.

Stay healthy!