She’s gonna blow! Why Volcanos may be more of a threat in the UK than I first thought.

For some reason lately I’ve found myself watching a number of documentaries on periods in history when the UK or, very often, the whole of Europe has suffered a year or more of crop failures, disease and famine. Pretty much all of them, it transpires, were the result of a massive volcanic eruption somewhere in the world. I’ve always considered the UK to be pretty safe from natural disasters and is one of the reasons I give for choosing to bug in, however, I’m now thinking that perhaps it is actually directly vulnerable from volcanic eruptions, despite having no volcanos of its own.

The potential volcanic eruption, oft cited by preppers, that is assumed will affect the whole of Europe and the Eastern Seaboard of the US, is the eruption of the Canary Islands volcano, Cumbre Vieja, causing a giant tsunami to radiate outwards to the US and to Europe. Cumbre Vieja is certainly active, and historically blows once or twice every 100 years – the last eruption being 1949. The western side of Cumbre Vieja is known to be unstable and the fear is that in the next eruption the whole side of the volcano will slide into the sea triggering the tsunami. Historical records suggest that the UK has possibly experienced a tsunami from the west before: on 30th January in 1607 there was a flood of the Bristol Channel, on the west coast of the UK, causing the death of an estimated 2,000 people and the destruction of much property and farmland. However, whether or not the flood was actually caused by a tsunami or a storm surge such as the one that flooded the east coast of the UK in 1953 is open to debate given other evidence: such as reports of a storm surge occurring the same night in Norfolk – which is on the other side of the UK and highly unlikely to be the result of a tsunami coming from the Atlantic. Either way DEFRA believes that any flood caused by a tsunami-type event ‘are unlikely to exceed those anticipated for major storm surges. All major centres of development on coasts and estuaries have defences that have been designed to withstand such surge waves’ (See: http://archive.defra.gov.uk/environment/flooding/risk/tsunami.htm). So, whilst East Coast US preppers may fear Cumbre Vieja, I don’t.

The real threat to the UK from volcanos comes not from what they might toss into the sea, triggering a tsunami, but from what they toss into the air. In 2010 Eyjafjallajökull (pronounced : “Ay-yah-fyad-layer-kuh-tel”) erupted in Iceland sending around 1 cubic kilometre of ash over most of Europe, which resulted in the highest level of air travel disruption in Europe since the Second World War. Although there were reports of noticeable ash fallout on cars in the UK, quite frankly I noticed far more crud on my car from the Saharan dust storms early in 2013 than I did from Eyjafjallajökull. (Seriously, you could have filmed “Lawrence of Arabia” on my bonnet! I swear there were dunes!) Financially Eyjafjallajökull was bad for Europe, but it was not a huge European ecological disaster. It did, however, make one aware that volcanos hundreds or even thousands of miles away elsewhere in the world can have a direct affect little old Blighty.

The seismic energy of earthquakes is measured by the Richter scale, the Saffir-Simpson scale estimates a hurricane’s potential and the Fujita scale rates a hurricane’s intensity. Volcanic eruptions are measured using the Volcanic Explositivy Index (VEI). It primarily measures the volume of pyroclastic material ejected by the volcano (volcanic ash, tephra, pyroclastic flows etc.) and also takes into consideration the height of the eruption column and the duration of the eruption. Eruptions rated at VEI 1 produce between 0.0001 and 0.001 cubic kilometers of ejecta. Above VEI 1, the scale becomes logarithmic, meaning that each step in the scale represents ten-fold increase in the amount of material ejected. So the highest VEI of 8, ejecting at least 1,000 Km3 of ejecta, is 1,000 times more powerful than a VEI of 4, which in turn is 1,000 more powerful than a VEI 1. It is believed that the Yellowstone eruption some 640,000 years ago, Lake Toba, 74,000 years ago, and Lake Taupo 26,500 years ago all would have measured 8 on the VEI scale. One of the largest 8s being the Wah Wah Springs eruption some 30 million years ago (but now dormant in Utah!) which produced an estimated 3,200 km3 of erupta. To date on the earth there have been 47 VEI 8 eruptions, all identified via geological study as none has occurred in recorded history. To compare with recorded eruptions, the infamous Krakatoa eruption in 1883 had a VEI of 6 (and also triggered several tsunami). Novarupta in 1912 also had a VEI of 6. Mount Vesuvius’s eruption in AD 79, smothering Pompeii and Herculaneum with scorching ash is rated as VEI 5 the same as the recent barely-documented Pinatubo eruption in 1991 (reducing sunlight by 5% and causing global temperatures to fall by 0.4C) and the well-documented Mount St Helens eruption in May 1980 (though some sources cite St Helens was “only” a VEI 4). Eyjafjallajökull in 2010 had a VEI of 4.

However, on 10th April, 1815 Mount Tambora on the Indonesian island of Sumbawa erupted. It had a VEI of 7 producing 160 km3 of ejecta and is the largest recorded eruption in history. The volcanic winter that followed, where temperatures world-wide dropped 0.4C to 0.7C caused the following year, 1816, to become known as: The Year Without Summer. The whole of the Northern Hemisphere was affected. In the US the average Last Frost Date for New York State is April 30th – May 10th. In 1816 the ground was still frozen on 9th June. On July 7th it was still so cold that crops struggled to grow. On August 23rd there was another widespread frost. (As a Brit I love the idea that there is usually a specific date after which there will no more frosts! Just doesn’t happen like that in the UK. Snowballs in June have been know!). Further south crops did grow, but the price of food rose dramatically. Throughout Europe cool temperatures and heavy rain caused crops to fail resulting in the worst famine of the 19th Century. Riots, arson and looting took place in many cities. In northern Asia the cold weather killed crops and livestock. The Tambora eruption disrupted the Chinese monsoon season causing massive floods. In India the delayed summer monsoon caused late torrential rains aggravating the spread of cholera from Bengal to Moscow.

But volcanos don’t need to have a massive explosion to cause problems. What they throw out, and how they release it is as important as how far it travels into the sky (explosive and effusive eruptions), and the prevailing weather conditions can determine who dies and who lives. On 8th June, 1783 another Icelandic volcano, Laki (or more correctly Lakagígar “Craters of Laki” pronounced: “La-ka-ghee-yur“) erupted, rating a VEI 6, partly because of the eight month length of its eruption. Amongst other volcanic debris, Lakagígar spewed out an estimated 120,000,000 long tons of sulphur dioxide. Because of the unusual high pressure over Iceland that summer, rather than travelling up to the unpopulated North Pole, the poisonous cloud of sulphur dioxide travelled in a circular, clockwise direction over Scandinavia, through what is now the Czech Republic, down through Germany, west through France before heading back north and blanketing the UK. The cloud hung around for months not dissipating until the Autumn. It was so thick that boats were unable to navigate using the sun and had to stay in port, so fishing and trade were greatly affected. Workers out in the fields suffered enormously: when it comes into contact with the moisture in the lungs, sulphur dioxide turns into sulphuric acid, burning the lung tissue and causing victims to choke. Reports indicate that deaths in Chartres were up 5% in August and September 1783. In the UK deaths in Bedfordshire and Lincolnshire, which are large farming areas, were estimated to be two or three times the normal rate. An estimated 23,000 people died in the UK from poisoning directly related to the sulphur dioxide cloud. In Iceland, the source of all that sulphur, 50% of their livestock died as a result of the poisoning leading to a famine that killed approximately 25% on the population.

The longer term meteorological impact of Lakagígar caused many more deaths than just the immediate poisonings. The weather in the summer was very hot causing massive thunderstorms with giant hailstones. What crops survived the poison and the lack of sun where swamped with flooding from the storms. Famine was widespread in Europe. By contrast the following winter was very severe, not just in Europe but also in North America. In total the Lakagígar eruption is estimated to have killed 33% of the Icelandic population and over six million people world wide: 0.6% of the total world population at the time.

You might not be able to pronounce them, but the Icelandic volcanos may well severely affect your future. If one of the unpronounceables blows with a VEI 5, VEI 6, or heaven forbid, a VEI 7, the UK lies directly in its path. Ironically it’s one of Iceland’s more English language friendly volcanos, Katla (pronounced: “Cat-la“), that is the current contender for possible UK disaster. Situated on the south coast of Iceland just 27km from Eyjafjallajökull and believed to share magma tunnels with it, Katla is very large, historically erupting with a force of VEI 4 to VEI 6, and very active, erupting on average once every 50-95 years with over 20 reported and confirmed eruptions since AD 950.  It’s been dormant since its last eruption in 1918, the longest period of dormancy known. Moreover, history tells us that it has always erupted shortly after its little neighbour Eyjafjallajökull has blow its top. Katla certainly grumbled a lot in 2011, the year after Eyjafjallajökull brought Europe’s aviation to its knees, some people going as far as to say it did actually have a minor eruption, but the consensus is that Katla is now overdue for an explosion and is monitored closely. It’s current status is “restless”.

How would the UK cope with months of a sulphur dioxide cloud hanging over us, meaning you couldn’t go outside without wearing a mask? How would our livestock cope with the sulphur poisoning? How would Europe cope with a year’s worth of crop failure on all outdoors crops? Would even the massive Spanish polytunnels manage to produce food without enough sun? How would Europe and the US cope with a volcanic winter? What would be the world-wide financial implications of such a situation? If you consider that the painter Turner personally witnessed and painted the effects in England of three massive eruptions: Tambora (VEI 7) in 1815, Babuyan Claro (VEI 4) in the Philippines in 1831, and Cosiguina (VEI 6) in Nicaragua in 1835, the likelihood of there being at least one massive eruption somewhere which will affect the whole of Europe in your lifetime is quite high.

Makes ya think….!

The UK Government now ranks an eruption from one of Iceland’s volcanos is as one of the three highest natural hazards the UK faces, with a 0.5% to 5% chance of such an eruption happening in the next 5 years. See: https://www.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/211867/NationalRiskRegister2013_amended.pdf

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Are you Extrovert or Introvert? And why is it important to know?

My recent bout of flu and enforced 2 week quarantine at home had me musing about the nature of being introvert or extrovert. For me, 2 weeks without seeing another single soul (though I did text and speak to people on the phone) was really not a problem. For my friend, who brought over some bread and apples, it would have been hell on earth. The difference between us is that I am strongly introvert and she is strongly extrovert.

I’m not talking about “life and soul of the party” versus “awkward geek in the corner of the room”, this idea of extrovert and introvert is actually about social skill and confidence: you could be a sociable, confident introvert or a shy, awkward extrovert; rather this is introvert/extrovert in the Jungian sense of introversion/extroversion. If you’ve ever had psychometric testing at work you’ve probably had some variation of the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator test, which is based on Jungian personality types. It measures your preferences for ways of learning and interacting with others. You are allocated a four letter acronym denoting your preferred cognitive style. According to the test I am INFJ which stands for Introvert, iNtuitive, Feeling and Judging. The complete opposite from me would be ESTP: Extrovert, Sensing, Thinking, Perceiving. Those of your good at maths will work out that there are 16 possible combinations of the letters. But we’re just looking at the first letter, Introvert and Extrovert (though it’s useful to know the others).

If you’ve had the test you’ll know what your preferred style is, but for those who haven’t here’s a scenario:

It’s Friday, it’s been a long and tiring week at work, and today has been particularly gruelling. You’re exhausted and need to recharge. Do you:

a) change into comfy clothes, order a take-away and collapse in front of the tv/computer, perhaps with your significant other (or perhaps not!), and a bottle or wine or beer, and spend the evening in quiet isolation.

b) change into your glad rags, head out to a pub, and spend the evening downing some drinks with a group of friends and acquaintances, with the loud music and buzz of the atmosphere giving you the much needed energy boost.

Most people will react strongly to one or other scenario above. If you’re drawn to a) then you are an introvert. If you’re drawn to b) then you are an extrovert. In fact, more people will be drawn to b) as there are many more extroverts than introverts. If your reaction is “well, it would depend”, then you are neither strongly introvert nor strongly extrovert – but it’s still important to think about this.

Introvert and extrovert in the Jungian sense is where you draw your energy from. Introverts draw energy from within. For introverts, hell is other people. Whilst introverts can be as sociable as the next person, being in a large group, in a buzzing, busy environment, is tiring. They may enjoy it, but it costs them energy-wise. They need time alone to recharge. Conversely extroverts draw their energy from from other people. For extroverts, hell is social isolation. They can spend time on their own, but it costs them energy-wise. They need the buzz of social interaction to function well and recharge.

I am strongly introvert, I scored very highly on this scale. I am sociable and enjoy going out, but I recharge by being on my own. Most Christmases I spend with my family: I go from living on my own all year round, to being in a house for a week with up to 10 other people, including 4 boisterous teenagers. I love my family and I love being there for Christmas, but it is utterly, utterly exhausting! One of the best Christmases I had was when I went down with Norovirus on Christmas Eve: I was sleeping in the caravan in the driveway (it’s not that large a house!) and basically someone checked on me every couple of hours, but other than that I was left alone. I got social interaction with my family at Christmas, but I was largely on my own. Heaven! When I watch films/tv programmes set in prisons or prisoner-of-war camps, and someone is sent to solitary confinement it’s always portrayed as A Very Bad Thing. I just think, cool! Being socially isolated for two weeks is not torture for me, it’s quite a holiday! If you want to punish me or have me tell you whatever secrets I have, don’t put me in isolation, put me in a room with 30 exuberant people and I’ll be crying like a baby within 24 hours!

Conversely my friend the extrovert cannot spend even 24 hours on her own. She has to have some kind of social interaction. She struggles with “cabin fever” even if someone else is there. When she had flu a few years back she forced herself (against advice!) to go out of her flat every day as she just couldn’t deal with being stuck there. Two weeks in solitary confinement would see her go insane.

So why is this important?
Should the fecal matter hit the spinning things, even if it’s just going down with flu for two weeks, you are likely to be faced either with being isolated for an extended period, or with being forced into some kind of group refugee situation. If you err towards the dramatic and are preparing for TEOTWAWKI whereby 90% of the population dies out, then you really, really need to know how you’re going to handle social isolation! If you’re someone whose idea of a good time is a night out with the lads at a club, then do you seriously think you could psychologically deal with several months of isolation in a bunker? Bravado has nothing to do with it, quite the opposite in fact. I suspect that come TEOTWAWKI introverts will fare rather better than extroverts – contrary to how introverts are viewed by normal society. Even in a busy environment it is possible for an introvert to withdraw into themselves and find their 30 cubic centimetres of isolation in order to regenerate. For an extrovert if no-one else is there, there is nothing they can do.

But does it go deeper?
Interestingly, looking at my friends and reading between the lines on online forums (I’m INFJ – it’s a gift! ;)) I suspect that most (though not all) active preppers are introvert by nature. The extroverts I know tend to be of the opinion that should anything happen “someone” will come to their aid and there will always be someone else out there to help them, and therefore there is no need to prep. So perhaps by definition introverts prep (i.e. draw their energy from themselves and are self-reliant) and extroverts don’t prep (i.e. rely on others’ energy to boost them and enable them to survive). Perhaps it’s as simple as that: prepping is an extension of your innate introversion/extroversion tendencies. Of the extroverts I do know who prep, they tend to err towards the self-sufficient community style of prepping, rather than the hunkering down in a bunker style. Which all makes sense.

Conclusion
It should always be remembered though that introversion/extroversion is merely your preferred method of getting energy. It is not set in stone. You can adapt and change. Arguably the best scenario is one whereby you are comfortable in either state. A combination of self-reliance and community will always be the most flexible and therefore the most likely to succeed. Either way it is useful to know what your default starting position is so you know how you’re likely to react to a given situation and can prepare for how you will behave.

SHTF Prepping Test Time!

One of the things for which I have been prepping is illness: from the The End Of The World As We Know It global pandemic to simple flu or a broken leg. Basically illness that prevents me from being able go about my normal business for an extended period. Such a time has arrived…how did my preps fare? And what have I learned from it?

I’ve had flu. Well, officially, according to my doctor: “influenza-like viral infection”. I’m calling it Summer Flu. I had a temperature of 102F/39C for 8-9 days, followed by a diminishing temperature, but still feeling pretty crap, for another 5-6 days. I still can’t hear properly (feels like the cats have been putting cotton wool in my ears whilst I’m asleep!), and I still quite often have to sit or lie down as the room starts to spin. Most of my time has been spent lying in bed or lying on the sofa feeling pretty sorry for myself, apart from the few hours around 4am on the first night when fever, fear and suggestion had me believing I was The First British Victim Of The Infamous Ebola Outbreak Of 2014, during which time I was utterly terrified! Oh and sweating. This has been the sweatiest flu I have ever experienced. Comedy sweating like someone has a hosepipe playing on you. Keeping hydrated has been a big problem!

I live on my own, and although I have friends just down the road, as it happens they were abroad on holiday for the first week of my illness. I wasn’t worried, I have food for 6 months, plenty of medicines, there was water, electricity and internet connectivity. A two week enforced quarantine would be an interesting test run of my preps. How did I do?

Food
I have plenty of food in the house. And it’s food I eat and like. I store what I eat and eat what I store, so when a friend on the other side of London offered to buy groceries for me I just thought: “Ah, bless!”. What I hadn’t reckoned on is that when you’re ill, your tastes can change. Quite dramatically. Within 24 hours of becoming ill I became aware of a weird taste at the back of my mouth, and a permanent weird smell. The latter being particularly surprising as at the best of times I have practically no sense of smell at all! The combination of the two meant that everything tasted funny. Really funny. I struggled to find things I actually wanted to eat and could tolerate the taste of. The shocker came when I thought it was time for a spot of comfort eating and I broke out the TEOTWAWKI chocolate: it tasted horrible! I didn’t like the taste of chocolate!!!!! I also had problems with the drinks I had in the house. Having a bit of a weight problem, all the drinks I have are diet versions. I found the taste of the artificial sweeteners just repulsive. Eventually I dug out a packet of Lipton’s Ice Tea powder, which I’d bought earlier in the year as a buy and forget TEOTWAWKI item, reckoning it would last forever as it’s basically flavoured sugar! This I could tolerate the taste of, and that little packet helped me keep hydrated!

Medicines
I have lots of over the counter medicines to alleviate most symptoms. I had no stomach or bowel problems with the flu, so the only medicine I used was paracetamol to bring my temperature down and help me feel a little better. I had lots and lots of paracetamol as it’s quite cheap and easily available. Even so I was surprised by how much I got through over the course of 2 weeks. I shouldn’t have been surprised, it’s just that I’d never actually done the maths. One person will get through 8 tablets a day (this is the maximum dose, do NOT take more in 24 hours, the lethal dose for paracetamol isn’t much higher than this). As in the UK you can only buy packets of 16 over the counter, that’s one packet every 2 days. So over a fortnight, and flu usually lasts two weeks, that’s 7 packets of paracetamol. I had 10 packets in the cupboard, so I had sufficient, but it made me realise that just one person with one bout of flu had wiped out my paracetamol reserve. More than one person being ill, or a delay with being able to restock would be a problem.

On day 7 I also had another problem. I have hair-trigger gag reflex. I have lost my breakfast whilst brushing my teeth on many occasions. It translates into a potential problem when taking oral medication. For the most part I managed well with the paracetamol but on this particular day my temperature was already back up to 102F just 2 hours after taking the previous dose. I dutifully waited another 2 hours before taking the next dose (you should leave 4-6 hours between paracetamol doses) feeling like death. As soon as I tried to swallow the tablet the spasm started. I fought to control it but sure enough within a couple of minutes I vomited. Now I had a problem. I had no idea if I had absorbed any or all of the paracetamol tablets. As lethal overdose with paracetamol is easy there was no way I could risk taking more paracetamol for another 4 hours. But my temperature was high and had been for the last 2 hours, and I really, really didn’t want it to stay that way for another 4 hours. My understanding is that ibuprofen and paracetamol can be taken at the same time and they do not interact with each other. To confirm I phoned the NHS helpline. They were reluctant, but after assuring them that this was a one-off emergency and that I do not intend to take both ibuprofen and paracetamol together as a rule, they confirmed that the two drugs do not interact and can be taken at the same time – though they strongly advise I ate something before taking ibuprofen as it really shouldn’t be taken on an empty stomach.

Conclusion
I think the preps worked just fine for my enforced two week quarantine. I didn’t actually need anything brought in. After a week I did have a friend bring over some more of my favourite bread and some apples just because there’s no point in roughing it if you don’t have to! But I would have survived ok without them. To bullet point my findings:

  • Stock what you eat and eat what you stock, but also be prepared for tastes to change, particularly if you’re ill. You might find that apples become your go-to comfort food rather than chocolate! Try to have more variety than you might otherwise think you’d need, including drinks. Whilst you can survive on just water, having flavoured drinks makes life feel a little better, particularly if you’re ill.
  • You may need more basic painkillers than you think, so stock up well on them, they’re not expensive. Stock both paracetamol and ibuprofen (personally I cannot tolerate aspirin so I don’t have any in stock) as they can, in an emergency, be taken together. Be very, very careful about overdosing on paracetamol. Be aware that over the counter remedies such as Lemsip also contain paracetamol. Do not drink alcohol whilst taking paracetamol (not that you’ll probably want to if you have flu!).
  • Work out how well you cope with 2 weeks of isolation. Which will be the subject of my next posting…

Musings On Solar Panels

On gardening forums you often see the question: “Can plant X be grown in a pot?”. The short answer is: “Yes”. The slightly longer and more useful answer is: “Yes, providing the pot is large enough.” You could grow a giant Sequoia in a pot assuming you can afford and find a large enough pot and have a large enough space in which to put it! The same is true with solar panels. The question most often asked is: “Can I install solar panels to power my entire house when the power goes down?” The answer is again: “Yes”. The slightly longer and more useful answer is: “Yes, providing you have enough money to pay for all the panels and the attendant battery bank (which has to be replaced every 5 years or so) and wiring, and enough space to install them all”. Interestingly you’re probably looking at much the same cost and space as the giant Sequoia pot…i.e. way too much for mere mortals! And even if you have just won the Euro Lottery, you’d still need planning permission which is probably an even bigger hurdle than the cash!

[Just a note: the Tie-In solar panel systems you may see on peoples’ roofs are not off-grid systems. Firstly they don’t even work if there’s no mains electricity, they switch off! Secondly solar panels only work whilst there’s daylight, they don’t produce electricity at night – which is probably when you need it most! To get around this and be genuinely off-grid, alongside the solar panels you have battery banks – sets of (usually) 12v batteries rather like car batteries, which are charged up by the solar panels whilst the sun shines. All your electrical items are then connected to the batteries, not the solar panels, and you use the electricity stored in the batteries to power your gear. Thirdly, few if any of the Tie-In systems are actually self-sufficient. The solar panel arrays aren’t anywhere near large enough to power an entire house all year round.]

The question is better approached by looking at it from the opposite side: What is it in your house you need to power, and are there any more suitable alternatives? The key thing to remember is that 99.999% of the time your house will have mains power which is much cheaper and far better able to run electrical items than a 12v DC battery based system, so do you really want to go off-grid permanently or do you want something that will get you by when the lights go out? If the latter, then do you really want the cost and complexity of dual wiring your house so that you can use mains or DC at the flick of a switch, or is it better to have a small, separate system to power your most necessary items?

To return to the question, most people answer with a list of items which goes something like: lights, heating, microwave, cooker, computer(s), internet, tv(s), Sky box, Blu-ray, Hi-Fi, XBox…etc.. So let’s start by eliminating a couple of these with better alternatives.

Lighting
Whilst you could run your house lights off a battery bank, particularly now there are energy efficient LED based lighting systems, you’d have the hassle of dual wiring, or permanently having all your lighting running off the 12v system. Far better is to have secondary lighting available when needed in the form of wind-up/rechargeable lanterns, oil lanterns, gas lanterns, LED torches or good old-fashioned candles. These are much cheaper and easy to stock up on. You can even get battery powered LED lights that have built-in motion sensors so you can have one at the bottom and one at the top of the stairs and you don’t even need to take a torch with you when you visit the bathroom!

Heating/Cooking
I’ve lumped these two together as they both ostensibly revolve around producing heat. Producing heat via DC electricity is a very expensive thing to do. Bottled gas produces a far more efficient source of heat if it’s required for cooking or heating indoors, and charcoal/gas BBQs or a bog-basic fire if it’s outdoors (NEVER have a BBQ indoors!). The little single-ring bistro stoves often seen on cooking programmes are very cheap (about a tenner) and 3 bottles of gas about a fiver. They can be safely used indoors. A wood burning stove can be a permanent addition to your house (DEFRA even have ones approved for use in smokeless zones like London) which will certainly heat the room it’s in and generally raise the temperature of the rest of the house. If it’s very cold, you can also reduce the amount of space that needs heating by living/sleeping in one room, or effectively making the rooms smaller by living in tents indoors! The pop-up tents are ideal for this scenario as they will erect and stand up without the need for guy ropes. A heads up, you might want to invest in a battery powered carbon monoxide detector just in case. In fact, you really should have one anyway if you have gas fired heating and/or cooking, they’re about £25 and could save your life.

The rest
All of which leaves us with those specific electrical items which, to be brutally honest, largely come under the heading “Entertainment”. Ok, technically your computer and internet connection could be required for work, but realistically if you have no power at home is your boss really expecting you to work on your computer and log into the VPN? This is assuming your place of work isn’t also lacking in power: if there’s no electricity your work servers will not be running! And there’s no guarantee that there’s anything actually listening on the other end of your ADSL phone line either! If your boss does expect this of you, then you need to ask what contingency plans your office has in place to enable you keep working during a blackout at home, and they should be funding and providing the equipment required.

So…we’re back to “Entertainment”. Now, I’m not going to sit here and lecture you on the good old days and say that for millennia mankind has managed to amuse himself without the need for an XBox, endless movies, or succumb to the desperate desire to crush candy all hours of the day and night; but I will just mention things like chess sets, packs of cards, board games and books. A quality triple-weighted wooden chess set is a joy to play with. Add some hand-turned wooden Draughts counters and you have two games which can last for hours, accompanied by nothing more than a candle and a glass of wine or whisky. Quality time indeed, and not just for when the lights go out…!

However, I am as guilty as the next 21st Century person for wanting my fix of electronic entertainment, and believe it or not, it is doable on a small 12v solar powered system! The key thing always to remember is that it is far, far more efficient (i.e. cheaper as it requires fewer panels and batteries!) to stay in the 12v DC world than to use transformers to go from 12v DC to 240v AC. And it is sheer lunacy to go from 12v DC to 240v AC and then back to DC! Each step is only about 80% efficient at most, so you’ve lost nearly half your power if you go DC->AC->DC! There are many ordinary people who live 12v lives for extended periods: canal boat owners, caravaners, long distance lorry drivers; and there is a plethora 12v electrical goodies available for them (and therefore you), from fans and LED lighting, through tvs and dvd players, right on up to fridges and washing machines! All these will work far more efficiently on your 12v system than trying to utilise your existing 240v equipment through a transformer. But bear in mind, the more things you need to power, the bigger your system will have to be – you don’t need a 12v washing machine if the power is out only for a few hours! Remember, stay in the 12v DC world: get cigarette lighter adapters to charge all your mobile phones, Kindles (I have about 100 times more books on the Kindle that I do on the shelves, so I want the Kindle kept charged!), iPads and other USB powered devices: these are all DC battery devices and it makes no sense to charge them from your 12v DC system via a transformer and the standard 240V AC mains chargers they came with! Be aware that some of the high powered devices like iPads/iPhones may need slightly different adapters from other USB devices.

A real entertaining example
Take, for example, my main entertainment system. I have a 52″ Sony TV, a PS3 which is used to play blu-ray and access live streaming tv, a 9TB NAS which contains the rips of all my DVDs and online purchases, and a WesternDigital TV Live box to play back those rips on the tv. You may have a Sky box instead of some of these things. They all use a lot of power and I don’t really stand much of a chance of powering them all off a small 12v system with a transformer. But do I actually need to? Ostensibly all they do is play films and tv shows for me to enjoy. Admittedly with the live streaming I have access to an unlimited number of shows, but do I really need access to all that for the few hours or days that the power is off? The answer is no. And in a true The End Of The World As We Know It situation, Netflix, BBC iPlayer and Amazon Prime etc. wouldn’t be streaming anyway!

So instead I have my Prepper’s Entertainment System comprising a couple of Dell notebooks with extra large hard drives chock full of a selection of of my favourite film and tv rips, and all my music. Many, many hours of entertainment with little pull on a 12v system. Whilst the notebooks are not themselves particularly power efficient (though they’re better than most large laptops), they do have a few advantages: 1) They have removable batteries making it easy to get replacement and spare batteries; 2) They have extra large batteries available offering up to 6 hours playtime (and they really do last that long); 3) They can be persuaded to run OS X or Linux (my two operating systems of choice) or Windows if you prefer, so they can also be used for work if you really can’t stay away from the office; 4) They’re pretty cheap, yet they do the business – I bought mine from eBay and souped them up; 5) Dell sells a cheap (£17) car adapter so that you can run and charge your notebook using the cigarette lighter socket in your car, or, in my case my battery bank. That last part is very important because it means that you’re staying in the 12v DC world: the notebook’s DC batteries are charged directly from a 12v DC battery, you’re not doing a DC to AC and back to DC conversion, losing power every step of the way which is what you would be doing using the standard mains charger and a transformer. Their only downside is the small size of their screens, but they are large enough for two or three people to watch, albeit you don’t get that cinematic experience! I am a bit of an audiophile snob and so I have also allowed for a decent sounding 12v digital amp which powers some efficient speakers. Again it doesn’t compare to the embarrassingly expensive, power hungry hifi system I normally use, any more than the notebook’s 10″ screen compares to my 52″ Sony, but it is substantially better than the notebook’s own speakers!

Where to start?
A bit like food storage where you start by acquiring enough food and water for just 1 week, then 2 weeks, then a month, then 3 months etc. you don’t have to jump straight in with a solar panel array that will power a 12v washing machine, a 12v egg incubator (to get chickens!), a 12v TV and a 12v fridge – though all these things are possible! Unless you have some knowledge already, start by reading some of the many 12v off-grid forums out there to get ideas about what people are using and what usage you can realistically expect (the power rating of solar panels is their peak power – the amount they produce under optimal conditions…which are few and far between here in the UK!). There are some very knowledgable and helpful people online. At first much of the electronics and terminology won’t make much sense, but gradually you’ll pick up a basic understanding of how they work and from there you can move on to purchasing the necessary hardware. Read what people have to say until you understand enough about what you’re buying and why and what the pitfalls are.

Personally I’d recommend starting with a small starter kit comprising something like 60w-120w panel and a matching charge controller. What type of panel and what type of charge controller is up to you and your research! The kits, though easily available online, rarely come with the batteries so you’ll also need to get one or two leisure (deep cycle) batteries to act as your battery bank. Plus the cables: quality battery interconnects can cost nearly as much as the batteries! A small setup like this need not cost more than £250-£300, but can cost a lot more. Set it up and start playing with it! Use it to charge your phone, Kindle, iPad and laptop (you have bought cigarette lighter adapters for them right?) – it feels like free power! You could purchase a transformer to power other things (make sure you don’t overload it!), but perhaps use the opportunity to see how easy it is to stay in the more efficient 12v DC world. As you get more familiar with your system and its limitations (like how much power it really produces on grey winter days…) you’ll get to appreciate what you can and can’t power, how long it takes to recharge the system, how much bigger a system you’d need to power more stuff etc.. From there you can grow your system and add other things. For example, when I recently purchased a new jump-start power pack for my car, I made sure that it could also be used as a portable rechargeable battery if necessary! It has a cigarette lighter socket to power small devices and itself can be charged from another battery, not just via the mains.

Have fun with your solar panels, the more you integrate them into your life during The Good Times, the easier it is for everyone to adapt when The Shit Hits The Fan. This entry doesn’t cover EMP strikes and how that may affect your electrically powered devices, but I leave you with a thought for those with truculent teenagers wedded to their video games: in a true TEOTWAWKI situation, they’re not going to need their XBox anyway, they’ll be fighting the Zombie Hordes for real! How much cooler is that?! 😉

So what am I prepping for – addendum?

I have made a list of the catastrophic things I feel that I personally am most at risk for, and rated them for likelihood of happening to me. These pages go into more detail about each one and why I’m prepping for them. This page is an addendum to the list because I wanted to separate out Civil Unrest out from The Zombie Hordes as seen in No.9 – Everything Else.

Likelihood 5% – Civil Unrest

Riots and general civil unrest are very much part of why most preppers are prepping, if not, ultimately, the reason why they’re prepping. However there seems to be confusion between riots, as seen in London in 2011, civil unrest as seen in Greece in 2013 and The Zombie Hordes as predicted come The End Of The World As We Know It. The first two are very different situations from the last one:

  1. They are time limited. Most riots last only a few hours, and if they are longer than 24hours come in waves. Demonstrations that get violent may last a few days or even weeks. Zombie Hordes are with us for ever.
  2. They are localised. The London riots were very localised, specific areas were targeted by the rioters using social media sites. Specific streets in specific areas even. Although I encountered rioters and police on my way home from work, neither group appeared actually in my road just a few streets away. The same is true for civil unrest – they usually start as political gatherings in large public spaces (such as the protesters massed in Tahrir Square in Cairo in 2011 and 2013). If they become violent then it is still largely contained in the surrounding streets. The Zombie Hordes are everywhere and anywhere.
  3. Someone is still in control. More or less. The protesters may be seeking to remove that control, but until they do there is still a government power in charge (and once they have there is another government ready to take its place). There are laws in place, and police/army enforcing them. By their very definition when the Zombie Hordes are on the loose, there is no government, no-one in control .
  4. They are rarely about food. The rioting and civil unrest that we see in the West is not about survival. The rioters are not starving. They are not fighting for their lives despite their rhetoric. They are protesting about political issues which may involve food and its distribution, but is not explicitly about starvation. They are invariably anti-government and directed specifically at the government or governments (such as the anti-G8 protests in London, 2013). The Zombie Hordes are fighting for their lives. They are starving. They will die if they do not get food. They will attack anyone.
  5. You can’t shoot rioters. Rioters are not Zombie Hordes. Only the police and army can shoot rioters, and even then they get into trouble afterwards.  If you try to defend your home against rioters using lethal force you will be deemed to be a danger to the public and will be targeted by the authorities every bit as much as the rioters. Do not try. Remember Point No.3 – there are still laws in place and there is an “afterwards” to deal with.

Basically I am preparing for Civil Unrest, but I’m not too concerned about the Zombie Hordes.

Living in London I am highly likely to witness civil unrest: it is the seat of the British Government, it is over-crowded, there is much poverty, much unemployment, and much unhappiness. Most public anti-government demonstrations take place in central London, some considerable distance from where I live, so I am not too worried about political demonstrations getting out of hand and trashing my house. Rioting is slightly different as it usually occurs in the poorer parts of London, and I live in one of those parts. To an extent I feel it’s rather like a terrorist attack and you may just be in the wrong place at the wrong time: the rioters may go up your street, or they may turn right and go elsewhere. That said, having observed the riots of 2011, they are mostly centred on shopping areas. The rioters loot shops rather than homes – the homes that were set on fire and looted were mostly flats above shops. They seem specifically to go for electrical items, alcohol, jewellery and clothing. Notably NOT food.

I view preparing for civil unrest much along the lines of basic home security, with a couple of exceptions. The more effort someone has to make, the less likely they are to break into my home. I like the idea that to escape a lion you don’t have to run faster than the lion, you just have to run faster than the person you are with. If the house down the road is easier to break in to and more obviously has goodies to steal, then people will break into that house in preference to mine. Most burglars break in around the back of the house through a window as they don’t want to be seen or heard. Rioters don’t care about being seen or heard and will break down the front door if that’s the easiest route. So it’s best to prepare for entry on either front and reinforce all doors and windows.

Modern burglars are generally after cash, laptops, jewellery and drugs. Small, valuable and portable is the order of the day. Rioters, as mentioned before, are after TVs, laptops, alcohol, cash and jewellery. Both are likely to take useful or valuable tools and other implements (crowbars, knives, guns). Neither is after food or water. And I seriously doubt either would pinch the toilet paper. Burglars will spend some time searching, but not too much, rioters will probably just bulldoze through smashing things as they go. Therefore there are places in your house you can store things that neither group will be likely to look in such as an attic that has no easy-access pull-down ladder, or an unlit coal cellar. Neither group is particularly interested in kitchens and their contents (unless that’s where you store the alcohol). The more TEOTWAWKI minded amongst you may also be starting to think about hidden rooms…but this is really if you’re preparing for government takeover and are expecting The Men In Black to perform a detailed and thorough search of your house!

I live in a purely residential street, and I suspect this is why no rioters came my way in 2011, choosing to go down the High Street instead. However, should the rioter’s descend on my street in the future, I will leave home before they arrive. Not a bug-out as such, I’m not going anywhere, I’m just leaving my house and its contents to them, returning to what’s left once they have gone. I will, however, hide or remove the flammables! (I have lamp oil for the oil lamps, and methylated spirits for the burners.) Whilst a burglar is unlikely to set fire to my house during the course of his robbery, a rioter is very likely to do so.

So what am I prepping for – Part 10?

I have made a list of the catastrophic things I feel that I personally am most at risk for, and rated them for likelihood of happening to me. These pages go into more detail about each one and why I’m prepping for them. This page is No.9 on my list, the last one:

Likelihood 0.3% – Pretty much everything else

And now, Ladies and Gentlemen, we come to The End Of The World As We Know It (TEOTWAWKI). Herein are all those things you see on Doomsday Preppers, or, even more fun, Doomsday Bunkers. The actual likelihood of these things happening is very, very small. That’s not to say they won’t, just that you’re probably better off spending your time worrying about the more likely things first, like a heart attack, or losing your job. Here I list all the big events such as, but not limited to:

  • A giant asteroid hitting the earth
  • An EMP strike
  • A total financial collapse
  • A pandemic that kills 90% of the earth’s population
  • Rapid Global Warming
  • Rapid Global Dimming
  • A polar shift
  • Supervolcano eruptions (Yellowstone, Iceland, Siberian Traps etc.)
  • Takeover by the New World Order
  • Alien invasion

Actually, it doesn’t really seem to matter what causes TEOTWAWKI, the result, according to most things I’ve read, is always deemed to be the same: the complete, total and irreversible breakdown of society. And it’s that situation that is most feared, how we get there is actually largely irrelevant. The fear is ultimately of civil war on a massive, possibly global scale. Pretty much every society has experienced civil war at some point in its history, and it seems that civil war is the inevitable outcome of of a society in decline. Only this is somehow worse than a political civil war that may occur after a regime overthrow where you may have two or three “sides” to join, because here it’s every man, woman and child for themselves.

But of course if you think about this for a moment this situation, millions of people all dug into their own little fortress, taking pot shots at anyone and everyone who falls in front of the cross-hairs, is unsustainable. A couple of days and there’d be no choice but to form alliances. Remember, here in the UK we do not have the choice of sitting it all out in isolated obscurity whilst the rest of society slugs it out. The serious preppers talk about having their “army” pre-planned: forming a like-minded group before TSHTF, all with their own allocated jobs come TEOTWAWKI; most of which are to do with keeping out the biggest alliance that will form: The Zombie Hordes (people who have made no preparations of any kind and quickly band together marauding those who have made preparations). The standoff that most TEOTWAWKI preppers seem to be preparing for is as unsustainable as the Cold War standoff. The thing is, members of The Zombie Horde will be doctors, sanitation experts, midwives, engineers, teachers, etc. i.e. people who you will need to help you live beyond the immediate fallout situation. Do you really think it’s in your best interest to kill them simply because they asked you for food when they were starving? The cry is that the preppers have worked hard to prepare stockpile and plan for TEOTWAWKI and The Zombie Hordes have sat on their arses doing nothing and now want to take advantage of all the preppers’ hard work. And why should we let them do it?

If history has taught us anything, it’s that for a society to move on, for conflict to end, there has to be compromise. So at some point you are going to have to come out of your bunker and parley with whoever is left standing beyond your bunker’s boundaries. So if you are expecting true TEOTWAWKI, wouldn’t it actually be better to prepare now for rebuilding society rather than just stockpiling guns and ammo to defend your stash? It strikes me that TEOTWAWKI preppers really seem to be saying: “I’m going to sit in a corner and shoot anyone who comes close, whilst everyone else gets on with the hard part: restoring order and rebuilding society. Once they’ve done that, then I’ll come out of my bunker and take advantage of all their hard work.” But why should the now organised Zombie Hordes let you?

Touché

UPDATE November 2014: I have since re-evaluated my dismissal of (super)volcano eruptions, specifically the Icelandic volcanos. It doesn’t take an Icelandic volcano erupting with a force of VEI 8 to disrupt the UK quite seriously. A much smaller one, erupting with VEI 6 or even “only” VEI 5 will do enough damage to the UK and Europe and bring them to their knees quite quickly. It may not bring about TEOTWAWKI, but it will certainly cause physical and financial hardship for several years. There has already been one such eruption in 1783. See my later posting: She’s Gonna Blow! for more musings.

So what am I prepping for – Part 9?

I have made a list of the catastrophic things I feel that I personally am most at risk for, and rated them for likelihood of happening to me. These pages go into more detail about each one and why I’m prepping for them. This page is No.8 on my list:

Likelihood 0.5% – Hyperinflation

To be honest I’ve lied slightly here. Hyperinflation really comes under the next item, No.9: “Pretty much everything else”. I have separated it out for one reason and that is to discuss gold (and by inference other precious metals).

It seems that, along with guns and ammunition, preppers just can’t get their hands on enough gold. All over you read about why you should buy gold so that come The End Of The World As We Know It you have something valuable to barter with. But I see two massive problems with this:

  1. Gold, like paper money, actually only has value because current society says it’s worth something.
  2. Personally I wouldn’t know a gold Krugerrand from a cracker toy if it leapt up and bit me on the arse shouting in a suitable South African accent: “I’m a gold Krugerrand!”

Let’s take No.1. Can you eat gold? No. Can you drink gold? Only if it’s really, really hot but then it would kill you. Can you use gold to build a shelter? Not unless you have an awful lot of it and are very, very strong! Can you use gold to make any tools? Actually gold is probably one of the most useless metals for toolmaking because it’s so soft. Is it useful of itself? Not really. So exactly why is gold so valuable? Because it’s pretty, shiny and rare. So fundamentally its only value is because we deem it to have a value, based on its looks and its perceived rarity, but actually it has no intrinsic value whatsoever. Much like a 500 Euro note. Or a 500 dollar bill. Though in fairness both of those could be used for kindling if you needed to make a fire.

Which brings us to No.2. Ok…you say that gold is valuable and I say that gold is valuable. But I’m no coin dealer, and I don’t know you from Adam and therefore am disinclined to trust you. How do I know that you’re offering me a gold Krugerrand? To me it’s just a little disc of shiny yellow metal. You’re the one claiming it’s gold. I have no way of knowing that you didn’t just purloin that little coin from the Woolworth’s Christmas Decoration Collection of 1996. Therefore I’d probably feel safer bartering for that 70cl bottle of Whisky you have tucked under your arm. I sure know what Whisky looks, smells and tastes like!

But, let’s assume that in the course of my preps over the next few years I do actually become a coin expert and am able to identity a genuine gold Krugerrand a 100 paces, and I know that that particular little beauty you have in your hand is worth £1000 of anyone’s money at 2013 prices. Problem is, I’m hungry. I’ve run out of food. You’re the first person I’ve come across in 3 weeks and you’ve given me a choice of swapping my wind-up torch (worth £15 at 2013 prices) for your shiny Krugerrand or the 1kg of Basmati rice (worth £1.50 at 2013 prices) that you’ve been lugging around in your backpack. I have no idea if I’m even going to meet another person carrying food for several weeks, yet alone hope that that person also knows the “true” value of a Krugerrand! My Mamma never raised no fool, I’m taking the rice.

So, is there ever a time stockpiling gold is good? Well, judging by the phenomenal rise in the price of gold over the last 5 years, clearly yes! The time to stockpile gold is just before, or during the initial phase of (hyper)inflation. Cash is not King when there’s inflation around as its value drops and drops. Spend your cash now on items that will not lose their value. The Quantitative Easing that has been going on in most Western countries since the financial collapse in 2008 means that the value of each dollar, pound or Euro has dropped compared to its value the year before. Basically it buys less rice now than it did a year ago. However, items like gold do not drop in intrinsic value – providing everyone continues to believe that gold has a value which the paper money now does not. Your ounce of gold will buy the same amount of rice it did the year before, it’s just that we now say that it cost 1000 Euros instead of 500 Euros. But the moment that belief in the intrinsic value of gold breaks down, then gold goes the way of paper money.

Personally I’m not convinced about stockpiling gold, I’d rather stock up on food and toilet paper to counter inflation. It also requires you to know when to sell your gold (or rather exchange it for rice, toilet paper, guns and ammo etc.) so that should the complete breakdown of society that so many preppers seem to expect actually happen, you’re not left with worthless lumps of pretty, shiny, yellow metal.