Electromagnetic Pulse EMP from solar flares or high-altitude nuclear weapon explosion

An exploding high-altitude (25 to 250 miles) nuclear weapon can generate an Electromagnetic Pulse (EMP) that can zap electronic systems over a wide area — several could potentially take out electronic systems across the country.

Periodically there are also solar flares emitted from the sun that could also have this effect.

This could lead to a cascade of catastrophic failures of electric power, energy, telecommunications, satellite, transportation, financial, and other essential infrastructure.  The result would be a very long, difficult recovery that would cascade into the financial system and our ability to produce goods and services and get food, water, medical care to citizens.  Since all these systems all depend on one another, it will be very hard to recover.  Potentially the mutually reinforcing outages will irreversibly affect the ability of the United States to support its population.

“The North American economy and the functioning of the society as a whole are critically dependent on the availability of electricity, as needed, where and when needed. The electric power system in the US and interconnected areas of Canada and Mexico is outstanding in terms of its ability to meet load demands with high quality and reliable electricity at reasonable cost. However, over the last decade or two, there has been relatively little large-capacity electric transmission constructed and the generation additions that have been made, while barely adequate, have been increasingly located considerable distances from load for environmental, political, and economic reasons. As a result, the existing National electrical system not infrequently operates at or very near local limits on its physical capacity to move power from generation to load. Therefore, the slightest insult or upset to the system can cause functional collapse affecting significant numbers of people, businesses, and manufacturing. It is not surprising that a single EMP attack may well encompass and degrade at least 70% of the Nation’s electrical service, all in one instant”.

ELECTRIC POWER INFRASTRUCTURE After EMPs take out electric power systems, emergency power supplies will be limited by supplies of stored fuel, which are increasingly diminishing for fire safety and pollution reasons.

“The North American economy and the functioning of the society as a whole are critically dependent on the availability of electricity, as needed, where and when needed… over the last decade or two, there has been relatively little large-capacity electric transmission constructed and the generation additions that have been made, while barely adequate, have been increasingly located considerable distances from load for environmental, political, and economic reasons. As a result, the existing National electrical system not infrequently operates at or very near local limits on its physical capacity to move power from generation to load. Therefore, the slightest insult or upset to the system can cause functional collapse affecting significant numbers of people, businesses, and manufacturing. It is not surprising that a single EMP attack may well encompass and degrade at least 70% of the Nation’s electrical service, all in one instant. P 18-19.

TELECOMMUNICATIONS plays a key role in US society in terms of its direct effect on individuals and business and due to its impact on ..critical infrastructures, such as the financial industry.

BANKING AND FINANCE  The financial services industry comprises a network of organizations and attendant systems that process instruments of monetary value in the form of deposits, loans, funds transfers, savings, and other financial transactions. It includes banks and other depository institutions, including the Federal Reserve System; investment-related companies such as underwriters, brokerages, and mutual funds; industry utilities such as the New York Stock Exchange, the Automated Clearing House, and the Society for Worldwide Interbank Financial Telecommunications; and third party processors that provide electronic processing services to financial institutions, including data and network management and check processing. Virtually all American economic activity depends upon the functioning of the financial services industry. Today, most financial transactions that express National wealth are performed and recorded electronically. Virtually all transactions involving banks and other financial institutions happen electronically. Essentially all record-keeping of financial transactions involves information stored electronically. The financial services industry has evolved to the point that it would be impossible to operate without the efficiencies, speeds, and processing and storage capabilities of electronic information technology.

FUEL/ENERGY INFRASTRUCTURE Process control systems are critical to the operation and control of petroleum refineries.

FOOD  “Technology has made possible a dramatic revolution in US agricultural productivity. The transformation of the United States from a nation of farmers to a nation where less than 2 percent of the population is able to feed the other 98 percent and supply export markets is made possible only by technological advancements that, since 1900, have increased the productivity of the modern farmer by more than 50-fold. Technology, in the form of knowledge, machines, modern fertilizers and pesticides, high-yield crops and feeds, is the key to this revolution in food production. Much of the technology for food production directly or indirectly depends upon electricity, transportation, and other infrastructures. The distribution system is a chokepoint in the US food infrastructure. Supermarkets typically carry only enough food to provision the local population for 1 to 3 days. Supermarkets replenish their stocks on virtually a daily basis from regional warehouses that usually carry enough food to supply a multi-county area for about one month. The large quantities of food kept in regional warehouses will do little to alleviate a crisis if it cannot be distributed to the population in a timely manner. Distribution depends largely on a functioning transportation system”. (page 40).

TRANSPORTATION INFRASTRUCTURE   Combustion engines are vulnerable to EMPs because they have a lot of electronics to make the engine more efficient, reduce pollution, and so on.  “significant degradation of the transportation infrastructures are likely to occur in the immediate aftermath of an EMP attack. For example, municipal road traffic will likely be severely congested, possibly to the point of wide-area gridlock, as a result of traffic light malfunctions and the fraction of operating cars and trucks that will experience both temporary and in some cases unrecoverable engine shutdown. Railroad traffic will stop if communications with railroad control centers are lost or railway signals malfunction. Commercial air traffic will likely cease operations for safety and other traffic control reasons. Ports will stop loading and unloading ships until commercial power and cargo hauling infrastructures are restored.”

America’s transportation sector consists of several separate infrastructures. Rail includes the freight railroad and commuter rail infrastructures; road includes the trucking and automobile infrastructures; water includes the maritime shipping and inland waterway infrastructures; and air includes the commercial and general aviation infrastructures.  “Increasing utilization of IT make large-scale, multimodal disruptions more likely in the future. As the infrastructure becomes more interconnected and interdependent, the transportation industry will increasingly rely on information technology to perform its most basic business functions. As this occurs, it becomes more likely that information system failures could result in large-scale disruptions of multiple modes of the transportation infrastructure

WATER SUPPLY INFRASTRUCTURE …

GOVERNMENT, MILITARY, …

SPACE SYSTEMS Satellites (and their ground control systems) are vulnerable.  Commercial satellites support many significant services for the Federal government, including communications, remote sensing, weather forecasting, and imaging. The national security and homeland security communities use commercial satellites for critical activities, including direct and backup communications, emergency response services, and continuity of operations during emergencies. Satellite services are important for national security and emergency preparedness telecommunications because of their ubiquity and separation from other communications infrastructures (page 44)

History

Although we’ve known about EMPs for a long time, our infrastructure wasn’t built to withstand them because we have depended on MAD to deter an attack.  But now there are terrorist groups as well as rogue nations such as North Korea and Iran.

“Another key difference from the past is that the US has developed more than most other nations as a modern society heavily dependent on electronics, telecommunications, energy, information networks, and a rich set of financial and transportation systems that leverage modern technology. This asymmetry is a source of substantial economic, industrial, and societal advantages, but it creates vulnerabilities and critical interdependencies that are potentially disastrous to the United States. Therefore, terrorists or state actors that possess relatively unsophisticated missiles armed with nuclear weapons may well calculate that, instead of destroying a city or military base, they may obtain the greatest political-military utility from one or a few such weapons by using them—or threatening their use—in an EMP attack. The current vulnerability of US 2 critical infrastructures can both invite and reward attack if not corrected.” (Foster)

The 1962 bomb exploded 250 miles above the Johnston Island affected the Hawaiian islands 870 miles away. Street light systems failed, burglar alarms were triggered, and a telecommunications relay facility was damaged.

In 1962 the Soviet Union also set off 300 kiloton detonations from 37 to 300 miles high that affected both overhead and underground buried cables up to 375 miles away, as well as surge arrestor burnout, spark-gap breakdown, blown fuses, and power supply breakdowns.

Implications of EMP’s to the Nuclear command and Control system (Rosenbaum)

Mutually assured destruction, or MAD, is at the basis of our nuclear deterrent system.  If we’re attacked, we’ll counterattack. EMP’s from a high-altitude nuclear blast blow MAD apart. EMPs can fry the entire nation’s ground-based electronic nuclear command and control system. We couldn’t strike back.  We wouldn’t even know it was coming.  So our MAD strategy is hollow and virtually invites a surprise nuclear attack.

References

There are hundreds of articles on the web about this topic.  The Foster article is the most comprehensive one that I found.

Foster, J., et al. 2004.   Executive Report of the Commission to Assess the Threat to the United States from Electromagnetic Pulse (EMP).

Just found an even longer, better, and more up-to-date version of the above (2008) here:

http://www.empcommission.org/docs/A2473-EMP_Commission-7MB.pdf

Rosenbaum, Ron. 2011. “How the End Begins: The Road to a Nuclear World War III”.  p 106

 

 

 

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