Joan Trossman. 21 Nov 2012. Fire in the Sky. Scientists warn of a solar flare large enough to paralyze our electrified world. Pasadena Weekly.
If you have never heard of an electromagnetic pulse, or EMP, then you have not spent any time worrying about an EMP causing the end of civilization as we know it. But scientists and some policymakers worry about such a thing happening, and for very good reason.
If an EMP were to occur over the United States, caused either by a particularly violent solar storm or by a small nuclear device detonated many miles above the ground, chances are high that the country’s entire electrical grid would fail, as a massive surge of electricity would fry the huge transformers that keep the grid humming. Satellites we rely on for navigation and communication would be damaged beyond repair, and society would crumble into a dysfunctional scramble for survival. The very necessities of life, such as clean water, food, medications, transportation, even government, would all either disappear or be in very short supply.
Given the fact that extreme solar events happen once or twice a decade, “It is just a question of not if, but when the Earth happens to be in the path of these kinds of [solar] storms,” according to Dan Baker, director of Laboratory for Atmospheric and Space Physics (LASP) at the University of Colorado.
Solar flares are not unusual. On March 13, 1989, one blew out power in Quebec, leaving 6 million people in the dark. In 1921, a solar storm hit, but didn’t cause much damage. Today, such an occurrence would have darkened half of North America.
Last summer, Baker said there was a very close call. “Just on July 22, there was a very ugly, mean-looking active region on the sun that had moved across the face of the sun. A satellite was watching it. A huge flare, and then a CME, came at the spacecraft and it was moving at the highest recorded speed that has been seen in the modern Space Age. It reached the satellite in 17 hours. That’s an hour faster than the Carrington Event, and it led to extremely intense magnetic fields in the interplanetary medium. For all intents and purposes, that was a Carrington Event that just missed us. We dodged the proverbial bullet there. Now we know there have been others like this.
Can it happen again? “Some people say that the Carrington Event is a moldy old event and these things happen only once in 1,000 years,” Baker said. “I think recent work has suggested quite the contrary. The probability of any of these occurring during one 11-year cycle of solar storms is like 10 percent, a pretty significant probability. It’s not a rare thing.
Ultimately, whether triggered by a rogue nation’s high-altitude detonation of a small nuclear weapon or set off by a rare but possible extremely strong solar flare, the result will be the same if we continue to do nothing.
Congressional committees have acknowledged the danger since 2001. There have been studies ordered, hearings held, admissions of lack of knowledge and lists of problems. Still, it remains in the talking stages and no action has been taken to lessen the danger. The Department of Homeland Security admitted as recently as this past September that it has no estimate of the costs associated with an EMP. But experts, including Baker, have placed the cost at $1 trillion to $2 trillion. Estimates of the cost of meaningful preparation are $150 million to $200 million.
On Sept. 12, the House Committee on Homeland Security, Subcommittee on Cyber security, Infrastructure Protection, and Security Technologies held a hearing on the electromagnetic pulse threat. Rep. Dan Lungren of California chaired the hearing.
Lundgren, a former California Attorney General, said in his opening statement that an EMP from either a geomagnetic storm or an attack would wipe out the entire country’s electrical grid. Referring to a 2010 computer simulation conducted at Oak Ridge National Laboratory, Lundgren said the power system collapse could take four to 10 years from which to fully recover.
“In 2004 and 2008, the EMP Commission testified before the Armed Services Committee that the US society and economy are so critically dependent upon the availability of electricity that a significant collapse of our grid…could result in catastrophic civilian casualties,” Franks said. “This conclusion is echoed by separate reports recently compiled by the DOD (Department of Defense), DHS (Department of Homeland Security), DOE (Department of Energy), NAS (National Academy of Sciences), along with various other agencies and independent researchers.
On Oct. 18, federal regulators took the first step toward mitigating the effects of an EMP. The Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) said present standards have “a reliability gap” and “do not adequately address vulnerabilities” from a destructive solar storm. FERC called for the agency that oversees the national grid to draft rules requiring power companies to assess their weaknesses and upgrade their grids to withstand the electrical onslaught.
Most power companies in the country are privately owned. As such, those companies have categorized the danger of an EMP as highly unlikely and have refused to officially assess their own vulnerabilities. In Baker’s opinion, that’s a big mistake.
“What would a Carrington Event look like in modern times? We need to be constantly vigilant, we need to keep our eye on our beautiful but dangerous partner here, the sun,” Baker said. “Knowing what’s coming at us is going to be very advantageous.”
Nov 22, 2012. Preventing Armageddon Would Cost Only $100 Million … But Congress Is Too Thick to Approve the Fix. WashingtonsBlog
Government Spends Tens of Trillions On Unnecessary, Harmful Projects … But Won’t Spend $100 Million to Prevent the Greatest Threat.
Newt Gingrich. 12 July 2012. Newt Gingrich: Preparing for the next outage. Washington Post.
Gingrich is a former speaker of the House and a Republican candidate for president.
Without power, the comforts of home become worthless. You sit in the sweltering heat, realizing you are living in a box that, without electricity, is a trap. You pray for the “juice” to return before your groceries go bad. You either make do in the heat or find refuge with friends who have electricity. I write this now because of my concern for national security and our power grid, which are susceptible to doomsday-level damage if hit by an electromagnetic pulse (EMP) strike or a major solar storm.
It is almost unthinkable, yet possible, that an enemy could detonate a nuclear weapon over the atmosphere over the continental United States, triggering an electromagnetic pulse. This would short-circuit our power grid, taking power offline for months, perhaps even years.
A similar crisis could be sparked by a solar storm like the Carrington Event of 1859, a type of geomagnetic disturbance that occurs about every 75 years. Statistically, we are long overdue for such a storm. There have been some recent examples of the potential impact, such as the millions in Quebec who lost power for several hours in 1989 as a result of a space storm.
Our nation’s communications infrastructure, modes of transportation and many fundamentals of survival all rely on a power grid that is vulnerable. The current system lacks safety features needed to prevent damage to critical electrical infrastructure.
In 2009, my friend — and sometimes co-author — William R. Forstchen published a truly frightening book, “One Second After.” The story is fiction but based on hard facts. It is a cautionary tale about the threat of EMP strikes and major solar storms, known as coronal mass ejections.
Suppose that, rather than being a temporary disruption in our lives, the power outage lasted weeks or months, or even years. Consider what state all of us, from the richest to the poorest, would be in if we were still literally in the dark. Millions could be trapped in houses or apartments that were never designed for this climate without air conditioning. No cool air; months with no food shipments and every pharmacy shut down — no refills for life-sustaining medications.
In a crisis, many in the Washington area could not even flee because the impact of an EMP attack would disable most cars and public transportation. The water supply would go dry without electricity to pump water from rivers and wells. Imagine if you could find a bottle of potable water for, say, your children. How much would you pay? What would you pay with if every bank and ATM were shut down? Public safety? Forget it. No power means no police cars, no communications and no 911 emergency service. For criminals, it would be time to run rampant.