Imagine that everything above the red line (the equator) went dark
Many people have never even heard of an electro-magnetic pulse let alone know the life-changing effects such a pulse could have on them.
An electromagnetic pulse (EMP), also sometimes called a transient electromagnetic disturbance, is a short burst of electromagnetic energy. Such a pulse’s origination may be a natural occurrence or man-made and can occur as a radiated, electric or magnetic field or a conducted electric current, depending on the source.
A natural EMP is a sudden pulse of energy, a prime example being a lightning bolt. The sun can also throw out a kill-shot, a massive pulse of electromagnetic energy that can fry anything run by electricity the moment it comes within range of the earth.
The Carrington Event was the classic example cited by most scientists but few people realise we had a near-miss far more recently. On July 23rd 2012 a massive solar storm narrowly missed earth…very narrowly. Had it hit this storm, which was larger than the Carrington event would have blasted the hemisphere it hit back to the Stone Age.
Video: YouTube NASA 2012 storm
The force of the impact ionizes the atmosphere creating a massive amount of highly energetic electrons that destroy electronic equipment and fuse wires everywhere within reach of the plasma cloud. Think everything electrical fried, and fried beyond repair, replacement being the only option. Replacing transformers takes months at a minimum, years if enough need to be replaced. For an item that can take a year to produce replacing dozens of them is a monumental task, especially if the plant that makes them in your own country is no longer operational because it too got fried!
Sadly, there are weapons that can create a man-made EMP. A nuclear device exploded in the air is all it takes… and the technology exists.
A nuclear device detonated up to 500 miles above the earth’s surface could generate an electro-magnetic pulse (EMP) with a “devastating” effect on power supplies, telecommunications and other vital systems, the Commons Defense Committee said. It warned that countries such as Iran – which is resisting international pressure to end its nuclear programme – and even eventually some “non-state actors” could acquire the technology to mount such an attack, in a scenario akin to the plot of the 1995 James Bond film ‘GoldenEye’.
Terrorists could also build a “crude” non-nuclear EMP weapon, with the power to cause disruption over a far more limited area. Despite the vulnerability of the UK to such an attack, the Committee accused the Ministry of Defence of appearing “complacent” and “unwilling to take these threats seriously”…
The committee said the Government currently rated the probability of a high-altitude EMP attack as “low”, although it acknowledged that the impact would be severe.
However, an official EMP commission in the United States found “rogue states” such as Iran and nuclear-armed North Korea were well aware of the potential for such an attack. The Iranians in particular were reported to have conducted missile tests which appeared to simulate the effects of an EMP nuclear strike.
The EMP Commission was set up in the United States to assess the threat posed by EMP weapons. The main points they are tasked to consider are:
- The threat from potential hostile states who have or may acquire nuclear weapons and the ballistic missiles required to deliver an EMP attack over the United States.
- How vulnerable is the United States to an EMP attack? Emergency preparedness relating to civilian and military infrastructure.
- Should an EMP attack occur how long would the recovery period be and does the United States have the capability to recover from such an attack?
- The cost and feasibility of hardening certain civilian and military systems from an EMP attack.
- The Commission produced a report in 2008: Critical National Infrastructure that covers all aspects on an EMP attack on the United States. Chapter one page one states:
…it is important to realize that the vulnerability of the whole — of all the highly interlocked critical infrastructures — may be greater than the sum of the vulnerability of its parts. The whole is a highly complex system of systems whose exceedingly dynamic and coordinated activity is enabled by the growth of technology and where failure within one individual infrastructure may not remain isolated but, instead, induce cascading failures into other infrastructures.
Chapter one also goes into detail of the effects of an EMP on SCADA systems (Supervisory Control And Data Acquisition Systems) the automated controls of oil pipelines, electricity distribution and water management to name but three. These are closely related to Digital Control systems, Programmable Logic Controllers, and Telemetry Systems which also control a massive amount of our infrastructure including aviation, railroads, traffic lights and hundreds of other systems that we take for granted each day.
To cut short the 12 chapters of the report…the results of an EMP are going to be pretty ugly if systems aren’t hardened against such an attack.
The following excerpt from the same report shows just how vulnerable these systems are:
In November 1999, San Diego County Water Authority and San Diego Gas and Electric companies experienced severe electromagnetic interference to their SCADA wireless networks. Both companies found themselves unable to actuate critical valve openings and closings under remote control of the SCADA electronic systems. This inability necessitated sending technicians to remote locations to manually open and close water and gas valves, averting, in the words of a subsequent letter of complaint by the San Diego County Water Authority to the Federal Communications Commission, a potential “catastrophic failure” of the aqueduct system. The potential consequences of a failure of this 825 million gallon per day flow rate system ranged from “spilling vents at thousands of gallons per minute to aqueduct rupture with ensuing disruption of service, severe flooding, and related damage to private and public property.”
The source of the SCADA failure was later determined to be radar operated on a ship 25 miles off the coast of San Diego.
So if a ship 25 miles offshore can cause such chaos what the hell can we expect from a full blown EMP be it natural or man-made?
An attack would cause problems over a much smaller area than a naturally occurring EMP due to the size of the nuclear weaponry involved, there’s a finite size of bomb that rouge state could actually get into the air.
Non-nuclear EMP weaponry would cause even more localised damaged as the pulse they create is nowhere near the force of a nuclear explosion. Non-nuclear weapons generate microwave energy and are generally called E-bombs, the E standing for electronic. Most require explosives as their energy source. These devices are useful for hitting specific targets. Read more here.
A naturally occurring EMP is the biggie, it has the potential not just to paralyse a town, city, state or country, it has the power to completely decimate an entire hemisphere of the planet.
Imagine if you can the whole of the Northern Hemisphere getting knocked out at the same time…lets hope Australia has transformer plants because if the USA, Canada, UK, Europe, North Africa, Asia and Russia are power free at the same time…and because of that have no chance of replacing blown transformers, we are totally and utterly screwed.
No disrespect to the Australians, New Zealanders, Pacific Islanders and the bulk of South Americans but at least if it hit the southern Hemisphere there are enough untouched industrialised nations up north to help them out.
I feel theres little doubt that at some point a rogue nation or well financed terrorist group will at least try to launch an EMP attack. I also feel it’s a low probability scenario and one that although devastating should it succeed, will have a limited impact.
The curve ball is a naturally occurring EMP, a pulse thrown out by our star that has the potential to put us back where we were in the pre-industrial age. It’s been said that 99% of Americans would be dead in a grid down situation that lasted a year or more.
If the Northern Hemisphere takes a hit a decade would be an optimistic timescale but the reality says it could be a generation before everything is back up and running…but even then totally fried computers etc are unlikely to be repairable.
Getting personal computer equipment, phones etc into a protective area, a Faraday Cage is one way of making sure that when the lights do come back on you have working electronics. Providing others also have working electronics communications could possibly be re-established quite quickly. Communications will be a very high priority, especially if the population has dropped dramatically and people are relatively isolated in comparison to how we live now.
An EMP would change the very fabric of our existence, and if the sun decides to throw one in our direction there is absolutely nothing we can do about it. The forces of nature are irresistible and we are mere specks on the surface of a planet in a very dynamic solar system.