Friday, October 26, 2018

Solar Superstorms, EMP Attacks, and Hardening the Grid

While no one who is a part of it will dare admit it, the media loves death, destruction, and mayhem for one simple reason: it sells. When disaster, whether man-made or natural, strikes, the media is quick to rush to press dramatic videos, graphic pictures, and harrowing accounts of the disaster. The media also loves hype, rushing to press any scandal (real, imagined, or exaggerated) that it can dig up and, at an increasingly alarming rate, regardless of whether facts are confirmed or not.

Taking in the above, it is especially ironic that the mainstream media is completely ignoring potential disasters that could, at worst case scenario according to a Congressional report, kill 90% of the American population within a year of it striking.

What are these potential killers? Solar superstorms or an electromagnetic pulse (EMP) attack.

To make matters worse, these are catastrophes that need not happen. Sure, the Sun could erupt at any time or some rogue nation could launch a nuclear weapon into orbit and detonate it over the United States at the push of a button, but we need not be vulnerable. The trouble is, without the media doing its duty to bring this threat to the public's attention, the public will remain oblivious and therefore not demand action that has to be taken.

But before we can examine the problem, we have to get to its roots.

The history of electricity goes back over 5,000 years to the time of predynastic Egypt, which was before roughly 3100 BC. It was in Egypt that electricity was discovered in the form of catfish that would shock anyone who touched them. In fact, the name Narmer (the pharaoh who unified Egypt) meant 'angry catfish' in the Ancient Egyptian language. The first studies of electricity would not be conducted until the 600s BC by Thales of Miletus and were based off of static electricity, as were all future studies until the 1700s.

In 1752, Benjamin Franklin proved that lightning was electricity by way of his famous kite experiment. Fate must have had greater things planned for Franklin because, shortly thereafter, two other scientists tried to replicate his experiment and both were electrocuted and killed. The Voltaic Pile of 1800 was the first modern battery and used alternating layers of copper and zinc to store energy but the Pile had no practical use at the time. In 1821, the first electric motor was developed but, like the Pile of two decades earlier, had no practical use.

The idea of sending messages across long distances by electricity was first proposed in the early 1800s but it would not be until Samuel Morse's invention of the telegraph in 1837 that this idea was successfully put into practice. After Morse, the proverbial floodgate opened as telegraph lines quickly started to stretch across the country, making instantaneous long range communication possible for the first time in history. In 1858, the first transatlantic cable connecting the United States to England was laid on the floor of the Atlantic.

The world had just got a whole lot smaller but the vulnerability of this almost magical technology was soon to be laid bare for all to see.

It is now an undisputed fact that solar storms can have consequences on Earth. The waves of supercharged atoms and radiation blasting forth from the Sun play havoc with the Earth's upper atmosphere. The visual confirmation of this chaos: the Northern Lights. Solar storms can also play havoc with electrical technology, as the world found out in 1859.

Known as the Carrington Event after astronomer Richard Carrington, who observed it as it happened, this was the strongest solar storm ever recorded. Aurora were sighted in Hawaii, Central America, and sub-Saharan Africa. The aurora were so bright that newspapers could be read with ease by their light alone. Unfortunately, the telegraph system took a beating. Lines started smoking and some even caught fire. Receivers started shocking their operators and emitting sparks. The receivers not destroyed by the energy burst were able to send messages without their batteries and even if the lines they were connected to were destroyed, giving the world a brief glimpse of the future that was wireless communication. Another casualty: the transatlantic cable.

Richard Carrington and his drawing of the solar superstorm producing sunspot.

The problem with solar superstorms is that they do not harm a living thing. There could have been hundreds of storms of Carrington magnitude or even stronger throughout Earth's history but, until we developed electronic technology, we had no way of knowing that they even existed. Now, having witnessed the Carrington event, it became not unreasonable to question if technological progress was always a good thing.

There is a paradox to the advancement of civilization in that, the more advanced a culture is, the easier it can be to destroy it. There have been two Dark Ages in Western history: circa 1100BC and 476AD to the start of the Renaissance. In both cases, more primitive cultures overran more advanced ones, showing that, the more advanced you get as a people, the harder it is to revert to a simpler way of life. In 2018, we have clearly become too dependent on technology and a massive technological failure could easily plunge us into a third Dark Age.

There's no doubt about it, modern civilization depends on electronics and, chiefly among them, the computer. If computers were to fail, imagine what life would be like without transportation, utilities, communication, and medicine. Basically, life as we know it ends, leaving only the question of whether civilization itself would collapse without modern technology.

Before continuing, the issues to be examined next are purely in theory as I will attempt to present a complete picture of what could happen, ranging from best to worst case scenarios.

Best case scenario is that the whole idea of modern technology failing and a resultant collapse of civilization is fear running out of control. Doubters to the death by solar storm idea will be quick to point out the panic surrounding the arrival of the year 2000 and the whole Y2K scare that some predicted would cause computers all over the world to crash. As we all know, nothing happened. People taking this stance will point out that modern electronics have surge protectors and that, while devices may malfunction while a storm persists, they should return to normal once the storm subsides. At worst, a device may need to be shut off and then turned back on to restore normal function.

Worst case scenario is nothing short of Armageddon. Doomsday theorists are quick to seize on a 2008 Congressional report that said, in the event that the national power grid collapses, 90% of Americans could be dead within a year. These people argue that we are too reliant on computers and technology to adapt to a way of life without them and that cultures we deem 'primitive' are far more likely to survive thanks to their lack of reliance on high technology.

Where is the truth? Probably somewhere in between, but we will now examine what could happen on a point by point basis.

The power grid. The modern would as we know it relies on electricity. Unfortunately, it is something that we in First World take for granted. We can count on walking into a dark room, flipping a switch, and the light coming on. Unfortunately, our reliance on electricity goes far deeper than being able to see in the dark. Computers run all modern utility systems, such as power, water, and sewer. All forms of modern technology rely on electricity to varying degrees. Inconvenienced by a power outage of a few hours? Imaging going over a year without modern conveniences and the necessities that make our world go round.

The power grid.

For as important as it is, the power grid is, it is surprisingly vulnerable. The power grid supplies power to over 320 million Americans, plus power to thousands of businesses, hospitals, utility systems, and so on. The national power grid is completely interconnected, which is not a good thing because the collapse of just one sub grid has the potential to collapse the whole thing. How? If one sub grid collapses, the adjacent sub grids absorb the load, which they may not be able to withstand. If another sub grid collapses, an even larger load will have to be absorbed by adjacent grids. In theory, sub grids could fall like toppling dominoes until the whole country goes dark.

The heart of the national power grid are over 2100 high voltage transformers, which can transmit over 345,000 volts. These are house-sized (or larger) monsters and replacing just one of them could take up to three years as parts are not readily available. According to the National Academy of Sciences (NAS), the failure of just 10% of these could collapse the entire national power grid, leading to a truly nightmarish, apocalyptic scenario.

A high voltage transformer.


According to a National Defense University report, which is funded by the Department of Defense (DOD), a national power outage could cause society to come apart at the seams, and in short order, too. First of all, if the power grid fails, the supply chain that provides food, fuel, power, and other supplies to people all over the country will come to a grinding halt. In warm climates, all the cold food could spoil in a matter of hours once refrigeration systems fail. According to the study, society will quickly unravel as mass looting will take place, with all stores across the nation being empty in as little as 3 days. Once the stores are empty, mass looting of homes is predicted, which could lead to a mass desertion of law enforcement and military personnel from their posts as they leave to protect their own homes and families.

As bad as the above scenario is, things could get far worse. The worst case scenario involves the nation's nuclear power plants. Nuclear power plants require a continual cycle of water being pumped through the reactors to keep them cool in much the same matter as car engines require a continual pumping of water through their coolant systems to keep them at a safe operating temperature. If these pumps, powered by electricity fail, the water in the nuclear power plants will come to a halt and start boiling away into steam as the nuclear reactions, which generate an enormous amount of heat, will continue without interruption. In time, the water will be all gone and the fuel rods will melt through the bottom of the reactor, triggering a meltdown. This is exactly what happened at Fukishima in 2011 and is what could happen to the 61 nuclear power plants currently operating in the United States. In theory, the whole country (and eventually the world thanks to winds aloft and ocean currents) will be bathed in radioactive nuclear fallout.

Nuclear power plants.

If a bath of radioactive fallout was not bad enough, there would be another dire threat created by the failure of sanitation-essential utilities. With the supply of fresh water gone dry and waste disposal systems come to a halt. Disease is sure to run rampant in densely populated urban and suburban areas. The modern city owes its existence to modern sanitation (it is no coincidence that, before the industrial era, the largest cities always topped out at around a population of 1 million people) and without it, all of the waste you can imagine will go nowhere. Sewage will stay and fester as the supply of fresh water will no longer be functional to wash it away and treat it to remove contaminants. Trash collection will also come to a halt and cities will become giant garbage dumps, inviting in rats and other vermin. Adding to the misery will be that, with heating and cooling systems offline, people not killed by radiation or disease will fry in the summer and freeze in the winter.

For anyone wanting to run to the countryside to escape at least the filth of the cities, that may not be possible as modern transportation is almost 100% reliant on computers. Cars, planes, and trains are almost completely reliant on computers. Some new cars even have their steering, braking, and shifting controlled by a computer. The key question is how will these computer chips that control modern methods of transport be impacted by a solar superstorm or EMP.

In 2004, a study took place that tested 37 motor vehicles in conditions simulating a solar superstorm. The findings were encouraging in that none of the cars suffered damage if they were off when the simulated superstorm struck. Additionally, only 10% of the cars experienced crippling damage when on. Problem: imagine what traffic conditions in major cities would be like if just 10% of the cars stopped dead in the road. Anyone who has ever driven in a major city knows that a 2 car fender bender (with the cars then driven to the side of the road) can create total gridlock. On top of that, 2018's cars are far more dependent on computers than 2004's. Additionally, since the 2004 study, no large scale studies on this problem have been done.

Electronic car controls.

So, will your car run if a solar superstorm or EMP were to strike? Short answer, it's hard to tell as 2018 cars are far more reliant on computers than 2004 models. The good news is that there can be educated guesses. Computer controlled electronic fuel injection was introduced throughout the 1980s and cars from before then that were still 100% mechanically controlled and fed through a carburetor should be fine. And remember, even 90% of fuel injected 2004 models were fine. Going for cars is that their bodies act as partial Faraday Cages, which can shield cars' vital electronic components from a blast of radiation. The problem is that, even if the cars themselves run, gas pumps are now computer controlled, which means that, even if the car runs, once the fuel runs out, it may be impossible to refuel them.

Much is up in the air (sorry) when it comes to how a solar superstorm or EMP will impact planes. Operation Starfish Prime (more later) took place in 1962 and detonated a 1.4 megaton H-bomb 250 miles up in the atmosphere. The explosion proposed an EMP pulse but the planes in the are experienced no ill effects other than a loss in altitude thanks to changes in atmospheric pressure. Unlike today's planes, planes were completely mechanically controlled, which begs the question: how will planes of 2018 fare in such a situation?

Will planes fall from the sky? Short answer, maybe the computerized ones. If engines and/or controls were to fail, planes could drop like stones. Middle age planes with limited computerization but mechanical controls to wing and tail flaps will be endangered, but the hope would be that they could be flown by skilled pilots as gliders. The real problem: where to find a spot to a glided landing. Old purely mechanical planes? They survived Starfish Prime without a problem and should be fine. The key problem: today's computer chip electronics are far more vulnerable than the vacuum tubes of the past. Like cars, planes have their metal bodies going for them, as evidenced by planes surviving lightning strikes regularly.

Tube vs. chip.

Now the crux of the issue: how will the computers that control our modern way of life fare in a solar superstorm or EMP?

The Air Force has long been looking for ways to disrupt enemies electronics. The culmination of this research: the Counter-electronics High-powered Microwave Advanced Missile Project (CHAMP). While they do not shower targets with radiation, the microwaves they do use cause damage in much the same way a burst of radiation would: namely heating them up and causing them to short circuit. So far, CHAMP tests have been devastating on electronics. All of the electronics in targeted buildings were destroyed. In fact, in the first test, the cameras observing the test also got fried as they were not enclosed in Faraday cages.

A CHAMP missile.

As all modern methods of communication are controlled to varying degrees by electronics, it's also vital to examine how modern communication would be impacted by a solar superstorm or EMP. Phone lines may be fried as were telegraph lines in 1859. Ironically, cell phones, because of their size, may actually be immune to these effects but if the cell towers are fried, what good are they? The good news is that if the towers aren't fried, solar phone chargers can be bought cheaply.

A more reliable alternative to phones are battery-powered two-way radios, which should be completely immune to ill effects if they are off at the time of the burst. Even if on, tests have shown that such radios have varying ranges of immunities to radiation. Professional-grade models are virtually radiation proof. The good news is that radios with 50 mile ranges can be bought rather cheaply as can batteries and solar-powered battery chargers.

Computers, on the other hand, are almost assured to be toast. The CHAMP tests fried every computer in the targeted buildings. The only consolation is that CHAMP used a highly-focused beam of microwaves while a solar superstorm or EMP would, in all probably, produce a more diffuse shower of radiation. Still, though, I wouldn't put much faith in my computer.

One source of electricity, though, may be virtually immune from a solar superstorm or EMP: solar power systems, provided that they are not plugged into the grid. Why? Solar power systems use power inverters, changing the DC current they initially generate into AC, which is then used to power the home. Power inverters use fuses, which will blow in the case of a power surge, which would be caused by a burst of radiation, in order to protect the system. The basic scenario: a burst of radiation hits and the fuse blows. To get the system running again, all one would have to do was put in a new fuse and switch the system back on. The deep charge batteries used to store the sun-generated power should be immune from radiation bursts, too. Even better news, anything in the house not controlled by a computer, even if it is plugged in at the time of the burst, should be fine as the system will be shut down.

A solar superstorm, a purely natural event, could cause all of the above. Unfortunately, so can humans.

As already mentioned, Operation Starfish Prime detonated a 1.4 megaton H-bomb roughly 250 miles above Earth's surface. The goal of the test was to see whether high altitude Soviet nuclear tests could interfere with US ICBMs. For comparison, the Starfish Prime bomb was roughly 100 times more powerful than the A-bomb that leveled Hiroshima.

Unlike conventional bombs, nuclear explosions release not only kinetic energy, but gamma rays, x-rays, and supercharged subatomic particles. The same thing would happen in a solar superstorm. The initial flare would release massive amounts of X and gamma rays. The following coronal mass ejection would send a wave of slower moving subatomic particles heading for Earth, a devastating 1-2 punch for our civilization.

The immediate effects of Starfish Prime were spectacular. The blast created artificial aurora and illuminated the skies in Hawaii, hundreds of miles away. Street lights were blown out in Honolulu. There were also widespread radio blackouts and disruptions to telephone service, which was all land line at the time.

Starfish Prime pictures.

The blast also had more unexpected, longer lasting effects. Not all of the supercharged subatomic particles rained to Earth. Some remained in orbit and created an artificial radiation belt around the Earth that persisted for several months. This massive belt of radiation was responsible for the failure of 6 satellites. While 6 may not seem like a large number, one must remember that there were not that many satellites in orbit back in 1962. Among the casualties was the famous Telestar 1, the world's first telecommunications satellite (and the inspiration for a #1 hit song of the same name). Scientists had predicted the Electro-Magnetic Pulse (EMP), but were surprised by its strength.

Today, the science of EMPS is well understood by scientists themselves and the military. Provided that t has the means to get a nuke into orbit, creating an EMP would be the ideal way for a weaker nation to attack a stronger one. North Korea has nukes already and is working on ICBMs and Iran is close to getting a Nuke. In addition, both nations are hostile to the United States and have leadership that could, at best, be described as unstable.

North Korea is run by Kim Jong Un, third generational ruler of the communist nation, often referred to as 'The Hermit Kingdom' thanks to its isolation from the outside world. Kim grew up isolated from the outside world and, by looking at some of his past rhetoric, reality. He had an uncle killed and fed to dogs, his half brother poisoned at an airport, and a general shot for falling asleep in a meeting. However, relations between the United States and North Korea may be thawing. In June, 2018, Kim met with President Trump and agreed to stop the development of nuclear weapons and dismantle weapon building facilities. In return, the United States agreed to halt military exercises in the area. As of this writing, a second meeting between Trump and Kim is in the works. On top of that, Kim has meet with the leaders of South Korea several times since the start of 2018 and it appears that a peace treaty officially ending the Korean War (the war ended in 1953 with a cease fire, not a peace treaty) could be in the works. We and the rest of the world can only hope that relations between the United States and South Korea continue to thaw with North Korea.

Not looking so optimistic is the situation with Iran. Officially, Iran is only developing nuclear technology for power generation but the words coming from the Iranian leadership draw this claim into question. Iran has frequently referred to the United States as 'the Great Satan' and has repeatedly wished 'death to America.' Additionally, Iranian leadership has often called for Israel to be 'wiped off the map.' Making matters worse, unlike Kim who, by all accounts, is ultimately concerned with his own self preservation, that attitude is not shared by the clerics who ultimately run Iran. There are two sects of Islam: Sunni and Shiite. The disagreement came over who should be the ultimate religious leader. Shiite Muslims believe that only descendents of the Prophet Muhammad should be the leader. According to legend, the 12th Imam (successor to Muhammad) disappeared down a well in the 10th century, promising to return one day. Shiite Muslims believe that he will return at the time of Judgment to lead an army of the righteous (the Shiites) over the infidels (everyone else) and then set up a just kingdom on Earth. This time of tribulation will be brought about by increasing strife on Earth and radical Shiites believe that the return of the 12th Imam can be hastened by creating Earthly chaos. These are the clerics who run Iran, not the sort of people you want to have a nuclear bomb.

Yes, the threat from solar superstorms and EMP attacks is very real, but we need not be vulnerable as there are ways we can harden our power grid. For all that it does, the power grid is extremely vulnerable. Unshielded electronic equipment itself is vulnerable and the virtual complete computerization of our infrastructure only makes matters worse. If either a solar superstorm or EMP attack were to happen, the entire grid itself could collapse and the nightmarish scenarios outlined above could become reality.

Hardening the grid will be expensive but, knowing the consequences of not doing so, how can we not spend the money? According to the 2008 Congressional EMP Report, the cost of completely hardening our power grid could run up to $20 billion. While that seems like a lot, that pales in comparison to the cost of completely recovering from either such event (assuming that it was even possible). According to Lloyd's of London, complete recovery from a solar superstorm or EMP could st up to $2.5 trillion and take anywhere from 4-10 years. $20 billion or $2.5 trillion? That's a no-brainer. Again, according to the Congressional report, a complete hardening of the grid could take 3-5 years and insulating the high voltage transformers alone could cost $2 billion.

The cost if we don't, though, is staggering. According to the Congressional report, up to 90% of Americans could be dead within a year of the storm or EMP. Causes of death would include starvation, excessive heat/cold, disease, violence via looting, and radioactive fallout. Who survives? The more rural you are, the better as low population density makes disease less likely. With farming common in rural areas, these people will have the know-how to survive off the land and many in rural areas also rely on wells for water. Also, trees can be cut down for heat and the sheer remoteness makes the probability of roving bands of raiding less likely.

So, what is the government doing? Not much. Shortly after 9/11, the Congressional EMP Commission was created. 7 years later, it issued its dire report but continued for another 9 years before being disbanded in 2017. However, in December, 2017, President Trump issued his national security strategy, which included hardening the grid, a first.

How would we go about hardening the grid? First, the high voltage transformers are a must, they get first priority and need to be enclosed in Faraday cages. Secondly, communications must be protected. This would mean stronger surge protectors. Additionally, copper communications cables which conduct electromagnetic radiation), need to be replaced with fiber optics. Power stations would need to be hardened by sealing all openings with conductive gaskets that would shield the valuable electronics inside from a radiation surge. Yes, doing this could cost $20 billion and take 5 years to complete but, knowing the consequences, how can't we do this? The good news is that it need not be this expensive. According to the Defense Threat Reduction Agency, building these protections into new infrastructure at the time of construction would only add about 1% to the total cost. In contrast, retrofitting would be about 10 times more expensive. It is all of this retrofitting that could drive the cost to $20 billion.

Okay, so where do we get the money? According to Citizens Against Government Waste (.org), we could save $120 billion over 5 years by cutting the following:
1. The Rural Utilities Service ($48 billion over 5 years). Initially created as part of the New Deal, this was meant to ensure that people in rural areas had access to electricity and running water, which was good. According to a government report in 1980, by that point, over 98% of rural residents had electricity and over 95% running water vial pipelines or wells. What is the current priority? Internet access! While many 30-somethings and younger would beg to disagree, Internet is not a necessity to life. This is especially true in the time of smartphones, which can get Internet anywhere via satellite.

2. Eliminate Community Development Block Grants ($15 billion). These are largely blank checks handed to major cities with the intent that they be used to revitalize inner cities. There is virtually no oversight or accountability.

3. Sell excess government land and stop buying more ($18 billion). The Federal Government owns a lot of land, especially West of the Mississippi. Why does it need to and why is it continuing to buy up more? I'm sure ranchers would line up to buy major tracts.

4. Kill the Davis-Bacon Act ($6 billion). Another New Deal Dinosaur, this law requires that private sector workers doing government contract work be paid the prevailing union wage for that profession in that locality. Union workers typically make 15% more (give or take), than private sector workers.

5. Audit Medicare Payouts ($21 billion). With millions of people to keep track of, it's no surprise that some Medicare recipients' deaths go unrecorded, and thus the payments continue. According to Citizens, there are currently over 4,000 people over age 110 living in the United States. To date, only a few dozen people in the world have lived that long. Sure, this will cost money, but the net should be a large savings.

6.Eliminate sugar and milk subsidies ($12 billion). Unbeknownst to many, the sugar and milk industry is not a free market. While too complicated to detail here, these industries, through laws passed by Congress, get much government manipulation including government set prices and production quotas. Leftover products at the end of the year? No worries, the government will buy them.

That's $120 billion over 5 years. Even in just one year, that's enough to harden the grid.

Want some big, big money real fast to cover and cost overruns? How about eliminate the approximately $50 billion we doll out, largely no strings attached, in foreign aid every year. The $2 billion that President Trump cut off from Pakistan earlier this year for not doing enough to fight terrorism would in itself cover our high voltage transformers.

Yes, thinking and talking about it is better than burying one's proverbial head in the sand, but we need action, not more talk. The studies have been done and the findings were dire, which means that it's time to take action.

We need a plan, so what should it include?
1. We need to develop a response plan in the case of a superstorm or EMP. In the case of an EMP, this should include military retaliation.

2. Conduct a national vulnerability assessment

3. Protect parts of the infrastructure vital to recovery from such an event (turbines, generators, transformers, and communications networks)

4. Completely harden our military assets

5. Equip all new critical infrastructure with superstorm/EMP protection as it is constructed

6. Develop as perfect an ICBM defense as possible in the case of an EMP. Remember CHAMP missiles?

Long story short: we know that we have a problem and we know exactly what it is. We've studied solutions and know what they are. Now we just need to act. The good news is that we all can take part in the solution by contacting to our leaders. If we write enough or even speak to them if we get a chance, they will eventually have to listen if we keep bringing up this problem. With the dire consequences already known if we fail to act, this should be a truly bipartisan effort in the politically polarized year of 2018.

Like What You Just Read?

Why not check out other great stuff about photography, astronomy, associated gear, and how to use it.

Think someone else would find this informative (or at least entertaining)? Use the buttons below to share!

1 comment:

  1. I like your blog! Someone I share your links at this tour package for japan from india. You're doing a great job!