The Inevitable Threat: Electromagnetic Pulse and Coronal Mass Ejection


There is a grave threat to our survival that is very rarely mentioned by the media, and thus far has garnered very little action by the government or private actors.  A Commission to Congress has said that it is likely to kill 90% of the US population within a year of it happening.  NASA says that it is inevitable and that it will very likely happen in our lifetimes.

This threat can be natural, in the form of a large solar flare or coronal mass ejection (CME), or it can be man-made, in the form of an electromagnetic pulse (EMP).  These occur when a large electromagnetic field impacts the Earth’s atmosphere.  Energetic particles, such as gamma rays interact with the atmosphere, creating positive ions and Compton electrons which generates a geomagnetic storm, or a disruption in the Earth’s magnetic field.

In 1859, a massive CME called the Carrington Event occured.  The sun ejected plasma, and its associated magnetic field which was hurled directly at the Earth.  This creates a geomagnetic storm on Earth, with dramatic effects on the Earth’s magnetic field (which protects us from cosmic radiation).  It also has a devastating effect on electric and electronic devices.  In 1859, Auroras were seen as far south as the Caribbean.  Telegraph systems failed, throwing sparks and in some cases shocking telegraph operators.  Of course, in 1859, there were no electronics, and telegraph systems were one of the few examples of electric technology in use at the time, so most of the world was unaffected.  In 1989, a much smaller CME created a geomagnetic storm in Quebec, which created short wave radio interference, knocked out satellites, and tripped circuit breakers knocking out power to most of Quebec for about 9 hours.  In 2012, a much larger CME occurred, on the order of the Carrington event, but fortunately it just missed Earth.

An EMP can have the same effect, or greater, than that of a CME but it is man-made.  EMP is a side-effect of a high-altitude nuclear blast, but it can also be created with modern specialized conventional (non-nuclear) weapons.  The effects of EMPs were observed, and their associated damage noted, during nuclear tests in the 1950s and 1960s.  One test, Starfish Prime, conducted in 1962, detonated 250 miles high above the Pacific Ocean resulted in an EMP that was far larger than anticipated, actually driving the measuring equipment ‘off the chart’ and causing electrical damage in Hawaii nearly 900 miles away, knocking out about 300 streetlights, setting off numerous burglar alarms and damaging a telephone company microwave link.  It has been widely assumed that a high-altitude nuclear blast would precede a nuclear war, in that it would be useful to disable electronics, the electric grid, and communication systems of one’s enemy.  But that initial high altitude blast, and resulting EMP, was often a mere footnote in the testing, because of the obvious overwhelming damage that would occur as a result of the following nuclear war.

However, today, we live in a different world.  Now a rogue nation, or even a well-heeled terrorist organization could launch a medium range ballistic missile- just one missile is all it would take, from a freighter in the Gulf of Mexico, and the effects of an EMP over the United States today would, over the course of a year, according to Congress, kill approximately 90% of the population.  If you could do that with one missile, and America was your sworn enemy, how interested in an EMP attack would you be?  North Korea, Iran, and many other rogue nations and organizations very likely have the means to execute such an attack- or are working hard toward it.  Also, there are numerous satellites in orbit that have been launched by nuclear powers, such as North Korea.  It is quite possible that one of the North Korean satellites that orbit over the US, such as the Kwangmyongsong 3 or 4, could be equipped with a nuclear weapon that, if detonated, would result in a near perfect EMP attack over the United States, and there would be no missile launch for the US to detect.    The odds of such an attack are not as remote as you might initially think.

The EMP or CME itself is harmless to humans.  Our problem is that American society, in particular, has become so dependent upon complex and delicate modern electronic systems for the basics of life and survival.  The massive electromagnetic fields induced by an EMP or CME would ‘fry’ most electronic systems: namely diode junctions on circuit boards.  Thus, most computers, telephones, mobile devices, radios, televisions, vehicle ignition systems, industrial SCADA control systems (which operate water, fuel, oil, and natural gas pumping systems), navigation systems, electronic ‘fly by wire’ aircraft control systems, and most other electronic systems would simply cease to function, unless they were specifically hardened for EMP protection or stored inside a Faraday cage, which is an all metal enclosure that prevents the EM field from ingress.  Perhaps the most damaging though, is the effect of an EMP or CME on the power grid.  Transformers cannot handle the massive spike in current that they will receive from the power lines, which act as large antennas picking up the induced current from the particles in the atmosphere, in a process called the Compton Effect.  To top it off, there are virtually no backup transformers or other critical parts in the United States to restore power for several years, as all of these large transformers are now manufactured overseas.  Modern society grinds to a screeching halt without power: the power to pump fuel, deliver natural gas, pump water and sewage, run well pumps, heat and cool buildings, run communication systems, run freezers and refrigerators to keep food from spoiling, produce goods, create light, cook food, execute financial transactions, and far more.  Generator backups, if their electronic control systems didn’t fail, only last a short period of time before fuel runs out.  Picture a world where not only all of these systems fail, but many vehicles are immobilized and there are virtually no functioning communication systems.  Not only that, but there is no outside help coming.  No organization or government- federal, state, local, or foreign is even remotely equipped to provide relief on such a massive national scale, even if the logistical means existed to deliver it, which it would not.  The average American family has only 3 days of food, and people quickly become violent and desperate when their family is hungry.

Congress created an EMP Commission, and in 2008, they delivered their findings to Congress (which you can read at www.empcommission.org).  They reported that “within 12 months of a nationwide blackout, up to 90% of the U.S. population could possibly perish from starvation, disease and societal breakdown.”  They warned that the power grid is extremely vulnerable, and it would take many years to repair and replace the transformers and other components that would be destroyed by an EMP or CME.  Most of these critical components are no longer manufactured or available in the US.  They advised Congress that action needs to be taken, and estimated the cost to harden the grid's critical nodes at about $2 billion.  While there have been 3 bills written to address the issue in Congress, none have passed.  Former Secretaries of Defense William Perry and James Schlesinger have concurred with the findings of the EMP Commission and urged immediate action to protect the electric grid. Studies by the National Academy of Sciences, the Department of Energy, the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission and the National Intelligence Council reached similar conclusions.  While China and Russia have hardened their grid to protect against the effects of an EMP or CME, the US has not.  President Trump signed an Executive Order in March of 2019 to further study the effects of an EMP attack, and help to coordinate efforts across federal departments, but nothing meaningful has come of it, due to the resistance within the government and within the power industry to address these concerns.

NASA estimates that there is a 12 percent chance of a solar storm, on par with the one that occurred in 1859, striking Earth in the next ten years, and that on average a severe CME occurs every 150 years, and thus we are overdue.  Ultimately, an EMP or CME is inevitable.  The real question is: will we be ready?  Since neither the government, nor the operators of the power grid have taken action, the collective answer is quite clear: we will not be ready.  Our only option, then, is to do what we can at the individual and family level to prepare for such an eventuality.  Will you be ready?

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