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IEET > Security > Cyber > Military > Resilience > SciTech > Fellows > David Brin

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#7: Our Worst Frailty: An Electro Magnetic “Hit”


David Brin
David Brin
Contrary Brin

Posted: Dec 25, 2011

The EMP-vulnerability of our electric grid, our machines, transportation systems, tools, and homes is probably the most glaring “acute-impact” threat on our horizon.



#7
According to IEET readers, what were the most stimulating stories of 2011? This month we’re answering that question by posting a countdown of the top 12 articles published this year on our blog, based on how many total hits each one received.

The following piece was first published here on April 16, and is the 7th most viewed this year.



This is serious and sobering stuff.

gridThe Electric Infrastructure Security (EIS) Council agitates for better infrastructure protection against electromagnetic threats. EMPACT America is a bipartisan, non-profit NGO for citizens concerned about protecting the American people from a nuclear or natural electromagnetic pulse (EMP) catastrophe.

To be clear, we face other dangers of a chronic nature, for example the need to develop sustainable energy to escape dependence upon foreign oil-masters and to possibly save the planet. Educating a smarter generation and rescuing our decaying infrastructure also matter a great deal, over the longer time scale.

But acute-impact threats fall into another category. They are events that could possibly knock us flat in a single day, or instant. Those of us with memories of the Cold War know how it feels to be constantly aware of a Damoclean Sword, hanging overhead…

By that standard, an EMP calamity ranks higher than anything else visible on the horizon—unlike the trumped-up panic and distraction that were foisted upon us over ‘terrorism’.* (We could have suffered a 9/11 hit every month for the last ten years and still maintained a vibrant, healthy civilization. Our parents suffered worse in WWII. It was one long scam.)

There are two possible ways that we might be hit by an EMP pulse strong enough to cripple a continent.

1) Natural cycles can apparently lead to the sort of solar flares that did little to disturb our ancestors - other that creating scary-gorgeous aurorae - but that could devastate an electricity-dependent civilization. For example, the “Carrington Event” of 1859 and another large solar storm in 1921 show that such things happen fairly frequently, and we’ve been lucky, so far.

Even lesser events can wreak havoc. According to a report in IEEE Spectrum: “In March 1989, such a geomagnetic disturbance took down the entire Hydro-Qu├ębec power grid, leaving six million customers in the Canadian province without electricity for 9 hours, and also knocked out power stations in the Northeastern United States. That disturbance occurred at one peak of an 11-year solar cycle,”

A Congressional EMP Commission report recently estimated that a once-in-a-hundred- years solar flare could cause $1-2 trillion worth of damage, if the electric grid went down for weeks. Worse, if most truck transport failed, millions of Americans might simply starve.

2) A devastating electromagnetic pulse can also be man-made. Already, more than half a dozen nuclear-armed nations have missile capabilities that- - now or soon—would tempt them to try knocking out Pax Americana with a single blow.  Just one warhead, detonated high over North America, could cause untold amounts of EMP chaos. Weighing the scenarios, this is a no-brainer. Sending such a missile to take out one US city would be a nasty hit, but it would leave us almost intact and ready for vengeance. But knocking us back to the stone age? Far more tempting, whether it is realistic or not.

With the number of nuclear armed states rising, is that a temptation we really want to be left on the table?

At recent congressional hearings on the matter, several agency heads agreed with the assessment that “it is now a matter of if, but of when.” According to Lifeboat Foundation member Paul Werbos: “One official said, after looking at the report, that $1-2 trillion was a ridiculously low estimate of the risk. ‘Yes, we have three months food stockpiled, but with electricity out for more than three days, it will all go bad. And how long can we live without water?”

“So there was serious talk of the end of civilization (their words) and of more than half the US population dying (and likewise other nations), and so on. Franks, a staunch conservative from the oil business, basically said “hey folks, this is no CO2 thing, this is real…”

Werbos continues: “And so stakeholders will take strong and vigorous action. In the face of 2012, there will be stakeholder’ s meetings. And maybe some education campaigns. And a few more spare transformers. But will anyone install the relatively simple isolators to protect transformers? Will the planning include anyone who knows what a transformer IS? And all of the usual complex ways of doing nothing useful all come into play, in all the usual myriad of ways. It will be interesting to see whether a few meager bits of light can help…. maybe…”

Now, in full disclosure, let me say that I haven’t really pored through the thousands of pages of material, and there is certainly a lot I still have to learn about this topic, as it has evolved since I last studied it.

But I have been talking about this general danger for 30 years, urging that a very small annual investment—perhaps as little as fifty million dollars a year, plus some arm-twisting with industry—could equip our grid and our vital tools to bear the brunt of such an event.

The best time to act on this was decades ago.  The second best time is now.

* That is, other than a contractor greed-fest and wasting a trillion dollars on draining, debilitating “nation-building” land wars of attrition in Asia.


David Brin Ph.D. is a scientist and best-selling author whose future-oriented novels include Earth, The Postman, and Hugo Award winners Startide Rising and The Uplift War. David's newest novel - Existence - is now available, published by Tor Books."
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