The Very Real Threat of EMPs

Only in video games and sci-fi movies would we expect our worlds (communications, electronics – basically all the modern trappings of our society) to come to a crashing halt due to either a natural or weapons-based Electromagnetic pulse caused by a major solar storm or an A-bomb. Sure, it all sounds like the backdrop from a Call of Duty or Medal of Honor game (or one of those crazy History Channel specials on 2012), but some politicians are taking the threat seriously. USA Today has a fascinating article on the subject. We cover the parts we like.

An Electromagnetic pulse (EMP) is a massive burst of atmospheric electricity. Whether powered by geomagnetic storms, nuclear blasts, or a new generation of weapons supposedly developed by military types around the world, the result equals burned out power lines and electrical equipment – a society without power.

Politicians believe the threat is very real; former House speaker Newt Gingrich told a Heritage Foundation audience last year that we are not ready for such an occurrence:

"We are not today hardened against this," he said. "It is an enormous catastrophic threat."

Meanwhile, a bill called the "Grid Act" (PDF) passed in the House of Representatives awaits approval in the Senate. The bill "amend(s) the Federal Power Act to protect the bulk-power system and electric infrastructure critical to the defense of the United States from cybersecurity and other threats and vulnerabilities."

"The electric grid’s vulnerability to cyber and to other attacks is one of the single greatest threats to our national security," Rep. Ed Markey, D-Mass., said in June when he introduced the bill to the House of Representatives.

So what are the solutions? Here is an important excerpt on that:

Although the physics underlying the geomagnetic and nuclear pulses are fundamentally the same, they have different solutions. A geomagnetic storm essentially produces a long-building surge dangerous to power lines and large transformers. A nuclear blast produces three waves of pulses.

Limiting the risk from the geomagnetic-storm-type threat involves stockpiling large transformers and installing dampers, essentially lightning rods, to dump surges into the ground from the grid. Even if such steps cost billions, the numbers come out looking reasonable compared with the $119 billion that a 2005 Electric Power Research Institute report estimated was the total nationwide cost of normal blackouts every year.

Remember when we only had to worry about nuclear war and pandemics? Yeah, those were good times. Want to learn about some games and movies that use EMP as a core element? Check out this Wikipedia entry.

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  1. 0
    greevar says:

    Scientific fallacies aside, the best way to protect our technology from EMP is to de-centralize our power production. Setting up small, numerous local power sources rather than big central plants would help mitigate the risk of EMP devastation.


  2. 0
    deathvanquished says:

    Realisticly, no EMP, even from the Sun, would knock out power to the entire contenient, which is what would need to happen to shut off power to the entire United States since Canada shares the same power with us. 

    What always bothered me about that particular scene in MW2 is that the power outage cascades from southern New York down to Jacksonville, FL.  Other than completely ignoring the Northeast power grid that we all learned about when New York went dark several years ago, the cascade effect would not grow that large.  Our very infastructure is set up to shut down if any surge is detected coming down the line to prevent any damage to the power plant/station. 

    Not to mention that most of the newest trunk lines are shieled to protect from anything but a direct blast, so phone service would be available in a lot of places near the blast.

    Oh yeah, and a shockwave from a nuke would not spread over 1000 miles to destory the ISS.  Sorry, either it is low enough in the atmosphere to cause the EMP effect and spread over quite a ways, or it was high enough for the explosion not to react to anything.  I guess the Infinity Ward people just watched Independence Day and assumed that is how a nuke worked in outer space.

  3. 0
    Thad says:

    "EMP Electromagnetic pulse" — wow.  I frequently hear single-word tautologies like "ATM machine" and "PIN number", and occasionally even a two-word one like "for your FYI", but I do believe this is the first time I’ve ever seen a triple-redundancy.

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