This is the first of a four-part series about EMP’s and the catastrophic results they can cause.
Part 1. What is an EMP and why should I worry?
EMP is an acronym for Electro Magnetic Pulse. An electromagnetic pulse is a burst of electromagnetic energy. It can occur in the form of a radiated, electric or magnetic pulse depending on the source.
So, why should we be concerned about EMP’s?
Because a strong EMP could literally return the country to the dark ages.
If the headline or that statement didn’t get your attention, it should have, because an EMP can fry electronics including computers, communications, and most importantly, the electrical grid – thereby plunging us into darkness, both figuratively and literally.
Remember, when the electrical grid shuts down, so do ATMs, gas stations, supermarkets, GPS, cell phones, water and sewer pumps, etc.
BS you say, that’s just some alarmist tinfoil-hat-wearing gloom and doom guy who’s replaced that fizzled-out Mayan 2012 end-of-the-world debacle with a new “catastrophe.”
No, actually we’ve been hit by EMP storms before; six recorded over 160 years of record keeping on geomagnetic storms , including the strongest one that occurred in 1859, when two EMP’s hit the earth, one shortly after the other. That storm (the largest on record) has come to be known as the Carrington Event.
The Carrington Event
On September 1, 1859, amateur astrologer Richard Carrington pointed his telescope toward the sun and began to sketch a cluster of enormous dark sun spots that appeared on its surface. Suddenly, Carrington spotted what he described as “two patches of intensely bright and white light” erupting from the sunspots (we now call them solar flares). Five minutes later the fireballs vanished, but within hours their impact was felt across the globe.
That night the first burst hit. Telegraph communications around the world began to fail; there were reports of sparks showering from telegraph wires and machines, shocking operators and setting papers ablaze. Many telegraph lines across North America were rendered inoperable when the first of two successive solar storms struck.
One telegraph manager reported that the resulting currents flowing through the wires were so powerful that platinum contacts were in danger of melting and “streams of fire” were pouring forth from the circuits.
The next morning, the magnetic mayhem resulting from the second storm continued as telegraph company employees arrived at their offices to discover that it was impossible to transmit or receive dispatches. By noon, operations were beginning to return to normal, but, as they say, that was then, this is now.
Consider that 1859 was long before electrical grids, satellite communications and computers simplified our lives. Think of how things have changed; how much of our everyday life requires electricity and electronics?
What if a “Carrington Event” happened today?
A similar storm, though several times smaller, did happen in 1989. A solar storm in March of that year caused a blackout in Quebec which left over 5 million people without electricity for up to 12 hours, and cost the region an estimated 2 billion dollars, closing hospitals and halting trading on Toronto’s stock market. By the way, that link is to a NASA article – not exactly a tinfoil hat operation, eh?
Here’s what happened: On the evening of Monday, March 12 a vast cloud of solar plasma (a gas of electrically charged particles) struck Earth’s magnetic field. The violence of this “geomagnetic storm” caused spectacular northern lights that could be seen as far south as Florida and Cuba.
The magnetic disturbance was incredibly intense. It created electrical currents in the ground beneath much of North America. Just after 2:44 a.m. on March 13, the currents found a weakness in the electrical power grid of Quebec. In less than 2 minutes, the entire Quebec power grid lost power.
During the 12-hour blackout that followed, millions of people suddenly found themselves in dark office buildings and underground pedestrian tunnels, and in stalled elevators. Most people woke up to cold homes for breakfast. The blackout also closed schools and businesses, kept the Montreal Metro shut during the morning rush hour, and closed Dorval Airport.
The Quebec Blackout was by no means a local event. Across the United States from coast to coast, over 200 power grid problems erupted within minutes of the start of the March 13 storm. Fortunately, none of them caused a blackout.
The Quebec event may have been a preview of what lies in store for us as sun activity is expected to steadily increase, reaching its maximum strength in 2013, according to a prediction issued by NASA together with NOA, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. A testament to the seriousness with which these solar storms are viewed is evidenced by that fact that the National Weather Services’ Space Weather Prediction Center sole task is to predict space weather.
Solar activity peaks about every 11 years sending waves of charged particles speeding toward the earth at over 1,000 miles an hour. Much of this energy is absorbed by the upper atmosphere, but some of it gets through and hits the surface of the earth – fortunately at levels too low to cause direct damage to humans.
The danger from an electromagnetic pulse is a function of simple physics: Electromagnetic pulses and geomagnetic storms can alter Earth’s magnetic field. Changing magnetic fields in the atmosphere, in turn, can trigger surging currents in power lines – power lines like those 200,000 miles of high-voltage transmission lines that crisscross North America, for example.
They’re supplying 1,800 utilities with the power for TVs, lights, refrigerators and air conditioners in homes, and for the businesses, hospitals and police stations that take care of us all.
In addition to overloading the transmission lines which traverse the U.S., the excessive current can damage and sometimes destroy the EHV (Extra High Voltage) transformers whose task it is to step down the transmission line voltage to consumer-level voltage. This is what led to the blackout in Quebec.
The strong electric currents that would flow through the electrical grid during a repeat of the Carrington event would likely cause melting and burn-out of large-amperage copper windings and leads in electrical transformers. These multi-ton, multi-million dollar devices generally cannot be repaired in the field, and if damaged in this manner, they’ll need to be replaced with new units. There are only a handful of spares in reserve, so most of the region affected by the collapse would remain without power until new transformers could be custom built… months, even years later.
This image shows the Extra High Voltage (EHV) transmission lines across U.S. most susceptible to power-system collapse.
It should now be quite apparent that a strong EMP attack on our power grid can be catastrophic for the U.S.
As dependent as we are today on everything being electrically-powered, consider how you and your family would survive even a six-month absence of electricity, not to mention a year or more?
Scientists know that vastly larger and more destructive solar storms than Quebec are not only possible, but inevitable. The last recorded large solar super-storm was the previously mentioned Carrington Event, which was caused by an explosion on the sun that scientists estimate was the equivalent of a thousand hydrogen bombs.
Nobody knows when another storm of this size will envelop our planet, but a recent estimate published in the International Journal of Research and Applications in 2012 says that there is a one in eight chance of this happening within the next decade.
If it does, electrical grids throughout the world will not just fail, they’ll be destroyed. NASA warns that such an event would cause an avalanche of blackouts carried across continents that could last for weeks, months, even years, depending on the magnitude of the storm.
UPDATE [8/11/2013] : Here’s a link to an article that describes how the earth narrowly escaped another EMP catastrophe in mid-July of this year (2013) when a Carrington-class coronal mass ejection crossed the orbit of the Earth and basically just missed us,” said Peter Vincent Pry.
Read Part 2, How Damaging Could It Be?