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Our future, our universe, and other weighty topics

Saturday, August 3, 2013

Earth Just Dodged an EMP Bullet

Earth Just Dodged an EMP Bullet
According to this report, two weeks ago a solar flare occurred that could have produced an electromagnetic pulse effect wiping out much of the electricity in the United States. Luckily the Earth dodged the bullet.

Let us look at how it might be if something like this happened in your life.

You wake up one morning in your small town, and try to turn on your television. You can't get it to turn on. You curse your television, and try to start up your computer. That also will not start up. You then notice that none of your lights will turn on.

You try to use your cell phone to call the power company, to ask if there is a blackout. You dial 411 for information, but can't get anyone. You try calling one of your friends, but can't get anyone on your phone. Then you walk out of your house, and start talking to some of your neighbors. They also have the same problem.

You try to start your car, but it won't start up. Some of your neighbors also report that their cars won't start up, although a few neighbors are able to start their cars. You walk a few miles to the center of your small town, and see a bunch of people standing in front of the Town Hall. No one seems to know exactly what is going on, but all kinds of wild rumors seem to be spreading around. One person says he heard from someone else that alien spaceships have attacked, and knocked out power all over the country.

Confusion reigns supreme for several days. No one in the town has any power, and no one is able to get any radio or television signals. No one is able to get phone service from outside of the town. Everyone eventually goes to the food stores, and stocks up on all the food they can buy. Before long, the shelves are empty at your local food store.

After several days, someone drives an old truck into town. The truck driver tells an amazing story. He says he has heard that a single electromagnetic pulse weapon has exploded high in the atmosphere, and that it has wiped out all electronic devices across almost all of the United States. The government is trying to figure out who was responsible. Some people think it might have been North Korea.

You remember hearing about how a single nuclear bomb exploded high in the atmosphere could short circuit almost all the electronics in the country. But you thought you'd never live to see the day when such a thing really happened. You ask yourself: what will I do when the food runs out? You start digging up some of your front yard, and you plant some seeds there. You hope you can grow something to eat before you starve to death.

Most of us are familiar with the device called a surge suppressor. Surge suppressors come built into most electrical power strips built these days, those white units that you plug your computer into. A surge suppressor is designed to stop a rare spike in electricity that might occur in your home, if something happens such as a bolt of lightning striking your house.

But a surge suppressor will not protect you against one type of danger: an electromagnetic pulse attack. Such an attack could come if an enemy deliberately detonated a nuclear bomb in the upper atmosphere. It might also be caused by a particularly strong solar flare.

Nuclear bombs are designed to be exploded on the surface or a few thousand meters above the surface. But suppose one were to explode a nuclear bomb about 250 miles above the ground? Remarkably, scientists predict that such a bomb would actually do far more damage than it would do if it were exploded on the ground.

A nuclear bomb releases a huge blast of high energy radiation called gamma rays. In the upper atmosphere the gamma rays would interact with air molecules, causing them to be ionized. This ionization of the air molecules would release a huge wave of electrons, and electrons are what make up electricity. Basically a nuclear bomb exploded in the upper atmosphere would release a gigantic wave of electricity which might spread for thousands of miles. When that wave of electricity struck power lines, computer lines, and all types of electronic devices, it would cause them to short out. Just as if you plugged your computer into a wall socket without using a surge suppressor, and your house was then struck by a bolt of lighting.

It has been estimated that a 1.5 megaton nuclear bomb exploded at 250 miles above the ground in the middle of the United States would destroy most of the electronics in the continental United States. This is not just theory. In 1962 a test nuclear device of 1.4 megatons was actually detonated at an altitude of 250 miles. The electromagnetic pulse effect was observed in Hawaii, some 800 miles away.

Nowadays electronics are used in a host of products, including cars, computers, trains, television sets, and electrical grids. Experts believe that a sufficiently powerful electromagnetic pulse attack could basically plunge the United States back into the 19th century, for a good long period.

There are ways to shield electronic systems against electromagnetic pulse attack, but no protection method is both convenient and inexpensive. You can protect a device such as a computer by completely enclosing it in a sealed metal box known as a Faraday cage. But virtually no computers are stored in such a device. US politicians (who have allocated endless billions for protecting against attacks like those the US faced in 2001) have allocated virtually nothing for protecting the country against an electromagnetic pulse attack. From the standpoint of electromagnetic pulse attacks, we're all sitting ducks. An electromagnetic pulse from a nuclear bomb would not be confined to power lines, so you can't protect yourself merely by keeping your electronic equipment unplugged. The electromagnetic pulse would travel through the air.

There is some disagreement over whether an electromagnetic pulse attack would disable most vehicles immediately. Some writers suggest this would happen, while others say that only a fraction of vehicles would be unable to start up. But such an attack would make it very difficult to get gasoline, as most refineries use electricity to process crude oil, and most gas station pumps use electricity.

Some people are worried that North Korea may one day be able to make a nuclear missile capable of exploding a single nuclear bomb over the United States, a bomb that might cause an electromagnetic pulse effect that would knock out all our electricity. But there's another way that our electricity might be knocked out: by a particularly vicious solar flare.

Two weeks ago there apparently was such a flare, but it did not strike our planet, because the Earth was not lined up in its orbit in a way to suffer the most damage. If our planet had been in a different position in its orbit, we might have suffered devastating damage.

Below is a crude schematic diagram that may give you a very rough idea of what happened. The picture is not to scale, and the depiction of radiation from the sun is visually exaggerated. 

We Just Dodged an EMP Bullet

There is no way to completely remove the danger of electromagnetic pulse attacks, but here are a few things you can do if you want to reduce your risk from such attacks. (Some of these points may be inadvisable from an environmental standpoint, but for the moment I am narrowly considering what is best from the standpoint of protecting yourself from the electromagnetic pulse danger.)
  • Keep paper copies of all your vital records, particularly records of your investments. Nowadays financial firms keep encouraging people to sign up for electronic delivery of financial statements. That may be good from the standpoint of paper conservation, but it is a poor idea from the standpoint of protecting yourself from electromagnetic pulse attacks. Make sure you have paper copies of all your important records, including your holdings in any bank or financial institution.
  • Ideally live in a house with a sizable patch of land you can grow food on. The novel One Second After deals with the effects of an electromagnetic pulse attack on the United States. The novel imagines that in cities the situation may get so bad that inhabitants will resort to cannibalism. Your chance of surviving is probably better if you have your own house, and some land you can grow vegetables on.
  • Keep a large supply of food, fresh water, and seeds. If an electromagnetic pulse attack occurs, it will cause tremendous disruptions in the food supply chain, because electronics and electricity are used in countless points of this chain. Protect yourself from this danger by stocking up on food and water (and also seeds if you have a backyard). You may not need to stock up on water if your plumbing will still deliver water in a blackout.
  • Avoid keeping all of your wealth in electronic assets such as stocks and bonds . If an electromagnetic pulse attack occurs, no one knows whether the records of major banks and investment houses will be permanently destroyed. It is possible that your financial institution keeps paper copies of all investors holdings, which could be used to recover the loss of all electronic records. It is also possible that your institution relies entirely on electronic records that may be completely lost after an electromagnetic pulse attack. To avoid the possibility of getting wiped out financially, it is a good idea to have some of your money in a tangible asset such as a house or an apartment you own.