This is part 2 of a four-part series about EMP’s and the catastrophic results they can cause.
Part 2. How damaging could it be?
This image shows the geographic areas most susceptible to grid overload and collapse.
The map was produced by a computer model showing electrical systems that would be affected by a geomagnetic storm equivalent to the New York Railroad Storm of May 14-15, 1921 event, classed as a “super storm.” The regions outlined by the heavy black lines are susceptible to system collapse lasting months or years.
A solar storm like one that took place in 1921 would turn out the lights over half of North America today – and the 1921 storm was a relatively minor event compared to the 1859 Carrington Event.
The potential collateral damage in the U.S. of a Carrington-type solar storm was estimated to be between $1 trillion and $2 trillion in the first year alone, with full recovery taking an estimated four to 10 years, according to a 2008 report from the National Research Council.
Here is a short 3 page .pdf on Emerging Risks: Solar Storms (October 2010) for an assessment by the International Risk Governance Council.
We are at risk because charged particles from the sun can cause physical damage to orbiting satellites and spacecraft by damaging microchips, solar cells, accelerating orbital decay, etc.
They can disturb electromagnetic interactions in the ionosphere and thus severely interfere with GPS navigation signals and the propagation of radio waves; and cause variations in Earth’s geomagnetic field that can induce currents – known as geo-magnetically induced currents (GICs) – to flow between conductors on the ground (for example, between transformers in a power transmission network or along buried pipelines).
GICs in particular pose important risks to modern society because of the wide range of essential infrastructures that could be affected. Voltage fluctuations in deep-sea cables could disturb telecommunications networks; transformers in electric power systems may be saturated by GICs, causing emergency shutdowns; oil and gas pipelines can suffer corrosion; and, rail signaling systems can be disturbed.
According to the National Research Council a massive enough solar storm could have long term effects that would likely include, for example: Disruption of the transportation, communication, banking, and finance systems, and government services. Drinking water and fuel supplies would soon run dry as pumps from water reservoirs or underground tanks at fuelling stations stopped working. Back-up generators would assure power to pivotal sites such as hospitals, but only for a few days. And, perishable foods and medications would soon spoil, creating shortages of vital supplies.
The worst case scenario has been outlined by the Center for Security Policy, which suggests that an EMP, or a solar storm that results in similar magnetic discharge across the United States, could potentially leave 90% of the U.S. population dead within the first year.
“We’re utterly unprepared for this potentially catastrophic threat,” said Frank Gaffney, president of the Center for Security Policy and former assistant secretary of defense under Ronald Reagan.
“A pre-industrial society, which is what we would be reduced to, would not have the ability to sustain itself as we do today,” he told FoxNews.com.
“Think of people in cities with no access to food or potable water, no sewage, no access to transport to get out of there … those become ‘dead zones’ in a matter of weeks or at most months. And the population living off the land elsewhere may be able to sustain itself, but nowhere like what we have at the moment,” Gaffney said.
“It’s really grim,” he told FoxNews.com.
In 2008, the bipartisan Electromagnetic Pulse Commission testified before Congress that:Contemporary U.S. society is not structured, nor does it have the means, to provide for the needs of nearly 300 million Americans without electricity.
In fact, the average U.S. city has only three days’ worth of food and health care provisions.
Most Americans do not have enough batteries to keep flashlights working for any period of time, much less generator capabilities. And many of the country’s most vulnerable citizens rely on the electricity grid for medical equipment, such as dialysis machines. Even standard medication will be difficult or impossible to come by if an EMP disables pharmacies and transportation networks.
Extra High Voltage (EHV) transformers are our Achilles’ heel
Currently, there are over 300 EHV transformers in the U.S. that are at risk of permanent damage requiring replacement in the event of a geomagnetic storm as intense as the 1859 Carrington Event.
They are extraordinarily heavy, ranging from almost 200 tons to over 400 tons, which makes them extremely difficult to transport. They are also expensive, costing from $3 million to over $8 million dollars apiece and they are custom built to the purchaser’s specs making interchangeability all but impossible. These factors discourage utility companies from keeping many spares in stock.
Only four plants in the U.S. are capable of manufacturing a transformer of 345 kV or greater. Only two can produce 500 kV and 765 kV transformers, which represent the largest group of at-risk transformers in the U.S. We produce only about 15% of the EHV transformers that we use.
Offshore manufacturers (S. Korea accounts for 34%) presently have a backlog of nearly 2 years for all EHV transformers (230 kV and above). Anticipated delivery time for new orders is 18 months to two years.
And, to make matters worse, our population of EHV transformers is aging. Equipment manufacturers have estimated that the average age of the large power transformers installed in the United States is approximately 40 years, with 70 percent being 25 years or older.
In an aging power transformer failure, typically the conductor insulation is weakened to the degree at which it can no longer sustain mechanical stresses of a fault and must be replaced.
The 1859 Carrington event was three times to ten times more powerful than the 1989 Quebec storm, and would likely cause the failure of a huge portion of the U.S. power grid were it to hit today.
Have I painted a sufficiently gloomy picture yet? No? Well, here’s another little ray-of-sunshine thought for you:
The loss of power to nuclear power plants could create a whole string of Fukushima-type disasters around the country. The core meltdowns at the Dai-ichi facility in 2011 were not caused directly by the earthquake and tsunami which hit Japan, but by the loss of power to the reactor cooling systems which allowed the nuclear fuel rods to overheat.
A potential loss of power for weeks at a time, such as would likely result from a large scale EMP, could overwhelm the capacity of emergency electrical power systems at nuclear generating plants to cope, according to a 2011 report by the Oak Ridge National Laboratory.
So, not only could we be facing a future without the things that we’ve come to depend on for survival over the past hundred years, but we could be facing nuclear radiation as well?
But why worry? The odds of another Carrington Event occurring are small, no sense in worrying about something that may not happen in your lifetime, right?
But there’s one more piece of nasty news that I intentionally left for last.
The sun, via CME’s (Coronal Mass Ejection) isn’t the only source of EMP’s that could destroy much of our electrical grid.
No, there is another source that could wreak the kind of damage that we’ve described (and more). That would be a high altitude detonation of a nuclear device.
“The high-altitude nuclear weapon-generated electromagnetic pulse (EMP) is one of a small number of threats that has the potential to hold our society seriously at risk and could result in the defeat of our military forces.” Source: Report of the Commission to Assess the Threat to the United States from Electromagnetic Pulse (EMP) Attack, Volume 1: Executive Report, 2004 (64 page .pdf file).
In the case of a nuclear EMP attack, the damage could easily prove extremely severe. An EMP detonation could affect car and truck engines, aircraft ignition systems, hospital equipment, pacemakers, communications systems, and electrical appliances. Road and rail signaling, industrial control applications, and other electronic systems are all susceptible to EMP.
Electromagnetic energy on a radio frequency will travel through any conductive matter with which it comes into contact, from electrical wires to telephone wires, even water mains, which can spread the effects to areas far beyond ground zero.
More so than a solar-induced storm, a nuclear detonation induced EMP, depending on its source and resultant E1 and E3 components, could result in airplanes literally falling from the sky; vehicles could stop functioning, and water, sewer, and electrical networks could all fail – all at once. Food would rot, health care would be reduced to its most rudimentary level, and there would not be any transportation. Rule of law would become impossible to sustain; police departments would be overwhelmed.
Communication abilities would be limited, preventing federal, state, and local governments from communicating with one another-severely limiting abilities to shift needed resources around the country.
We, the people of the United States of America would find ourselves in deep trouble.
Continue to Part 3: Nuclear Detonation as a Source of EMP’s