An EMP, or electromagnetic pulse, bringing down the entire electric grid sounds like science fiction, and you may have heard about it from your prepper neighbor wearing a tin foil hat. And if you’ve never heard of an EMP, you’re not alone. WSJ received hundreds of shocked comments from readers when they reported on NORAD efforts to protect their infrastructure from an EMP.
But as former Director of Central Intelligence James Woolsey warned in his recent congressional testimony, “The EMP threat is as real as the Sun and as inevitable as a solar flare.”
The Congressional EMP Commission, called it “one of a small number of threats that has the potential to hold our society seriously at risk” and “is capable of causing catastrophe for the nation.” These are not one commissions findings, but represent a consensus from studies by the Congressional Strategic Posture Commission, the National Academy of Sciences, the Department of Energy, the National Intelligence Council, a U.S. Federal Energy Regulatory Commission report coordinated with the Department of Defense and Oak Ridge National Laboratory, and numerous other reports.
With such overwhelming political and scientific consensus, it may come as a shock that nothing has been done to protect America from a power outage that could last several years. You may also be surprised that your energy bill could be paying the lobby efforts to keep it that way.
The Hundred Year Geomagnetic Solar Storm
The worst disasters are often the result of natural events which occur less than every hundred years. The hundred year earthquake doesn’t remind us to build away from fault lines. The hundred year tsunami doesn’t remind us to build nuclear reactors above the inundation zone. Likewise, the hundred year solar storm did not remind us to build an electric grid capable of surviving it.
Solar storms, or Geomagnetic Disturbances (GMD) are the result of a solar wind shock wave or a magnetic cloud interacting with the earth’s magnetic field. While solar storms happen as frequently as northern lights, experts are most concerned about a rare solar super-storm, like the 1921 Railroad Storm. The National Academy of Sciences estimates that if the Railroad Storm were to occur today, there would be a nationwide blackout for 4-10 years.
The most powerful geomagnetic storm on record is the 1859 Carrington Event. Estimates are that Carrington was about 10 times more powerful than the 1921 Railroad Storm and 100 times more powerful than anything the modern grid has experienced. The Carrington Event was a worldwide phenomenon, causing forest fires from flaring telegraph lines, burning telegraph stations, and destroying the freshly laid telegraph cable at the bottom of the Atlantic Ocean.
According to Woolsey, a solar super-storm like the Carrington Event today would “collapse electric grids and life-sustaining critical infrastructures worldwide, putting at risk the lives of billions.”
A Close Call
In July 2014, NASA reported that Earth narrowly escaped another Carrington Event. Indeed, a Carrington-class coronal mass ejection crossed the path of the Earth, missing our planet by just three days. NASA assessment is that the resulting storm would have been catastrophic.
We are overdue for a hundred-year solar storm like the Carrington Event. NASA puts the likelihood of such a geomagnetic super-storm at 12 percent per decade, virtually guaranteeing that if we don’t experience a catastrophic geomagnetic super-storm, our children will. In his congressional testimony, Dr. Richard Garwin of the IBM Thomas J. Watson Research Center emphasized that “a once-per-century event could occur next week,” urging action to reduce the impact on the bulk power system.
Weaponized Electromagnetic Pulse (EMP)
If the threat of a natural geomagnetic super-storm wasn’t enough, the electric grid is equally fragile to an electromagnetic pulse attack. There are ways in which an EMP threat is more serious than a conventional nuke threat. Deterrence may not work at all because we may not know where the pulse came from. If everything goes dark, it could be a solar event or it could be North Korea. It could be launched from a freighter off one of our coasts or from a northern satellite designed to go unnoticed. We may never know.
“An EMP attack is one of a small number of threats that has the potential to hold our society seriously at risk” and “Is capable of causing catastrophe for the nation.” — Congressional EMP Commission
“We talk a lot about a Nuclear Bomb in Manhattan, and we talk about a cyber-security threat to the grid in the Northeast. All these things would probably pale in comparison to the devastation that an EMP attack could put on Americans” — James Woolsey, Former Director of Central Intelligence
How Likely is an Electromagnetic Pulse Attack?
EMP nuclear attacks are an open part of cyber warfare doctrine in several countries.
- Russian General Vladimir Slipchenko, in his military textbook ‘No Contact Wars’ describes the combined use of cyber viruses and hacking, physical attacks, non-nuclear EMP weapons, and ultimately nuclear EMP attack against electric grids and critical infrastructures as a new way of warfare that is the greatest Revolution in Military Affairs (RMA) in history. Like Nazi Germany’s Blitzkrieg (“Lightning War”) Strategy that coordinated airpower, armor, and mobile infantry to achieve strategic and technological surprise that nearly defeated the Allies in World War II, the New Blitzkrieg is, literally and figuratively an electronic “Lightning War” so potentially decisive in its effects that an entire civilization could be overthrown in hours. According to Slipchenko, EMP and the new RMA renders obsolete modern armies, navies and air forces. For the first time in history, small nations or even non-state actors can humble the most advanced nations on Earth.
- China’s military doctrine sounds an identical theme. According to People’s Liberation Army textbook World War, the Third World War–Total Information Warfare, written by Shen Weiguang (allegedly the inventor of Information Warfare), “Therefore, China should focus on measures to counter computer viruses, nuclear electromagnetic pulse…and quickly achieve breakthroughs in those technologies…”
Iran in a recently translated military textbook endorses the theories of Russian General Slipchenko and the potentially decisive effects of nuclear EMP attack some 20 times. An Iranian political-military journal, in an article entitled “Electronics To Determine Fate Of Future Wars,” states that the key to defeating the United States is EMP attack and that, “If the world’s industrial countries fail to devise effective ways to defend themselves against dangerous electronic assaults, then they will disintegrate within a few years… American soldiers would not be able to find food to eat nor would they be able to fire a single shot.”
North Korea appears to have practiced the military doctrines described above against the United States–including by simulating a nuclear EMP attack against the U.S. mainland. Following North Korea’s third illegal nuclear test in February 2013, North Korean dictator Kim Jong-Un repeatedly threatened to make nuclear missile strikes against the U.S. and its allies. In what was the worst ever nuclear crisis with North Korea, that lasted months, the U.S. responded by beefing-up National Missile Defenses and flying B-2 bombers in exercises just outside the Demilitarized Zone to deter North Korea. On April 9, 2013, North Korea’s KSM-3 satellite orbited over the U.S. from a south polar trajectory, that evades U.S. early warning radars and National Missile Defenses, at the near optimum altitude and location to place an EMP field over all 48 contiguous United States.
Recently, a North Korean vessel was disrupted in Panama carrying missiles that would have been capable of carrying out an EMP attack off the coast of America. When approached out of suspicion of drug smuggling, they resisted and the captain attempted suicide.
Why Hasn’t Anything Been Done?
At least five US Government studies have concluded that the threat of an EMP attack is real and needs to be acted upon, but alarmingly little has been done. NERC has prevented states from taking action and kept acts bottled up and not able to be passed by congress.
Texas State Senator Bob Hall, a former USAF Colonel and himself an EMP expert, has called the lobby efforts of the electric utilities in this matter as “equivalent to treason.”
“As a Texas State Senator who tried in the 2015 legislative session to get a bill passed to harden the Texas grid against an EMP attack or nature’s GMD, I learned first hand the strong control the electric power company lobby has on elected officials.”
What Can Be Done To Protect Critical Infrastructure?
There is a lot that can be done to harden the grid, ranging from fast warning systems to hardening the trains that deliver coal. The grid may become more secure by trends already happening with distributed renewable energy and microgrids. Long run lines, such as the electric grid are the most vulnerable to an EMP or geomagnetic storm. “Microgrids are an important part of the solution,” said Dr. George H Baker of Resilient Societies. Reminding us that microgrids can be relatively large.
For example, my own city, Harrisonburg, has the capability to isolate itself from the grid and run critical services on local gas-turbine generators.
The bulk power system in the United States is reliable but not resilient. Like most systems, the way to be resilient is by having a robust, decentralized network with built in flexibility. Although it’s not what electric utilities want to hear, Americans will remain at risk until communities can meet all critical loads without the bulk power system.
HIGHLY RECOMMENDED: full expert testimony from Senate hearing on Protecting the Electric Grid from the Potential Threats of Solar Storms and Electromagnetic Pulse.
Microgrid Media is a leading news organization following the distributed energy transition.