Sunday, January 4, 2015

How likely is a Solar Superstorm or EMP Attack?

Hi Fernando, I have been following your blog for a few years now and
have both your books (and my 5 star reviews of each are among the top
rated on Amazon for them). Keep up the good work.

I have a question for you. I have been reading a few fiction books
lately that deal with CME/EMP situations, and while they make
excellent fiction, it's hard to find significant real world
information on both the likelihood and severity of these types of
events. The books, of course, say they are possible or even probable
events based on hard scientific facts...

I have read the EMP Commission's report, and it does indeed sound like
an EMP attack would be quite destructive. And yes there are countries
and terrorist organizations that could theoretically access nuclear
weapons to perform an EMP attack. But, I doubt it would be so easy to
deploy a weapon like this several hundred KMs over North America
undetected and unintercepted.

As for CME's, sure they have happened in the past but they seem to
have been quite localized and not terribly disruptive long-term (power
was restored to many in Quebec within hours of the event that struck
them in 1989). Of course bigger events are theoretically possible but
is something that wipes out all electricity on earth even remotely
probable? From what I've researched, the answer is no.

What do you think? Are these events at all worth spending time and
resources preparing for? Or should they remain squarely in Science

Much appreciated!

Hello Craig,
Before addressing the rest of your email I wanted to thank you for the five star reviews in Amazon. They really do mean a lot to me and help me a great deal so thank you for taking the time to write them. It’s thanks to people like you that I can do this.
This is an interesting topic. I spent some time doing further research so as to understand better the real risk of an EMP (electromagnetic pulse) and CME (coronal mass ejection). According to what we’ve read from the media this last couple years, it seems that the sun is about to fry us all into the dark ages any minute now. All of sudden we are bombarded with alarmist articles. This is the first thing to notice: When the media goes non-stop about how the sky is falling, that usually means you have to keep digging.
This is probably one of the most professional, well balanced articles addressing this topic. The EMP threat: fact, fiction, and response.
Turns out that many of the alarmist proponents have a financial motivation, either because of the extra budgets they would be getting or because their companies would be supplying the services to harden the grid.
So, how big of a risk is it? The short answer is that it’s a real possibility, but it has been very much exaggerated in my opinion.
A weaponized EMP attack is highly unlikely. It’s a complex type of attack that isn’t viable for guerilla and terrorist groups which as we’ve seen before use other means. I’d put an EMP attack practically at the bottom of my list of likely threats. The risk of a solar flare or CME is greater, but the chances of it being worse than the disasters we’re already used to is rare. The possibility of a solar flare throwing all of North America into a new dark age is practically non-existent, let alone the entire planet. An event of such magnitude is highly unlikely and even if a powerful coronal mass ejection hits Earth the hardening and contingency plan for such an event has already started. Can it happen? Yes. There is an estimated 12% chance of a similar event such as the Solar storm of 1859 occurring again between 2012 and 2022. Will it be as bad as recently advertised? No. How bad could it be? It could be a large scale disaster but the same could be said of tsunamis, war, the San Andreas Fault collapsing or the entire Yellowstone super volcano blowing up.
To answer your question I believe that yes, they are possible, have happened before, but we also know that even if it does happen it won’t be nearly as bad as seen in movies or novels. I did enjoy reading “One second After” but I think that as of right now, its safe to say that all of us have more urgent issues to be addressed, which are far more likely and far more dangerous.
What to do to prepare just in case? I believe the core preparedness we always talk about here would be crucial in such a worst case scenario. Should a large CME affect a large portion of the country, you’re looking at having enough supplies, food, medicine, fuel for cooking and heating, so as to last until services are restored. A month worth of food and supplies should be enough, but more sure can’t hurt.
Fernando “FerFAL” Aguirre is the author of “The Modern Survival Manual: Surviving the Economic Collapse” and “Bugging Out and Relocating: When Staying is not an Option”.


Don Williams said...

1) I think the Space Review article errs in several respects:
a) An EMP attack would affect a large area of the USA and greatly damage our economy -- the source of all our power. It could reduce us to a third tier nation within a year. The USA can marshall enormous resources to address a major disaster that occurs within a small area -- Hurricane Katrina's hit on New Orleans, for example. But recovery is MUCH more difficult if most of the USA has lost elecrical power and has transportation and economy activity grinding to a halt EVERYWHERE.
b) While an EMP would cause major damage, it would not directly kill a significant number of people. Our retaliation could be hindered by the consideration of whether our urban populations could be destroyed in response to
our retaliatory strike.
c) The article does not examine the issue of whether a hostile EMP nuke could be sent into deep space under cover of a commercial launch and then slowly returned to near Earth orbit disguised as space debris. If so disguised, then it could strike without warning and we might not be able to identify the source.

d) I don't know if such is possible but France and the UK as well as China and Russia have incentive to wish for a US decline. How do you retaliate if you don't know who struck you? If you strike Russia and China was the real attacker then you have made China stronger, not weaker.

e) The movie Space Cowboys bought up the scenario of secret nuclear warheads being discovered on an old Soviet communications satellite thought to have been dead.

The Outer Space Treaty supposedly bans nuclear weapons from space but who enforces it? How many IAEA inspectors are in orbit?

Augustine said...

I've never been into apocalyptic scenarios, so it amazes me how willingly many people get hooked into them, oftentimes taking them at face value uncritically.

Has anyone wondered why only Quebec got a blackout though the whole earth was engulfed by the CME that caused it? What about Ontario or Maine? The blackout happened in Quebec because its grid leaved to be desired in terms of redundancy and resilience, unlike the grids in areas around it. As a matter of fact, the Quebecois grid has been updated and it wouldn't blackout were it hit by a similar CME again. So even this example from the past doesn't apply anymore.

Similarly about an EMP. For starters, its impact is much smaller than a CME. In order to shut down a country as large as the US would require dozens of warheads to be delivered, rather beyond the means of but a couple of countries, at most. A single EMP has the range of dozens of miles, so only a city would be affected. Further, not all electronic equipment would be disabled by an EMP. All equipment is shielded from electromagnetic interference and its enough to reasonably protect them against an EMP. Equipment with wire connections are more vulnerable, but devices like cell phones and radios would survive just fine. Of course, the cell and radio tower transmitters would likely fail, but they could be replaced in a few days with fresh units. Which points out that an EMP has no strategic value, just tactical, for the disabling of electronic equipment would be temporary and not long lasting.

The odds of being hit by lightning are higher than a CME or an EMP. Chill out.

Don Williams said...

Re Augustine at 6:36am

1) The worry is not about average CMEs --the worry is about a Carrington Event on the level of the 1859 event.

Read the Executive Summary of this 2013 Lloyd's report, which estimates damage to the USA of $0.6 to $2.6 Trillion:

The problem is that the USA doesn't make large transformers --they have been outsourced. Lead time for replacement: 5 months. Imagine what happens to East Coast cities if they are without electricity for several months. Hopefully, large generators could be bought in to at least operate the large pumps that produce the water supply.

Estimated probability of a Carrington Event hitting Earth in the period 2012-2022: 12%

Don Williams said...

Re Augustine at 6:36am

1) You are wrong re the limited range of a high altitude EMP detonation. The peak voltage field covers hundreds of square miles, as shown in Figures 2 and 3 of the 2004 Congressional report on EMP (Executive Summary).

An EMP weapon doesn't have to cover all of the USA -- it just has to cover the electrical grid running from Boston to Washington DC.

2) In May of this year, the journal Homeland Security Today had an interesting quote:

"An Electromagnetic Pulse (EMP) attack on the United States, whether manmade or naturally occurring, could result in the deaths of nine out of ten Americans through starvation, disease and the collapse of modern society, warned Dr. Vincent Peter Pry, a member of the congressional EMP Commission and executive director of the Task Force on National and Homeland Security."

Mr Pry is identified as a " former CIA intelligence officer"