Electromagnetic Pulses Could Destroy Power Grids and Redefine “Modern” Life

By Nora Maccoby

Energy equals civilization. Our modern society is managed by computers and an electrical grid system that are extremely vulnerable to outside forces, both natural and man-made. Several causal factors are now in play that could bring life as we know it to a stand-still.

I am a civilian. For the last six years I have worked off and on with the United States military, most recently as a Senior Communications Specialist for The Energy Conversation. The U.S Armed Services are leading the fight to get our nation off of oil and into renewables - mostly because of common sense, but also because they make us more independent and therefore more secure.

My husband is a soldier - an Army Nuclear Counter Proliferations officer. One of his tasks is to find solutions for worst-case scenarios involving weapons of mass destruction. We met in 2006 at an Energy Consensus meeting over a mutual desire to create a peace economy with advanced renewable energy technology.

My husband and I are both extremely concerned about a catastrophic disruption to our electrical grid. Though the government and military have emergency plans in place, when you look at what happened with Hurricane Katrina and the Gulf oil spill response, it is egregiously naive to believe that the government will be able to handle the impacts of an event that will collapse the power grid.

It is frustrating that virtually all the people we know in Washington D.C. are in a state of total denial and refuse to face any negative probabilities that could destroy our way of life. Americans are used to easy access to food, water, and energy. Most would rather die than face the difficulties associated with reverting to a way of life that is likened unto indigenous living.

One potentially catastrophic disruption man is not prepared for is an electromagnetic pulse (EMP), or a burst of electromagnetic radiation – either from a military nuclear detonation or from a coronal mass ejection (CME) from the sun. A CME is an ejection of material from the solar corona – or “crown” of atmosphere surrounding the sun. In military terminology, an EMP bomb, detonated hundreds of kilometers above the earth's surface, is known as a high-altitude electromagnetic pulse (HEMP) device. Effects of a HEMP device depend on the altitude of the detonation, energy yield, interactions with the earth's magnetic field, and shielding of targets.

Either event would create a sudden, massive fluctuation in the Earth’s electromagnetic field. The resulting electric and magnetic fields would then couple with electrical grid systems to produce damaging current and voltage surges.

Our entire nation is dependent on computers for power - this includes the smaller microchips and circuits that also power our vehicles. In the event of an EMP nothing using these computer systems will function. This means no electricity to provide power for the pumps that pump gas into our cars or trucks and no electricity to pay for gas, food, or services. We would not even be able to withdrawal cash from an ATM, transport food, or provide minimal medical care.

Bursts of electromagnetic radiation have occurred before. On September 1, 1859, at 11:18 a.m., 33-year old Richard Carrington was observing an 11-inch image of the sun on a screen and was drawing the sunspots he saw in the image. Suddenly, two beads of intense white light appeared over the sunspots. Within sixty seconds the light had significantly diminished, and within five minutes completely disappeared from the screen.

Just before dawn the next day, skies all over planet Earth erupted in red, green, and purple auroras so brilliant that newspapers could be read as easily as in daylight. Aurora borealis pulsated as far south as the tropical latitudes over Cuba, the Bahamas, Jamaica, El Salvador, and Hawaii. Worldwide, telegraph systems - the only equipment resembling today’s electrical grid in place at the time - went haywire. Spark discharges shocked telegraph operators and set telegraph paper on fire. Even when telegraphers disconnected the batteries powering the lines, aurora-induced electric currents in the wires still allowed messages to be transmitted.

If such an event occurred today, the impact on modern society would be catastrophic. According to Richard Fisher, head of NASA's Heliophysics Division, speaking at the Space Weather Enterprise Forum last week in Washington, D.C., "The sun is waking up from a deep slumber, and in the next few years we expect to see much higher levels of solar activity."

So what exactly is causing all the commotion in the solar system? While details remain classified, some scientists believe an incoming brown dwarf star, several times the mass of Jupiter, is responsible for disrupting the solar system’s heliosphere, as well as celestial bodies throughout our solar system.

Whether by celestial activity or Middle East geopolitics deteriorating into full-blown regional war, the United States must implement measures to protect our electrical power grid. Millions of dollars in protective measures properly implemented prior to an EMP event would result in trillions of dollars saved following an EMP event. If there were ever a time to initiate preemptive action, it is now. By protecting the grid through EMP hardening of critical electronic devices and equipment we can reduce the power grids vulnerability to damaging surges.

Ideally, all modern electronics would be EMP hardened. Since this is cost prohibitive, Congressional measures to fund the 'lowest hanging fruit' - such as protecting the power transformers of our nation’s grid - must be implemented. Smaller components and communications equipment necessary to maintain continuity of operations also need to be protected from an EMP event. Without large-scale intervention to protect the electrical power grids, our modern civilization remains defenseless. Clean water, fresh food, liquid fuels for transportation - all would no longer be available or accessible without electricity.

Living with the reality that with the flick of a solar event, life as we know it can change in a matter of days or weeks has led my husband and me to prepare on a few fronts. We have bought property in the mountains, we are working out bartering arrangements with neighbors, and we are planting fruit trees and growing our own food. While nowhere near prepared, we are farther along than if we didn't do anything.

Actions speak louder than words.

Nora Maccoby was born in Mexico City and grew up in Washington D.C. where she graduated from The Sidwell Friends School. She received a BA in Theater from Oberlin College and an MFA in Film Directing from The American Film Institute, where she won numerous awards. Her short film "Dropping the Bomb on My Street" received the Youth Jury: Leopard of Tomorrow award at Locarno Film Festival in 1994. She went on to co-write "Bongwater" (Jack Black, Luke Wilson, Brittany Murphy) and "Buffalo Soldiers" (Joaquin Phoenix, Ed Harris, Scott Glenn, Anna Paquin) which won The Evening Standard British Film Award for Best Screenplay in 2004.

In 2002, Nora began working with the local government in Grenada, West Indies, to develop clean energy solutions. She co-founded Nature's Partners and The Green Salon with the same goals, and has spent the last 5 years working primarily with the Department of Defense as a Senior Communications Specialist. She is a member of The Energy Consensus, serves on the board of The International Fund for China's Environment, and is currently working on two films for The Cordoba Initiative in New York City. She lives in Washington D.C. with her husband, Todd Hathaway and their son, William. Nora's book, The Energy Conversation: the first 3 years is available online at www.energyconversation.org.

Posted in FEATURE ARTICLES, Science
2 comments on “Electromagnetic Pulses Could Destroy Power Grids and Redefine “Modern” Life
  1. Zee says:

    I think the governmental response to any widespread disaster is certainly in question, and as a country we tend to have a wait until it happens mentality.
    There are so many disasters that could happen (a plague, a meteor hitting earth, global nuclear war, or just a bad flood, during the floods in Nashville this spring a town was entirely cut off from contact with the outside world for a week). We take so many modern conveniences for granted, I’m guilty of it, I can’t do anything without my laptop, cell phone, and credit card. What’s that old saying, hope for the best but prepare for the worst.

  2. altenergy says:

    http://www.google.com/search?q=1859+carrington+event is a good link for additional information on the impact of coronal mass ejections (CME).
    The Earth’s magnetic field is strong enough to neutralize the effects of most CMEs; however, a CME event on the order of magnitude of the 1859 Carrington event would be catastrophic, not immediately to life on the planet but to the grid, as was the case in 1859; though at the time only rudimentary telegraph lines were operational, not modern electronics and computers powered by a centralized grid. When we lose the grid’s transformers, our modern civilization will quickly become a distant memory.

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