While no one can argue that the threat of a nuclear bomb obliterating a city (or country) is devastating, the threat of an electromagnetic pulse (EMP) attack may be similarly harmful and incredibly destructive, according to some experts.
An EMP occurs when a nuclear device is detonated just above the atmosphere, causing enough radiation to create a very powerful electromagnetic field capable of frying the electric grid and most electrical devices in the vicinity.
[Get a 10% discount on ARM TechCon 2012 conference passes by using promo code EDIT. Click here to learn about the show and register.]
It would be like blowing a fuse on a national scale, with industry, economy and emergency services completely crippled within a matter of seconds.
Data centers, power plants, telecommunication networks and almost anything we have come to rely on would likely collapse from the effects of an EMP blast, and yet, so far, most governments are doing very little about protecting against such an attack, even as the likelihood increases.
In 2000, Congress established a commission to assess the threat to the United States of an EMP attack and four years later, the committee presented a 70-page summary of the threat, with a final report issued in 2008.
According to that report, “several potential adversaries have or can acquire the capability to attack the United States with a high-altitude nuclear weapon-generated electromagnetic pulse (EMP). A determined adversary can achieve an EMP attack capability without having a high level of sophistication.”
The report went on to say that EMP was one of just a handful of threats that with “catastrophic consequences” for society, which could cover a wide geographic region within line of sight to the nuclear weapon.
“It has the capability to produce significant damage to critical infrastructures and thus to the very fabric of US society, as well as to the ability of the United States and Western nations to project influence and military power,” it read.
In congressional testimony, NASA Deputy Administrator and former science advisor to the President, Dr. William R. Graham, added that “… the degradation of infrastructure could have irreversible effects on the country’s ability to support its population.”
Indeed, speaking to the Times of Israel recently, Schnurr called the solution “extremely affordable.”
The EIS works with both governments and power providers to try and coordinate international efforts on electric infrastructure protection. Not just against terrorism, either. Solar flares can easily cause enough geomagnetic disturbance to cause a similar effect. The last recorded incident happened 150 years ago, observed by British solar astronomer Richard Carrington, and many scientists believe the chances of getting through another 30 years without severe solar flares are just 50 percent.
To protect against the grid getting fried, countries would need to harden electrical infrastructure with things like geomagnetically induced current blockers, which cost little but are not yet mandated by the government.
So here’s a thought; instead of spending billions making and stockpiling weaponry, why do governments not spend a fraction of that amount to defensively protect their most important resource –electricity—from disaster? Certainly sounds sensible to me, but what do I know? Leave your thoughts in the comment box below.
So just exactly what is the suggested defense mechanism? And, for that matter, just what is the anticipated failure mechanism? It is already given that we have defense against lightning strikes, which happen all of the time. So how about some description of the exact actions of this menace. OR, is it some "Phantom Menace" that we must defend against, similar to that Y2K event that took out all of our computerized every-things. OR perhaps it didn't perform quite as advertised.
Indeed. In August 1859 a large CME caused a very bright aurora that "turned night into day" in Panama. Telegraph communications were impossible accross America and Europe for nearly two days. Sooner or later, we WILL again take a direct hit from a large CME. It wasn't a great diruption in 1859, when telegraph machines used hand operated mechanical switches, but it will be a huge disruption now.
Of particular concern for the grid is the large transformers on it. Lead times for these right now are in the region of months - and we are not facing the grid being down at the manufacturing plants concerned.
Imagine an event happening early January taking out 20 of these across the USA or Europe.
I have a 5kW generator for the house that runs of the gas utility - who knows if that would still be able to be supplied though?
Unfortunately, a vulnerabilty is often ignored until an event happens. There is no economic incentive to design products for this even though IEC test standards exist http://www.emcs.org/acstrial/newsletters/winter08/hpem.html and test equipment is available http://www.apelc.com/system4.html.
The EMP Commission Chairman has a good summary at
The EMP electric field is often specified as 30kV/m for times measured in seconds. This means that a typical USB port will see 300 Volts applied between GND and Vcc, because they are about 10mm apart. Will it survive this potential?
Remember that if you were say a terrorist on US soil that smuggled in a missile with a nuclear warhead, you would only need to launch it vertically to the correct height which would take a few minutes. In that time frame there could be no response from the military.
David Patterson, known for his pioneering research that led to RAID, clusters and more, is part of a team at UC Berkeley that recently made its RISC-V processor architecture an open source hardware offering. We talk with Patterson and one of his colleagues behind the effort about the opportunities they see, what new kinds of designs they hope to enable and what it means for today’s commercial processor giants such as Intel, ARM and Imagination Technologies.