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.
I think that en mass, people tend to not truly recognize dangers or threats until a significant even happens to demonstrate that threat. On an individual level, there are plenty of people that can recognize threats, which is why we have articles and studies. But it's the masses that approve funding and or demand action.
You are right that it does take a large group to push for significant funding. The EE community is just the right group to lead that charge.
It is important for EEs to understand the threat. There is a lot of misinformation and general disbelief in the media.
There are also things that EE can do as individuals, both to protect your family and your business.
The first thing we always recommend is to build a basic three-day emergency kit, as recommended by FEMA and the Red Cross. You should have one at home... and also be sure your business has a kit. How will your staff survive if they are stuck at work for two days without power? Will your building have water if the pumps shut off?
Second, since you are reading an EE article, you probably need to figure out how to protect backup electronics. Our site has a lot more information on that.
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
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.
No need to use a rocket. Weather balloons work just fine. You only need to get to between 30 and 50 kilometers (easy peasy for a weather balloon). Dude on Sunday flew to 39km in a helium balloon and jumped out. Another guy, took off with weather balloons in a lawn chair. No way to police or stop it. In fact, a weather balloon with some sort of very easily accessible "drone" technology (electric motors) to allow it to be "steered" - would be ideal. Could likely be done with R/C parts and a couple of iPhones. Might be a fun experiment...hmmmm... Not the EM pulse part...but the steerable weather balloon part.
No to belittle this threat, but I am among the skeptics that think this issue has been over blown, not to the same level as Y2K but if you think on the basic electromagnetic properties of such weapon. That such pulse effects decay at the square root ratio from the distance of impact. So unless many weapons are deployed at all mayor urban areas, at all critical power plant sites and industrial sites. The threat is regional in nature. No dooms day scenario, USA has an advantage over European and Asian countries where the population densities are greater, most people would survive, it would some losses but most people would overcome such tragedy. America will endure.
EMP pulses don't directly follow the inverse-square law because they are not point-radiation sources.
Most of the EM energy is not generated at the blast location. An EMP basically turns the atmosphere into a huge phased-array antenna.
The most important energy is generated two ways. First, the E1 pulse is generated when the explosion's gamma rays hit the upper atmosphere. The Compton effect creates a current that radiates generally downward. The frequency range is generally 100 kHZ to 1 GHz.
Second is the E3 pulse. The fireball from the high-altitude blast deforms the earth's magnetic sphere asymmetrically. This 'heaving' generates lower frequency EM which couples with transmission wires. The energy lasts from 10 seconds to up to 3 to 4 minutes.
You are right, however, that some experts overhype the issue. The most likely attack is using a bomb that can only produce regional or multi-regional damage. (See our site's EMP simulator for graphics.)
The worry we have, however, is that the 'over-hyping' comes from specialists who have the clearances to see the classified information.
These experts say that there are credible designs for super-EMP bombs. They say that these could be much smaller nuclear bombs, but specifically designed for EMP.
So these worried experts are talking about worst-case scenarios. The more-likely attack would be regional.
Of course, most people dismissed warnings that an airplane could collapse buildings like the twin towers. They also thought that Pearl Harbor couldn't be attacked with torpedoes because it was too shallow.
The experts say that these specialized bombs could cause a coast-to-coast blackout.
(Of course, you could also do the same with a couple of multi-megaton warheads. That size blast, however, would likely kick off a global thermonuclear war.)
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?
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.
RTewell is right... a balloon would work. That is a threat to the U.S. West Coast especially, since the upper level winds would carry the balloon the right direction. To use a balloon for the East Coast, you would need to launch from the Midwest.
(This assumes that terrorists would not want to risk having the balloon stay aloft long enough to float across the country.)
In fact, the US has already done high altitude nuclear tests using balloon-launched bombs.
The problem when discussing the EMP threat is that it sounds too much like science fiction. People ignore the threat, thinking it is only as real as the Star Wars Death Star.
Take, for example, NBC's new TV show "Revolution." The "EMP" in Revolution isn't a real EMP.... it is fictional. Revolution's "EMP" shuts off all power *worldwide* and seems to *block* power completely, unless you have a secret device.
That's fictional, not real. A real EMP would knock out the power grid in areas under the blast, but would not block electricity.
We've created a YouTube video that compares Revolution's EMP vs. the real threat. It shows photos of the power grid equipment that could be destroyed by a real EMP. (The video is at www.youtube.com/watch?v=rWd93u-Xi8Y).
I hope you'll watch it. It will let you respond with facts and specifics when someone tells you that this is all made up. It offers specifics that will let you evaluate the threat from an EE perspective.
We also have an EMP simulator on our site, EMPCover.com. EE folks will be interested in seeing the energy pattern, which is not uniform. It is much easier to understand if you look at the graphics.
Wow, thanks for all that additional info EMPCover, that adds a lot and gives our readers much to chew over. I think it is an issue that needs to be brought to the fore of public consciousness, and that governments should be taking measures to protect against it, since it is a known and credible threat.
"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?"
Because it's not an either/or matter? If you had perfect EMP protection and nothing else, would that make you any safer?
Actually, one good way to protect against EMP could be to use old-fashioned tube electronics, at least for your backup, mostly manual controls. But also devices that can shunt very high voltages for short periods of time in the power supply of electronic devices, such as metal oxide varistors (MOV).
DoD specs usually do require protection against high voltage pulses, although I'm not sure whether these specs are always adequate for EMP protection.
Any US enemey (I can think of some) with the capability of creating an EMP attack using a nuclear weapon is far more likely to import the nuclear device in a crate marked "spare parts for tractors" and detonate it at ground level. Why knock out an American citizens' iPad when you can knock out the citizen at the same time? It's not communist USSR you are up against, you know.
The last time I looked at this all the studies were done in the era of short wave radio. The generation mechanism, as EMPcover cites, is based on a broad ionospheric phenomenon which is ideal for coupling to the power grid but does not seem like it can generate dangerous modes at frequencies our portable electronics uses. Right? Most devices with stubby antennas, centimeter scale frequency bands, and packages designed (for other reasons) to shield the circuits and with anti-static shunts on the pins, seems like most of our mobile devices would survive. And all long lines are optical. We might be able to harden enough of the supporting towers so at least the information networks limp along.
Of course, wiping out the power grid remains a major problem. How fast that comes up depends on whether we simply trip circuit breakers or actually destroy equipment. EMP events from major solar flares have done that too, it does not need to be man-made. Indeed a solar event of the scale of the largest known (in the 1800s, it damaged telegraph lines at that time) would probably pack far more power and damage than a nuclear pulse.
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?
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.
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.