Picture the devastation wrought by Hurricane Katrina. Now imagine that simultaneously hitting 100 American cities. That’s the threat severe solar weather poses to the United States, according to Dr. Richard Andres, a senior fellow at the Institute for National Strategic Studies at the National Defense University (NDU)
Andres joined a diverse mix of scientists, engineers, and politicians on Capitol Hill on Thursday to warn the public that the United States is woefully unprepared for the possibility that an electromagnetic pulse (EMP) triggered by a solar storm could knock down the national electrical grid with potentially catastrophic cascading effects.
The conference, hosted by NDU and the Maryland Emergency Management Agency, came at the tail end of table-top exercises organized in Maryland and Washington, D.C., to determine how first responders would react to a catastrophic solar storm that fried the electrical grid. The idea behind the conference and table-top exercises, said Andres, was to get solar experts, utility representatives, and first responders in the same room to understand the problem and begin to prepare and hopefully mitigate the threat before a solar storm occurs.
The threat arises from solar flares that erupt on the sun when it is facing the Earth. The resulting blast of energy can disrupt our planet’s magnetic field, which, if large enough, could overwhelm high-voltage transformers and cause them to fail.
Ironically, it’s the sun, not rogue nations detonating nuclear devices over the United States, that is the greatest EMP threat to plunging the United States back into the 19th century, according to Dr. Alenka Brown, senior research fellow at NDU’s Center for Technology and National Security Policy, who moderated the conference and sat in on the week’s table-top exercises.
(For more information on space weather, visit the National Weather Service's Space Weather Prediction Center.)
The biggest debate continues to be the probability of the “big one,” Brown said. But she stressed that the debate isn’t if it will happen but when and how bad it will be, she told Security Management. It’s that certainty that separates the solar threat from the rogue nuclear device threat, she said, which is why the conference limited its attention to solar weather.
Over the last 150 years, two large solar storms have struck the United States in 1859 and 1921. But that was before the country became “electrified,” and no one really knows what damage a solar superstorm like 1859 would cause among the U.S.’s interdependent and complex critical infrastructure systems, which have a single point of failure: electricity.
“We have done nothing but change the physics to greatly escalate our vulnerability unknowingly and I would argue that we are facing an unrecognized systemic risk, an engineering disaster in the making,” said John Kappenman, owner of Storm Analysis Consultants and an investigator for the Congressional Commission to Assess the Threat to the United States from Electromagnetic Pulse.
(In an interview with Wired.com in 2009, Kappenman discussed cost-effective solutions to protect high-voltage transfomers from soalr EMPs.)
Regardless of whether a geomagnetic storm hits two years from now or 20 years from now, speakers stressed that the United States should have already begun preparing for its likelihood.
“My concern is that the nation has not begun to respond to such an event,” said Dave Hunt, director of CRA, Inc., which specializes in emergency management and homeland security consulting. “The capacity for our response system nationally is not able to support the nation’s needs. Additionally our levels of personal preparedness are not adequate to keep us from quickly turning to the government as the solution.”
With U.S. critical infrastructure utterly dependent on electricity to run, some of the systems U.S. citizens depend on would disappear immediately while others would eventually fail if recovery didn’t occur quickly. Water purification would cease. Communication networks would fail, including emergency ones. People wouldn't be able to get money from ATMs to pay for food. Backup generators would run out of fuel with no way to pump more. In one of the most catastrophic scenarios, America could experience nuclear meltdowns, much like Japan did after power loss caused nuclear reactors at the Fukushima Nuclear Power Plant to overheat and trigger a meltdown, said Kappenman.