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Could an "electric Armageddon" bring civilization "to a cold, dark halt"?

Observers in the media consider huge electromagnetic disruptions, both solar and human-caused.

In July, news media worldwide publicized the Space Weather journal article "A major solar eruptive event in July 2012." Journalists reported scientists' calculation of a 12% probability that sometime over the course of a decade, a coronal mass ejection of comparable magnitude could target Earth, with devastating consequences to electric and electronic infrastructure. Now commentators are considering the threat of electromagnetic disruption not only from the Sun, but from high-altitude bursts of nuclear weapons as well.

Consider the opening of a 13 August Wall Street Journal op-ed:

In a recent letter to investors, billionaire hedge-fund manager Paul Singer warned that an electromagnetic pulse, or EMP, is "the most significant threat" to the U.S. and our allies in the world. He's right. Our food and water supplies, communications, banking, hospitals, law enforcement, etc., all depend on the electric grid. Yet until recently little attention has been paid to the ease of generating EMPs by detonating a nuclear weapon in orbit above the U.S., and thus bringing our civilization to a cold, dark halt.

The coauthors are R. James Woolsey, chairman of the Foundation for Defense of Democracies and former director of the CIA, and Peter Vincent Pry, who served on the congressional EMP Commission and in the CIA. Pry published the book Electric Armageddon in 2013. The two emphasize that the EMP Commission "estimated that within 12 months of a nationwide blackout, up to 90% of the U.S. population could possibly perish from starvation, disease and societal breakdown."

To document the threat, and to advocate precautions, Woolsey and Pry cite studies by the National Academy of Sciences, the Energy Department, the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, and the National Intelligence Council. The coauthors report that "surge arrestors, faraday cages and other devices that prevent EMP from damaging electronics, as well micro-grids that are inherently less susceptible to EMP, have been used by the Defense Department for more than 50 years" and "can be adapted to protect civilian infrastructure as well." They invoke the EMP Commission's cost estimate of "about $2 billion—roughly what the U.S. gives each year in foreign aid to Pakistan." They urge passage and enactment of two pieces of legislation: the Secure High-voltage Infrastructure for Electricity from Lethal Damage, or Shield, Act and the Critical Infrastructure Protection Act (CIPA). But they also lament what they see as Washington's lack of a sense of urgency.

Woolsey and Pry omit mention of solar-originated electromagnetic disruptions. A recent Washington Post editorial focuses on those only. It closes with this prescription:

The world can and should do more to prepare, adapting satellite systems, toughening electric grids and, above all, ensuring that scientists have the tools they need to anticipate space weather. With some warning, for example, electrical grid operators can adjust the systems they control to avoid damaging "ground currents" induced by the geomagnetic disturbances from large coronal mass ejections. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration maintains the Space Weather Prediction Center, though with a tiny budget. Meanwhile, funding constraints perpetually threaten to erode the coverage of satellite-based sensors that monitor all sorts of phenomena on Earth and elsewhere—including the sun. Congress has a poor record of remembering to keep these sorts of important scientific tools in mind at funding time. For a variety of reasons—including the threat of severely inclement space weather—lawmakers must take a wider view.

A Bloomberg News piece on EMPs begins by invoking hedge-fund manager Singer, just as Woolsey and Pry did, but focuses on space weather, not nuclear bursts in the sky. A lengthy, detailed commentary at the business site looks mainly at the nuclear weapons threat. An opinion column from John Kemp of Reuters appeared under the headline "Time to be afraid—preparing for the next big solar storm." 

The Wall Street Journal posted online a press release that begins, "George Noory, host of Coast to Coast AM—the most-listened-to overnight radio program in North America—announced a campaign to protect and insulate the U.S. power grid against an EMP (electromagnetic pulse) event or attack via nuclear weapons, ballistic missiles and solar flares." The release explains that "listeners are captivated with discussions on news and current events, conspiracy theories and all things curious and unexplained" and reports that more than 570 stations broadcast the program.

In the UK, the Daily Mail reprinted an essay by Anders Sandberg of Oxford University, where a webpage reports that he conducts research on the "management of low-probability high-impact risks." Sandberg, too, begins by invoking Singer—and also cites a report from the insurer Lloyd's of London predicting that an "extreme geomagnetic storm is almost inevitable in the future."

Sandberg sums up:

In the end, an electromagnetic disaster might cost trillions, harm millions of people and weaken society—perhaps on a global scale. It is a global catastrophic risk worth reducing. But it does not represent an existential risk just yet. But we are rapidly becoming more dependent on our fragile and vast electrical infrastructure. Some insulation is needed.


Steven T. Corneliussen, a media analyst for the American Institute of Physics, monitors three national newspapers, the weeklies Nature and Science, and occasionally other publications. He has published op-eds in the Washington Post and other newspapers, has written for NASA's history program, and is a science writer at a particle-accelerator laboratory.

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