There are a number of different events that cause blackouts in North America, with extreme weather being the most frequently occurring. Physical sabotage and cyberattacks are also enormous threats, as are accidental causes, including large birds flying into power lines, automobile accidents and construction mistakes.
But one of the most talked-about potential causes for a long-lasting blackout in recent years — and one that has gained so much attention in books, movies and television shows — is an electromagnetic pulse (EMP). Producing intense magnetic fields that can induce ground currents powerful enough to burn out power lines and electrical equipment across wide areas, EMPs have incredible potential for destruction as you can see here.
Whether it comes from a nuclear detonation above the United States by a terrorist group or a massive solar flare from the sun, an electromagnetic pulse has the potential to completely change life as we know it — and not in a good way.
Our vulnerable and deteriorating electrical infrastructure has become common knowledge to the world, and the bad guys are undoubtedly spending a significant amount of time trying to figure out the best way to exploit that. In fact, CNN recently reported that ISIS is trying to do exactly that.
Terrorists are not interested in turning off our lights for a few hours. They want to plunge us back into the 1800s, and that’s what could happen if they succeed in disabling our electrical grid for a year or more.
Because we’ve become so dependent upon electricity for our daily lives, even a short-term blackout causes major disruptions. A long-term grid collapse would result in transportation systems screeching to a halt, the supply chain crashing, communications systems going down, septic tank systems failing, and law and order ceasing to exist. Anarchy would rule.
Some people estimate that 90 percent of Americans would die if a blackout lasting more than a year were to occur.
As Paul Stockton, a former assistant secretary of defense said, “The power grid, built over many decades in a benign environment, now faces a range of threats it was never designed to survive.” One of those threats is an EMP attack.
Since no one has ever successfully attacked another nation with an electromagnetic pulse, how do we know how bad its effects would be? Well, we can look back to 1962 to get a glimpse. The U.S. conducted five nuclear tests, including the Starfish Prime project that featured the successful detonation of approximately 1.4 megatons of TNT about 250 miles above the Earth.
The EMP caused electrical damage in Hawaii, about some 900 miles from the detonation point, and trapped high-energy electrons to form radiation belts around the Earth, disabling one-third of the satellites in low Earth orbit and causing other satellites to fail over time.
It’s believed that today, a very powerful burst could completely dismantle electronic equipment over wide regions. What’s particularly scary is that a bomb capable of producing a powerful EMP could be developed using inexpensive supplies and basic engineering knowledge.
If a nuclear weapon were to be detonated high above the U.S., radiation would interact with the Earth’s magnetic field and atmosphere, including the ionosphere, which is used for radio communications. The strong electrical current that would radiate down to the Earth would create additional currents that would course through man-made electrical circuits.
Our electrical infrastructure and electronic devices would receive severe shocks, causing widespread damage and “unprecedented cascading failures,” according to a congressional commission. The damage would be catastrophic and life as we know it would be over, possibly for an extended period of time.
Immediate failures would be evident everywhere, from essential infrastructure such as power, water and gas utilities; banking systems and ATMs; transportation of food, water and other goods; and emergency services. Military defenses would also be negatively affected. It would take years to repair the damage.
By its own admission, the Department of Homeland Security is not prepared to deal with such an attack. And as Dr. Robert Hermann, commissioner of the U.S. Congress EMP Commission said, “EMP is one of the small number of threats that could hold at risk the continued existence of U.S. civil society.”
More than 150 years ago, a super solar flare shot directly toward the Earth and resulted in a mammoth cloud of charged particles and detached magnetic loops that crashed into Earth’s magnetic field.
Called the Carrington Event after Richard Carrington, the solar astronomer who witnessed it, this burst of electromagnetic energy (now known as an EMP) caused skies all over the Earth to turn red, green and purple. The solar storm disrupted communications, shocked technicians and set telegraph paper on fire when it shot through telegraph lines.
The Carrington Event was nearly twice as large as any other solar flare in at least the past 500 years. If anything even close to that event occurs in a modern society, hundreds of satellites in orbit will be at risk, not to mention power grids on Earth. The kind of super solar storm that lines up with an orientation perfectly opposite the Earth’s own magnetic field might occur approximately every 100 years. If so, we’re more than 50 years overdue.
Today, X-ray telescopes in space and radio telescopes in space and on Earth can alert us that solar flares are on the way, but even that advance information probably won’t help us avoid disastrous results to our communications systems if a flare similar to the one that struck in 1859 comes calling.
Regardless of whether an EMP that results in a long-term blackout is caused by a deliberate attack or a massive solar flare, it’s important to be prepared for it. Here are nine steps you can take to be as ready as possible to protect yourself and your family against the inevitable disaster and achieve peace of mind:
In the first part of this article we took a look at what would happen if an electromagnetic pulse caused by a massive solar flare or a terrorist attack caused a long-term blackout. This type of threat has gained considerable attention the past several years, but blackouts caused by violent weather are much more likely occurrences.
According to the Edison Electric Institute, 70 percent of power outages in the U.S. are caused by the weather. Fortunately, most of these power outages last a few hours or less and are more of an inconvenience than a tragedy.
However, sometimes the storms producing them — including everything from thunderstorms to tornadoes to hurricanes — are so severe that our aging and vulnerable electrical grid is unable to handle them. Some storms have been known to cause blackouts lasting days and even weeks.
In 1977, a lightning-sparked outage left 9 million New Yorkers without power. Extreme heat that caused high-voltage lines to stretch and sag onto overgrown tree branches in northern Ohio in 2003 resulted in the worst blackout in North American history. Eleven deaths and $6 billion in damages were blamed on the accident that shut down 100 power plants.
Ice storms cut power to more than 1 million homes and businesses in Oklahoma, Kansas and Nebraska in 2007. A line of thunderstorms caused a blackout for more than 3.8 million in 10 states and Washington, D.C., in 2012. An historic storm named “Nemo” struck the Northeast U.S. and Canada in early 2013, resulting in record snow amounts, hurricane-force wind gusts, and approximately 700,000 homes and businesses losing power.
Those are just a few of the thousands of storms that have disrupted power to homes and businesses in the U.S. through the years. And it’s not just storms causing this damage. Extreme heat is a serious weather factor causing blackouts. In fact, heat is the worst culprit when it comes to overloading a power system because air conditioners run much longer than normal during heat waves, causing power lines to lose some efficiency and transformers to fail.
As a society, we have become almost completely dependent on electricity. We use electrical devices and appliances numerous times every day, and we assume they are going to work just fine when we turn them on. During blackouts, we are given harsh reminders of exactly how much we depend on electricity.
While extreme weather is the main cause of blackouts, physical and cyber sabotage against the electrical grid are increasing at alarming rates. In April 2013 near San Jose, California, there was an attack on a power transmission substation. Shortly after telephone cables were cut, multiple snipers fired shots on the Pacific Gas and Electric Corporation’s Metcalf substation. It took nearly a month for workers to make the repairs and bring the substation back to life.
To this day, no one has been arrested in connection with the sabotage; and we still don’t know whether this was an isolated incident conducted by vandals or a dress rehearsal by terrorists. Either way, it demonstrated that a coordinated attack on substations in major cities across the country could plunge much of the country into the dark, possibly for an extended period of time.
Jon Wellinghoff, former chairman of the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, said that the attack was “the most significant incident of domestic terrorism involving the grid that has ever occurred” in the United States. Other critical electrical grid sites remain just as unprotected as this one was.
Coordinated attacks in each of the three nation’s electrical systems could cause the entire power network to collapse, according to the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission. Losing key substations would be devastating. They use large power transformers to boost the voltage of electricity so that it can move great distances before reducing the voltage to a usable level as that electricity gets closer to businesses and homes.
Physical attacks against the U.S. electrical grid may be more dramatic than cyberattacks, but cyberattacks are much more frequent. In fact, one power company reported that it receives approximately 10,000 attempted cyberattacks per month. Many other electrical utilities are reporting either daily or frequent cyberattacks, including probes on their networks that are searching for vulnerabilities.
According to the (Colorado Springs) Gazette, thousands of cyberattacks strike power grids in the U.S. every day. House Intelligence Committee Chairman Mike Rogers said at a recent Reuters summit on cyber terrorism that the only thing holding terrorists back from launching a massive cyberattack on U.S. infrastructure is that they don’t have the ability. If a terrorist group finds out how to do it, Rogers said, “[I]t’s a game changer. My concern is it’s just a matter of time.”
A recent National Academy of Sciences report stated that, “If they could gain access, hackers could manipulate (control and data) systems to disrupt the flow of electricity … block the flow of vital information, or disable protective systems.” The report added that a successful attack could “entail costs of hundreds of billions of dollars” and could render entire swaths of the country helpless to extreme weather. A Wall Street Journal article shook readers merely by its headline: “Hacking the grid is very easy.”
Everybody is busy these days, but don’t allow your busyness to keep you from preparing for the coming blackout, because it could be a long one. If you only have time to do four things to get ready, make it these four:
Those activities will give you a leg up on the vast majority of people when it comes time to surviving an emergency that knocks out the electrical grid.