Choose a political tribe, and I will tell you their concerns, doubts, fears, and enemies. Those threats I could categorize include climate change, tyrannical government, terrorism, big corporate, national debt, financial collapse, and so forth.
Some of those threats are more serious than others and most of them, when mixed with others, produce a much more potent threat. For instance, terrorists with nukes, or corporations using puppets to make bad law that hits everyone else.
When you consider a threat, you must consider what you can control, whether it can be prevented or mitigated, at what cost, and what is the worst thing that can happen if that threat comes to fruition. Certainly, I have learned some zingers in my business days, but it seems to me, the electromagnetic pulse (EMP) is the greatest underappreciated threat to society.
I had occasionally heard about, and read snippets of, EMP threats, but it wasn’t until I watched part of an interview with Dr. Peter Pry, the Executive Director of Task Force on National and Homeland Security, that I sat up and paid attention. Mr. Pry’s area of expertise is the threat of an electromagnetic pulse.
When we think about disasters, we think tornadoes, earthquakes, floods, and acts of war; in other words, destruction of property. What happens during recovery? The neighbors move in to help, whether they are from a neighboring town, Walmart, the next state, halfway across the country, or even from the other side of the planet. Infrastructure supported by electricity, on which everything is dependent for modern life and survival, is restored very quickly. We truck fuel, water, and supplies, sometimes by airplane or helicopter. We get in there and take care of people, with few resultant casualties.
Comparing locational outages to the threat of an EMP as described by Slate, for example, is an enormous mistake. Climate change may be a problem, but it won’t shut down civilization instantly. Furthermore, an EMP, whether caused by a nuclear detonation 300 kilometers above earth or by naturally occurring solar storms, won’t be limited to fire, tornado, or flood zones. It could be everything, everywhere, all at once.
An EMP can take out the grid, including our largest substations and accompanied enormous transformers. According to the interview, Dr. Pry indicated there are about two thousand such EHV (extra high voltage) transformers in the U.S. The world capacity to produce new EHV transformers: 200 per year. Uh oh. These are huge, hulking pieces of equipment that require special railcars and bridge reinforcements to transport. They are not plug and play devices with free two-day shipping from Amazon Prime.
Think about Electricity!
It may be safe to say everyone buys food and fuel a week at a time. If we were hit by a grid-killing EMP event, we would need far more preparation than a week. We would need to live like the Pilgrims, hunters, and gatherers, real fast. The Amish would even have severe challenges for survival.
The scenario described in this action plan played through my head as I watched the interview with Dr. Pry. Without electricity:
- Food storage and production cease almost entirely and immediately.
- Backup generators may keep lights and critical systems on, until the fuel supply is gone.
- Fuel doesn’t move by truck because electricity is needed to pump it and distill the fuels.
- Fuel doesn’t move via pipeline, whether natural gas or liquid form.
- We cannot communicate because most of us have cut the cord.
It wouldn’t take long for society to become something represented by the cartoonish 1981 Mad Max flick, The Road Warrior.
Is This Science Fiction?
Unfortunately, the EMP is not science fiction. Aside from 1859 Carrington Storm, as recently as 1989, a solar storm took out Quebec’s grid in 92 seconds. A Carrington-scale flare was a near miss in 2012. It is a longtime strategic warfare tactic.
Unlike other immovable problems, like our overburdened Social Security and Medicare programs, protections against EMP are practically free by comparison – estimated at a measly $30 billion. So what’s the problem?
Unlike Slate’s attempt to politicize the EMP threat, it does not fall into a political orthodoxy. If it were simply a nuclear weapons threat from a rogue regime, it would be publically poo-pooed by half the country. However, we are subject to the threats of a natural EMP caused by randomly timed solar storms that spawned the Carrington storm of 1859. Suddenly, if it’s natural and no one is to blame until after the fact, we have a real problem.
Government Failure to Imagine
An EMP is precisely the type of threat from which the federal government should protect us. However, defanging an EMP threat is not like something for which politicians are famous. They are too busy with dozens of wedge issues and getting reelected. They fail to imagine risks of the worst possible outcomes. Pearl Harbor and 9/11 are examples of government failure of imagination with very high costs. An EMP would make these historic days of infamy seem like an unwelcome army of ants at the company picnic.
Even so, I suggest contacting state and federal lawmakers to avoid this needless risk of chaos. Possibly something that benefits everyone, rather than only half the country, can be accomplished, right?
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Jeff, thanks for posting this.
I saw the same interview and it is probably a bigger threat than some disease or plague as it would affect everyone.
You wisely pointed out that the real threat is our government who could move to help prevent such a catastrophes for a mere $30B.
Thanks, Emre – while I don’t like to sound too cataclysmic, I am a two-hour plane ride from home, in a big city. If an EMP hit, I may never get home again. Seriously! I should stuff my pockets with a bunch of cash and hope others don’t realize cash won’t be worth anything while I’m trading it for their stuff.