Thursday, January 28, 2010

The Sun Also Flares

If we get hit with a once-in-a-century solar storm, we’re history.

Had the earthquake that hit Haiti shaken Florida instead, the death toll would not have been so tragically high — over 150,000 at last count. In Haiti, as in other impoverished countries, buildings are often shoddily constructed, infrastructure is weak, and governance is incompetent. The primary response to disaster: Wait for help from abroad.

It’s a well established rule: Rich nations endure natural disasters better than poor nations. But there may be an exception. Stay with me for a moment and you’ll see what I mean.

In recent years, Americans have become dependent not just on electricity but on computers, microchips, and satellites. The infrastructure that supports all this has become increasingly sophisticated — but not more resilient. On the contrary, as this infrastructure has become more complex, it also has become more fragile and therefore more vulnerable — an Achilles’ heel.

That is why, in 2001, the U.S. government established a commission to “assess the threat to the United States from Electromagnetic Pulse (EMP) attack.” Such an attack would involve the detonation of a nuclear warhead at high altitude over the American mainland, producing a shockwave powerful enough to knock out electrical power, electronics, communications, transportation, refrigeration, water-pumping stations, sewage systems, and much more. Think of a blackout, but one of indefinite duration — because we have no plan for recovery and could expect little or no help from abroad.

Historian William R. Forstchen researched what America would be like in the aftermath of an EMP attack for his novel One Second After. I don’t think I’m spoiling the experience for prospective readers by telling you that Forstchen is convinced the result would be millions of deaths from starvation and disease, a catastrophe from which America would never fully recover.

The EMP commission also reported that Iran — which is feverishly working to acquire nuclear weapons — has conducted tests in which it launched missiles and exploded warheads at high altitudes. The CIA has translated Iranian military journals in which EMP attacks against the U.S. are explicitly discussed.

Might Iran’s rulers orchestrate such an attack if and when they acquire nuclear capability? That is a heated debate among defense experts. But what is almost never discussed is the threat of a naturally occurring EMP event.

I first learned about this possibility a few months ago at a conference organized by Empact America, a bipartisan, non-profit organization concerned exclusively with the EMP challenge. Scientists there explained “severe space weather” — in particular, storms on the surface of the sun that could trigger an EMP event.

The strongest solar storm on record is the Carrington Event of 1859, named after Richard Carrington, an astronomer who witnessed the super solar flare that set off the event as he was projecting an image of the sun onto a white screen. In those days, of course, there was nothing much to damage. A high-intensity burst of electromagnetic energy shot through telegraph lines, disrupting communications, shocking technicians, and setting their papers on fire. Northern Lights were visible as far south as Cuba and Hawaii. But otherwise life went on as normal.

The same would not be true were a solar storm of similar magnitude to erupt today. Instead, the infrastructure we depend on would be wiped out. Most of us would not adapt well to this sudden return to a pre-industrial age.

How likely is a repeat of the Carrington Event? Scientists say it is not only possible — it is inevitable. What they don’t know is when. The best estimates suggest that super solar storms occur once every 100 years — which means we are 50 years overdue.

Both the EMP Commission and a 2008 study by the National Academy of Sciences (NAS) call for a response: hardening the electrical grid and other components of the infrastructure to increase the chances they would survive, as well as pre-positioning spares of essential, complex components of the electrical grid and other infrastructure critical to communications and emergency public services.

And it would certainly help if scientists could learn to forecast solar storms reliably. If we know one is coming, there are steps that can be taken to reduce the destruction. In particular, the electrical grid could be shut down; planes could be grounded (Air Force One is designed to withstand an EMP attack, but other planes would fall from the sky); citizens could be instructed not to leave home — in particular, to stay out of their cars, which would stop working — until the storm subsided.

President Obama has pledged $100 million to help Haiti recover from its recent earthquake. By coincidence, that’s precisely the amount that the NAS recommends be spent on measures that could limit by 60 to 70 percent the damage resulting from an EMP event. When you consider that such an event — whether naturally occurring or a “man-caused disaster” — could cause trillions of dollars in damage and claim more lives than were lost in World War II, that sounds like a reasonably priced investment.

Clifford D. May, a former New York Times foreign correspondent, is president of the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, a policy institute focusing on terrorism and Islamism.

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