The Biggest Unaddressed Threat to Our Security

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The Biggest Unaddressed Threat to Our Security

Although few people are aware of it, the U.S. is not prepared to withstand an electromagnetic pulse (EMP) event. There are two types of EMPs, but they are both equal in the devastation they could cause to the nation’s electric grid, and by extension its systems for communications, transportation, food services, water, emergency services, and banking.

  • The first type can occur naturally, as the result of a solar storm.
  • The second type can be launched by another country or a terrorist organization in the form of a nuclear weapon exploded in the atmosphere over the U.S.

The first type of electromagnetic pulse event, which originates from the sun, tends to occur about once every 100 years. As Richard Lovett of National Geographic News reported, there are three phases to a solar storm, and not all of them occur in every storm.1

The first phase consists of x-rays and ultraviolet light. The second phase is a radiation storm. The third phase is a coronal mass ejection, an eruption of plasma from the sun that projects a torrent of charged particles that interact with Earth’s magnetic field to produce powerful electromagnetic fluctuations.

The last time a severe solar storm collided with the Earth happened in 1859, in what became known as the Carrington event, because British astronomer Richard Carrington was the first scientist to identify it.

At that time, the U.S. economy was largely based on agriculture, and the electronic and digital technologies that we now depend on were not yet invented. All that existed was the telegraph system. As Douglas Main reported recently in LiveScience, when the electromagnetic surge hit the telegraph wires, the current zapped machines throughout the system and paper telegrams burst into flames.2

Today, of course, our economy is wholly dependent on electricity, satellites, and global positioning systems. If another Carrington event happened tomorrow, all of these technologies would fail, the result would be catastrophic—and there is nothing to prevent such a disaster from occurring. In fact, the nation narrowly averted one less than four years ago only because of fortunate timing.

As a team led by University of Colorado physicist Daniel Baker recently reported, a coronal mass ejection occurred in July 2012 when an eruption on the sun sent 80 billion pounds of energized particles hurtling toward Earth at millions of miles per hour. The planet’s orbit took us out of harm’s way, but Baker calculates that if the ejection had happened just one week sooner, it would have made a direct hit.3

If not for that stroke of luck, our society would have been plunged back into the pre-Internet, pre-Industrial era...

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