A single electromagnetic pulse (EMP) attack could affect the entire United States. Power would go out, financial infrastructure would be lost, electronics would be fried. Cars, trains, and airplanes would be useless hunks of metal. If energy, pumps, and transportation were knocked out, food and water would become a dwindling commodity.
An EMP capable of causing damage of this magnitude could come from either a nuclear weapon detonated 15 miles above the earth’s surface or from solar weather as the sun approaches its solar maximum.
Despite the risk, the United States remains unprepared. The Department of Homeland Security (DHS) is working with other government departments to raise awareness about the threat, according to Brandon Wales, director of the DHS Infrastructure Threat and Risk Analysis Center, who testified before the House Committee on Homeland Security on Sept. 12.
A nuclear weapon detonated above the earth’s surface, also known as a high-altitude EMP (HEMP), could “blanket the entire continental United States,” and “A concern is the growing number of nation-states that in the past have sponsored terrorism and are now developing capabilities that could be used in a HEMP attack,” Wales said, according to a transcript.
He added that a coronal mass ejection (CME) plasma hurricane, which can come from solar activity, “could create low-frequency EMP similar to a megaton-class nuclear HEMP detonation over the United States, which could disrupt or damage the power grid, undersea cables, and other critical infrastructures.”
Solar storms that could have caused significant EMP damage have occurred in the past, but unlike today, reliance on technology was not widespread enough to cause much harm.
The largest known solar storm took place during a solar maximum in 1859, known as the Carrington Event. The sun is again entering its solar maximum of around that same size, National Geographic reported, citing NASA. Similar solar activity is expected within the next two years.
“In 1859, such reports were mostly curiosities. But if something similar happened today, the world’s high-tech infrastructure could grind to a halt,” states the March 2, 2011, National Geographic report.
According to Wales, the DHS is working closely with information provided by the Commission to Assess the Threat to the United States from Electromagnetic Pulse (EMP) Attack. The commission has released three comprehensive reports since 2002, which look at the vulnerabilities of the United States to an EMP.
The commission’s last report was released in April 2008, and states, “Because of the ubiquitous dependence of U.S. society on the electrical power system, its vulnerability to an EMP attack, coupled with the EMP’s particular damage mechanisms, creates the possibility of long-term, catastrophic consequences.”
It states that an EMP attack could “leave significant parts of the electrical infrastructure out of service for periods measured in months to a year or more.”
The loss of the electrical infrastructure is more serious than just losing computers and cellphones. The most fundamental threat would be to water and food supplies.
Food infrastructure in the United States is heavily dependent upon modern technology. Farming requires technology, as do transportation and refrigeration. The commission states, “It is highly possible that the recovery time would be very slow and the amount of human suffering great, including loss of life.”
The water infrastructure faces a similar threat, since it is reliant on treatment plants, pumps, and other systems. The commission said that, “Faced with the failure of the water infrastructure in a single large city, [federal, state, and local emergency services] would be hard-pressed to provide the population with the minimum water requirements necessary to sustain life over a time frame longer than a few days.”
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