Last week we were attacked by the sun. For real. Huge solar eruptions sent a blast of radiation toward Earth. Thankfully, the planet’s natural magnetic shield warded off the worst effects. Life went on uninterrupted.
That won’t always be the case. In 1859, Richard Carrington recorded what is now called the “Carrington Effect” — intense solar activity that can disrupt modern life dramatically.
In Carrington’s day, there were few electromechanical systems for intense solar radiation to mess with. The new fangled telegraph systems suffered the most. Solar-induced power surges knocked some operators from their chairs and set fire to the paper rolls used to record dashes and dots. Fortunately, no Carrington Effect has occurred since the whole world became electrified. But scientists worry about what might happen when a real solar tsunami hits.
It is a real danger. In 2008, the National Academies released a report on the “adverse effects of extreme space weather on modern technology — power grid outages, high-frequency communication blackouts. …” Much of the planet’s energy and communications infrastructure is just too fragile to weather a massive electromagnetic onslaught.
We need to devote a lot more effort to building up resistance to solar tsunamis. Even if there is no intense solar burp in our lifetime, manmade threats can deliver the same damage.
A high-altitude nuclear explosion can create an electromagnetic pulse that mimics a solar tsunami, a fact validated in 2004 by the Commission to Assess the Threat to the United States from electromagnetic pulse attack.
A massive EMP attack on the United States could produce almost unimaginable devastation by wiping out essential infrastructure. Communications would collapse, transportation would halt, and electrical power would disappear. Not even a global humanitarian effort would be enough to keep hundreds of millions of Americans from dying of starvation or exposure.
Nor would the catastrophe stop at our borders. Most of Canada would die, too. Its infrastructure is integrated with the U.S. power grid. Without the American economic engine, the world economy would quickly collapse. Much of the world’s intellectual property (half of it is in the United States) would be lost as well. The Earth would likely recede into the “new” Dark Ages.
There’s nothing we can do to prevent a solar tsunami, but thwarting a nuclear missile attack is well within our capabilities. “Countering the EMP Threat: The Role of Missile Defense,” a recent report from the Independent Working Group, offers some practical and readily achievable recommendations and even outlines how we could implement a defense against a short-range seaborne missile attack now.
We could take the danger of ballistic missile EMP attacks off the table by building more robust long-range missile defenses That would require beefing up our domestic ground-based interceptors and dusting off an existing (but currently shelved) plan to put ground-based interceptors in Europe.
Both the U.S.- and European-based interceptors are proven, cost-effective systems that could defend us right now. Yet the Obama administration has opted for a “phased and adaptive approach” –a strategy that may start to give us useful capabilities around 2020 or so … if everything goes right.
For the long term, the administration ought to be pushing space-based missile defense, which can provide comprehensive, robust and very cost-effective security against ballistic missile attack.
While an ounce of missile defense would be worth a pound of EMP cure, we cannot ignore curative remedies either. Both public and private sectors need to pay more attention to “hardening” truly vital infrastructure to make it more resistant and resilient to natural and manmade threats.