Seventy-five years ago this week, the media perpetrated a massive hoax on an unsuspecting American audience. A Halloween radio broadcast of Orson Welles’ rendering of the sci-fi thriller War of the Worlds sent the public into a frenzy over seemingly authentic news reports that martians were attacking New Jersey.
A jaded television population may be inclined to disbelieve a seemingly equally unimaginable horror story broadcast on October 27, 2013 by National Geographic. A docu-drama entitled “American Blackout,” portrays what would happen if the power went out – and stayed out for 10 days – due to a cyber attack on the nation’s electric grid.
The film uses simulated cellphone footage to recount how ordinary folks try to cope with the loss of access to food, potable water, medicine, transportation, their bank accounts and telecommunications. The nightmare of an America without electricity is at least as frightening as one caused by aliens.
But is an enduring loss of the power essential to operate our critical infrastructure science fiction? Or is it a real and present danger and one that might endure for far longer than ten days?
Unfortunately, as five different federal studies have documented, the U.S. electric power distribution system is extremely vulnerable, but not to cyber warfare alone. It could also be seriously damaged, and key components destroyed outright, by everything from terrorism to localized or widespread electromagnetic pulse (EMP) effects. EMP can devastate the transformers that are the backbone of the grid. Such pulses can be generated by short-range radio frequency weapons or over very long distances by a nuclear weapon detonated high above the earth.
Worse yet, it is a certitude that, at some point in the not too distant future, intense solar flaring will cause geomagnetic disturbances that can cause some of the same deadly disruptions to our grid, and the critical infrastructure the relies upon it, as man-caused EMP.
According to the chairman of the Congressional EMP Threat Commission, Dr. William Graham, if the power goes out and stays out for as long as a year – something that is a distinct possibility should a far-reaching EMP event occur – nine out of ten Americans will be dead.
The good news is that, unlike a surprise attack by Martians, there are steps we can take to prevent or greatly reduce the horrifying consequences of long-duration blackouts due to electromagnetic pulse, cyber attacks and terrorism. All it takes is: a recognition that these threats are real; an understanding that the consequences of inaction are intolerable – and effectively irrecoverable; and the will to mitigate the grid’s current vulnerabilities.
If we work now to protect our electrical infrastructure against direct physical attack, electromagnetic pulses and cyberwarfare, we can build in the resiliency that is required in a world in which enemies of this country might be tempted to take advantage of the grid’s weaknesses. And we can reduce our vulnerability to acts of nature that could be nearly as devastating.