America’s power grid is still extremely vulnerable to electromagnetic pulse (EMP) attack, according to a Tuesday Congressional hearing.
An EMP could result from a high-altitude nuclear explosion or triggered naturally from unusual solar activity, causing a short burst of electromagnetic energy. This burst would interact with every electrical device, effectively fry the power grid, and cause blackouts across the entire country.
The hearing concluding that “if an adversary were to attack the United States with an EMP, the results would be catastrophic.” A report from Consumers’ Research published Tuesday came to a similar answer, stating that “the U.S. has been slow to prepare for such an attack in part because it would could cost billions of dollars, but also because neither the utilities nor the federal government will take full ownership of the problem.”
A Congressional commission created to study and address the threat of EMPs published two reports in 2004 and 2008 laying out measures that could harden the power grid. Eight years later, few of its recommendations have been implemented. The Pentagon considered EMPs for use during the Cold War as a “first strike” weapon that would take out critical military command and control infrastructure. Although the U.S. military has spent decades hardening its to infrastructure EMPs, civilian power infrastructure is still mostly vulnerable.
The 2009 Congressional commission estimated that within 12 months of an EMP, up to 90 percent of the American population could perish from starvation, disease and societal breakdown.
A natural EMP last hit Earth during the summer of 1859 when the Sun created the largest geomagnetic storm on record. The storm was so powerful that it caused telegraph machines around the world to spark, shocking operators and setting papers ablaze. The event released the same amount of energy as 10 billion atomic bombs.
Researchers estimate that a similar event occurring in 2011 would have caused $600 billion to $2.6 trillion in damages to the U.S. In comparison, Hurricane Katrina only caused $125 billion in total economic losses.
A similar event today would destroy much of the internet, take down all satellite communications, and almost certainly knock out most of the global electrical grid, according to a study by National Geographic. The Earth would only get about 20 hours of warning. A similar solar event occurred in 2012, but missed Earth.
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