Friday, October 05, 2012

Reputable scientists disagree on possible threat of solar storms, even EMP to a technology-driven world


I’ve heard “speak” of the idea that Oak Ridge National Laboratory has done some work on the robustness (or lack thereof) of the power grid in the face of big solar storms and possibly enemy-generated electromagnetic pulse, and found some more links that suggest that scientists are not in complete agreement that the extreme results (as in the book “One Second After”, books blog  July 20).

Some sources say that electronic equipment that is not in use might not be affected; others say that equipment not plugged in would be OK (as after direct lightning strikes).  Others say that equipment placed in metal “faraday” containers would be shielded.  People would not be affected, unless in contact with metal  leading to the outside (which sounds like the advice for lightning).  Not all cars would fail, but some circuitry in some cars would fail.

Technology has been increasingly miniaturized in the past ten years, and this would seem to make electronics more vulnerable, although if they are smaller they can be shielded. 

I’ve wondered, when driving, if nearby high tension power lines, which can generated magnetic fields, could affect my laptop computers or iPad.  So far they never have, despite sometimes driving for miles near them along Interstate highways.

There’s a reference back in 1989 by Duncan Long “Protecting Yourself from EMP” that gives some practical advice, but electronics could have become more sensitive since then (link). 

Here’s a list of “EMP-myths” that seems to be more recent, at a website called “Future Science”, link.

Note that solar storms normally do not jeopardize cars or consumer electronics, and the arguments about Faraday cages covers become irrelevant.  (They might jeopardize electronics in space, on the Moon or on Mars.)    Storms caused by supernovae light years away could cause EMP effects and maybe even mass extinctions, but they may occur only once every few billion years. 

Oak Ridge National Laboratory (TN) does have some publications on the risk to power grids from EMP and solar storms.  There is an Executive Summary  (six pages, 2010) with a map of probable grid collapse from a “HEMP” event, covering most of the East and the Pacific Northwest.  There is also discussion of an IEMI weapons, (“Intentional Electromagnetic Interference” means  usually a ground device that need not be nuclear, using weaponry generally only available to the military but that could conceivably fall into the hands of terrorists or organized criminals, who might be able to make crude devices, as suggested by Popular Science back in 2001, as well as the movie "Oceans 11"); these devices could affect power distribution and perhaps electronics in a small area.  The Washington Times (a “conservative” newspaper) has discussed this issue in the past.  The link is here

It may be difficult to separate scare talk from responsible science on the solar-storm-EMP issue.  It is significant because so many of us live in a world where our personal effectiveness and sense of autonomy  (and privacy) depends on technology that we take for granted (a moral message, perhaps, of the NBC series “Revolution”).  We are in an era where we need to “get it right” on the amount of investment we need to protect our infrastructure.  And that’s a collective, policy issue. 

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