Extreme electromagnetic incidents caused by an intentional electromagnetic pulse (EMP) attack or a naturally occurring geomagnetic disturbance (GMD), caused by severe space weather, could damage significant portions of the Nation’s critical infrastructure, including the electrical grid, communications equipment, water and wastewater systems, and transportation modes.
Why does an EMP or G5 geomagnetic storm disable electronics? Coronal mass ejections introduce intense currents to Earth’s magnetosphere. These produce energy surges and radio waves. Channeled through electronics, these waves can damage devices unprepared for such high energy, causing disruption.
Why do we write about emergency preparedness? Seemingly, there is brief mention of these potential dangers in mainstream media and news. You will also find very few articles online talking about the possible impacts of an EMP attack, even though this information warrants national attention.
This article delves deeper into the science behind EMP/G5 Geomagnetic storm vulnerability and understands how we can better shield our devices from potential devastation.
EMP-G5 Geomagnetic Storm (GMD) Overview
EMPs and G5 Geomagnetic Storm are two different phenomena, but with their similarities merging into the effects they have on a nation’s electronics.
EMPs can occur naturally from the sun in the form of geomagnetic storms, but they can also be products of intentional attacks. Despite the international sanctions moderating the development of nuclear weapons, some nations still invested in these dangerous weapons. Anyone of these nations can decide to detonate nuclear weapons, specialized conventional munitions, or non-nuclear directed energy devices at significantly high altitudes.
The impacts of an intentional EMP attack are likely to cascade, initially compromising one or more critical infrastructure sectors, spilling over into additional sectors, and expanding beyond the initial geographic regions adversely impacting millions of households and businesses.
The specific characteristics of detonated nuclear weapons will determine if the impacts will be felt locally, regionally, or even in several parts of the continent. High-altitude electromagnetic pulse attacks (HEMP) using nuclear weapons are of most concern because they may permanently damage or disable large sections of the national electric grid and other critical infrastructure control systems.
As they classify geomagnetic storms from G1 to extreme G5 or greater, one question looms large: why are these phenomena so destructive to our electronics?
Although G5 Geomagnetic Storms or (GMD) events occur naturally, (when plasma from the sun, with its embedded magnetic field, arrives at Earth), they possess a similar destructive potential of an intentional EMP attack.
Geomagnetic storms can cause widespread and long-lasting damage to electric power grid systems, satellites, electronic navigation systems, and undersea cables. Essentially, any electronics system that is not protected against extreme EMP or GMD events may be subject to either the direct “shock” of the blast itself or to the damage that is inflicted on the systems and controls upon which they are dependent.
Case Studies: Real-world Impacts of Electromagnetic Events
In a recent paper published by Royal Society Publishing and followed by an article by the University of Leeds on October 9, 2023 titled “Researchers identify largest ever solar storm in ancient 14,300-year-old tree rings.” This article describes the severity of the possible effects of G5 or greater geomagnetic storm on the earth.
“The researchers say that the occurrence of similar massive solar storms today could be catastrophic for modern technological society, potentially wiping out telecommunications, satellite systems and electricity grids - and costing us billions of pounds. They warn that it is critical to understand the future risks of events like this, to enable us to prepare, build resilience into our communications and energy systems and shield them from potential damage.”University of Leeds – Researchers identify largest ever solar storm in ancient 14,300-year-old tree rings.
Two significant incidents highlight the profound effects of powerful electromagnetic events on our electronic infrastructure. First, the “Starfish Prime” nuclear test in 1962 demonstrated the potential of EMPs. Detonated above the Pacific, this test inadvertently damaged satellites and caused electrical malfunctions over 900 miles (1,450 km) away in Hawaii.
Similarly, in 1989, a geomagnetic storm triggered a widespread power outage in Quebec. The entire province plunged into darkness for nine hours, with some regions experiencing disruptions for days. This event not only halted daily activities but exposed vulnerabilities in modern power grids.
Both incidents underscore the immediate and lingering challenges posed by electromagnetic events. They serve as stark reminders of our electronic ecosystem’s fragility and the need for protective and preventive measures.
Immediate Impact of EMP on Electronics
Recommended Reading: What Would A Carrington Event Do Today? and Best Emergency Preparedness Vehicle EMP Shield Protection
An Electromagnetic Pulse (EMP) is essentially a powerful burst of electromagnetic radiation. When released, this pulse rapidly propagates, generating an intense electromagnetic field with the potential to disrupt a vast array of electronic equipment.
This includes computers, satellites, radios, and even infrastructure elements like civilian traffic lights. Given that this energy travels at light speed, the electronic equipment within the affected radius can experience simultaneous disturbances or failures.
A significant part of these electronics is regulated by semiconductors. These semiconductor devices are prone to failure during an EMP event due to localized heating, leading to breakdowns in various systems—from railway networks and power grids to phone lines and water supply controls.
Notably, commercial computer systems, which underpin numerous modern functionalities, such as data processing, communications, industrial controls, and even specialized military equipment, are especially susceptible to EMP-induced damages.
Adding to the list, telecommunications gear is at high risk. Receivers, spanning a broad spectrum from satellite and microwave to UHF, VHF, and HF communications, not forgetting television systems, are exceptionally EMP-sensitive. Even modern vehicles equipped with electronic ignition systems or ignition chips are not spared from potential EMP disruptions.
Furthermore, large-scale conductors like railroad tracks, substantial antennas, building wires, and extensive metallic structures can accumulate EMP energy. While underground structures receive some degree of shielding, they’re not completely immune.
These underground conductors can still absorb and channel the EMP energy to connected larger systems, leading to devastating surges capable of incapacitating power generators or comprehensive communication networks.
Why a G5 Geomagnetic Storm Disables Electronics
Large coronal mass ejections are propelled from the Sun’s surface at astonishing speeds, resulting in potent gusts of solar wind that reach Earth. These solar winds transfer energy to Earth’s magnetic field, leading to geomagnetic storms.
The energy these storms infuse into Earth’s magnetosphere can wreak havoc on electronics. Typically, electronics derive their power from electricity, with the current regulated according to the voltage requirements of each device.
Geomagnetic storms introduce intense currents into the Earth’s magnetosphere, inducing excessive heating in the upper thermosphere and ionosphere. Simply put, the energy waves from the Sun impact Earth’s uppermost atmospheric layer, also known as the magnetosphere.
This energy in the magnetosphere then interacts with the ionosphere, producing radio waves. These waves, when channeled through power lines unprepared for such energy surges, can damage electronics.
In extreme cases, geomagnetically induced currents can surpass 100 amperes. When this intense current courses through electronic components and power lines, the resulting damage can be catastrophic—causing transformers, sensors, and relays to explode or ignite.
To put this in perspective, 100 amperes could power multiple households. Channeling such an intensity into a single electronic device would assuredly damage its components. Satellites, especially, face the peril of a G5 geomagnetic storm.
Satellites like Elon Musk’s Starlink, designed for low-Earth orbits, are particularly susceptible to geomagnetic storms. These satellites operate in low-altitude orbits, typically spanning 62 to 124 miles (100 to 200 kilometers). They rely on onboard engines to maintain their position, gradually rising to their peak altitude of 342 miles (550 kilometers).
During a geomagnetic storm, Earth’s atmosphere heats up and expands due to the storm’s energy. This expansion thickens the atmosphere, spanning approximately 50 to 61 miles (80 to 1,000 kilometers) above Earth’s surface.
Satellites like Starlink, located within this expanded atmosphere, cannot resist the increased atmospheric drag. Ultimately, they can descend back to Earth, with some even igniting in the atmosphere.
EMP as the New Frontier in Warfare
Electromagnetic weapons, due to their non-lethal nature, present a more politically palatable alternative to conventional munitions, thereby expanding the military strategies on the table. Beyond the well-known nuclear detonation origins, sources capable of generating EMPs for weaponization have been developed.
Leading nations, with the U.S. being a key player, have reportedly engineered non-nuclear bombs that unleash EMPs. These so-called “E-bombs” are crafted specifically to incapacitate information systems.
Though they primarily target battlefield scenarios, the impact of these devices is usually limited to a defined geographic zone. However, the compactness of EMP technology is startling; some devices are compact enough to be housed within a briefcase.
Advancements in High Power Electromagnetic Pulse generation and High Power Microwave technology mean that practical E-bombs are no longer just theoretical but a looming reality. It’s speculated that the momentum in this domain is driven by the utilization of high-temperature superconductors to generate potent magnetic fields.
The allure of E-bombs lies in their ability to subdue adversaries in non-nuclear settings without direct human casualties. However, their power should not be underestimated. They have the potential to disable electronic systems over expanses that span several square miles, putting national critical infrastructure in jeopardy.
Furthermore, the military’s heavy dependence on satellites and commercial tech for real-time global command and control leaves operations vulnerable. EMPs’ capacity to inflict lasting damage on electronic assets, especially computers and communication devices, underscores their strategic military significance.
Protecting Electronics Against EMP Effects
Protecting electronics from the detrimental impacts of EMP involves two primary strategies.
1. Metallic Shielding
One of the primary ways to guard against EMP effects is through metallic shielding. Such shields are fabricated from a continuous expanse of metals, often steel or copper. A basic metal enclosure might not offer absolute protection due to potential minuscule gaps or holes.
As such, these shields usually incorporate extra layers or components to ensure a seamless barrier against electromagnetic pulses. The fundamental principle here is to have the shield entirely envelop the equipment needing protection.
It’s noteworthy that just a tiny fraction of a millimeter of the metal is typically sufficient for effective shielding.
2. Tailored Hardening
A more budget-friendly hardening approach is tailored hardening. Instead of safeguarding the entire device, this method focuses on fortifying only the most susceptible components and circuits.
By redesigning these parts to be sturdier, they become equipped to handle significantly higher currents. While this method may sound promising, it’s worth noting that tailored hardening has demonstrated inconsistent results during tests. Even though it’s seen as a viable strategy to enhance the resilience of existing systems, its efficacy can sometimes be unpredictable.
In essence, while both methods have their advantages, the choice between them often depends on the specific requirements of the device in question and the resources available for hardening.
The Carrington event is believed to have triggered a G5 geomagnetic storm. Its impact at the time was limited due to the scarcity of electronics. However, if a similar event were to happen today, the vast network of electronics connecting towns, cities, and homes would become conduits for the storm’s destructive power.
- A radiocarbon spike at 14 300 cal yr BP in subfossil trees provides the impulse response function of the global carbon cycle during the Late Glacial | Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society A: Mathematical, Physical and Engineering Sciences
- High-Altitude Electromagnetic Pulse (HEMP) Research
- High Altitude Electromagnetic Pulse (HEMP) and High Power Microwave (HPM)
- Devices: Threat Assessments – EveryCRSReport.com
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- arXiv: The Solar Cause of the 2022 February 3 Geomagnetic Storm That Led to the Demise of the Starlink Satellites
- KDVR: Rare Solar Storm Can Impact Electronics, GPS Systems
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- NASA/Marshall Solar Physics: Solar Flares
- National Centers for Environmental Information: Remembering the Great Halloween Solar Storms
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- Space.com: The Carrington Event: History’s Greatest Solar Storm
- Space.com: The Worst Solar Storms in History
- UCAR Center for Science Education: What is Space Weather and How Does it Affect the Earth?
- The Next Big Solar Storm Could Fry the Grid – WSJ