Thursday, June 23, 2011

solar storms, EMP, and the future of the grid...,

ResourceInsights | In late August 1859 the most severe solar storm ever witnessed began and lasted through the first few days of September. It produced vivid auroras in the night sky as far south as Cuba and was so bright campers in the Rocky Mountains got up in the middle of the night thinking daylight had arrived. During the storm telegraph operators felt as if some alien force had overtaken their equipment. Even disconnecting power to the wires failed to quiet their telegraphs. In some places the paper strip used to record the dots and dashes of Morse code caught fire because of the electrical surges coursing through the telegraph lines.

Today, the world we live in might be thought of as one big telegraph system composed of computer chips, telephone lines, fiber optics, cellphone towers, satellites, undersea cables and an electrical grid that supplies energy to the terrestrial parts of that system. An event as severe as the 1859 solar storm--called the Carrington Event after the respected British astronomer Richard Carrington who detected it as it developed--could cripple vast areas of the world, shutting down entire national grids not just for days, but possibly for months or years.

The simple fact is that most electrical systems and equipment including computers are not shielded to protect against such an event. One critical link, electrical transformers, would quickly be knocked out and would have to be replaced. Since few spare transformers are available, and it can take 12 months to build one, the world might have to wait years to fully recover--and that's assuming it would still be possible to produce new transformers which, after all, take electricity to manufacture. There is also the problem of what state modern civilization might be in if it faced months or years without electricity. Critical systems that pump and purify water and treat sewage, for example, would no longer function.

A fictional version of what all this might look like in our communities comes to us in a book by William Forstchen entitled One Second After. (For a brief nonfiction version of such an event, see this 2009 piece from New Scientist.) One Second After is set in the not-so-fictional town of Black Mountain, North Carolina where the author not-so-coincidently lives. It turns out to be a good choice of settings since Forstchen can give us an intimate portrait of a town and region he knows well while treating us to detailed but unobtrusive illustrations coming from his meticulous research into the effects of a total and prolonged blackout. To be clear, the cause of the blackout in the novel is the explosion of a nuclear weapon high above the Earth's surface over the continental United States, an explosion designed specifically to produce a crippling electromagnetic pulse (EMP). The effects of an EMP are in most ways similar to those that would result from another Carrington Event, and so the novel gives us a portrait of how such a disaster caused by either might unfold.

Perhaps the first thing a sensitive urbanite residing in the northern part of the United States will notice about One Second After is the number of guns produced by the novel's characters. But having lived in both the northern and southern parts of the United States, I can assure you that this would hardly raise an eyebrow south of the Mason-Dixon line where armory and home are very often one and the same. What is clear in the aftermath of the blackout is that order has broken down. Guns offer some protection and ultimately provide the force behind the small group of town leaders trying to guide Black Mountain through the worst disaster it will ever experience. The leaders succeed to a certain extent, but at a terrible cost as they are forced to put the mere survival of the community above all other values.