The Earth dodged a bullet from the sun the week of Aug. 2, a bullet in the shape of a solar flare that could have had catastrophic consequences for the existence of our modern civilization – a threat that was barely noted in the press.
On Aug. 1, NASA reported that satellites detected a coronal mass ejection, or CME, “heading in the Earth’s direction.” According to NASA, CMEs “are large clouds of charged particles that are ejected from the sun. … They expand away from the sun at speeds as high as a million miles an hour. A CME can make the 93-million-mile journey to Earth in just three to four days. … When a coronal mass ejection reaches Earth, it interacts with our planet’s magnetic field, potentially creating a geomagnetic storm.”
On the same day, the federal government issued a warning that an electromagnetic pulse, or EMP, from a gathering solar storm might damage the electric grid in the United States. The Space Weather Prediction Center of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration warned, “There is a 10 percent chance that this CME will result in a severe geomagnetic storm.”
The EMP from a severe solar geomagnetic storm can have disastrous consequences. A severe geomagnetic storm in 1989 collapsed the electric grid in Quebec, destroyed a transformer in a nuclear plant in New Jersey, caused $2 billion in damage and left 5 million people living in the dark.
A “great” geomagnetic storm, a rare but inevitable phenomenon, could have truly catastrophic consequences that would imperil the existence of modern civilization. In 2004 and 2008, the congressionally mandated EMP Commission warned that every hundred years or so an exceptionally large solar flare will generate a “great” geomagnetic storm. The EMP from such a storm would collapse the national electric grid and the critical infrastructures – transportation, communications, banking and finance, food and water – that sustain modern civilization and the lives of 310 million Americans.
The last “great” geomagnetic storm was in 1859, called the Carrington event. Modern civilization, so dependent upon electronic systems, has not yet experienced a “great” geomagnetic storm. Many scientists think we are overdue. Some scientists believe that, as we approach the solar maximum over the next two years, since the solar maximum brings increased solar flare activity, the possibility of a “great” geomagnetic storm will also increase.
In 2008, the National Academy of Sciences produced a report for NASA that confirmed the EMP Commission’s warning that a “great” geomagnetic storm could have catastrophic consequences for modern civilization. According to the NAS report, if the 1859 Carrington event happened today, it could destroy nationwide the electric grid, collapse the critical infrastructures and take 4-10 years to recover – if recovery is possible at all. In June 2010, the Department of Energy and North American Electric Reliability Corporation released a joint report that, again, confirmed the EMP Commission’s warning about the catastrophic threat from a “great” geomagnetic storm.
Fortunately, Earth dodged the bullet from the sun. Fortunately, NOAA’s estimated 10 percent chance of a severe geomagnetic storm did not materialize – this time. We may not be so lucky next time.
So it is incomprehensible why the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee on Aug. 5 – just days after NOAA warned about the possibility of a severe geomagnetic storm actually striking our planet – would gut H.R. 5026, “The Grid Reliability and Infrastructure Defense Act,” that is designed to protect the United States from the effects of a geomagnetic storm. H.R. 5026 would protect the national electric grid from “all hazards” – including EMP from geomagnetic storms, nuclear EMP from terrorists or rogue states, cyber threats, sabotage and natural disasters. H.R. 5026 embodied the recommendations of the EMP Commission, the National Academy of Sciences and the Department of Energy.
The “new” H.R. 5026 does nothing to protect the United States from EMP from geomagnetic storms, or nuclear EMP from rogue states and terrorists, from sabotage or from natural disasters. The Senate gutted H.R. 5026 despite the EMP Commission’s recommendation that protecting the grid against “all hazards” is technologically the best and most cost-effective strategy. For example, an “all hazards” strategy could mitigate the worst threats to the grid from natural and nuclear EMP and cyber threats for $100 million – and possibly save the lives of millions of Americans.
But the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee chose to ignore the EMP Commission, the National Academy of Sciences and the Department of Energy. Every member of the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee received a personal appeal from the EMP Commission and other prominent experts to pass H.R. 5026 with its provisions for protecting against EMP and “all hazards” intact – but those appeals were ignored.
H.R. 5026 may yet be saved when the Senate and House go into conference.
Perhaps in this election year the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee would heed a demand from the American people to restore the original H.R. 5026.
Dr. Peter Vincent Pry is president of EMPact America, director of the U.S. Nuclear Strategy Forum, and served on the staffs of the EMP Commission, the Strategic Posture Commission, the House Armed Services Committee and the CIA.