Could a Heliospheric Hellstorm Knock Out Earth’s Electricity?

It’s been the subject of books and films, and it’s destructive potential impact on the future of humankind is not only deadly, it’s also very real.

In William R. Forstechen’s best-selling novel One Second After, an unidentified enemy of the United States launches a nuclear missile into the upper stratosphere over the United States, creating an EMP (electromagnetic pulse) which knocks out the electrical grid in most–if not all–of the United States.

John Matherson, a resident of the small town of Black Mountain, North Carolina, struggles daily to protect his family and find food and other resources in a world where automobiles relying on solid state components, as well as computers, telephones, and anything else electronic is rendered useless. After months of depleting resources, the limits of human desperation begin to ensue, and the residents are ultimately forced to fight for their lives in an effort to survive the horrors of new and unexpected dark age. Even more terrifying than the mere story Forstchen outlines is the fact that this scenario could actually happen.

Having known Forstchen for several years, I caught up with him briefly at our local radio station, since the setting for his novel is his real life hometown of Black Mountain, a mere 30 minutes drive from where I reside. I told him his book scared the living crap out of me, and just grinning, he took a slight bow as he stood facing me in the doorway, and said “welcome to my nightmare.”

“No Bill,” I corrected him. “Our nightmare.”

What is most important about this nightmare scenario has less to do with the simple fact that an EMP could in fact wipe out the electrical grid in any vicinity affected by such phenomenon. Instead, the most chilling factor is that it would take far less than a nuclear attack to cause an EMP with the sort of destructive potential described in Forstchen’s book; Earth’s Sun, through the release of a massive concentration of heliospheric radiation, could do this easily if a powerful solar storm were to occur. In the event such a storm took place, would it be possible to predict when it would occur, and how potentially destructive such an act of nature might be?

Although there is much speculation regarding the latter of these, NASA has in fact predicted that the Sun has recently emerged from a period of inactivity it likens to “a deep slumber,” and that a strong likelihood exists for a potentially devastating solar storm to occur by 2013 that would make Hurricane Katrina look like a flash flood, with 20 times more destructive power.

The British Times Online reported on the story, quoting NASA scientist Dr. Richard Fisher about the destruction a solar storm of such magnitude might have:

He said large swathes of the world could face being without power for several months, although he admitted that was unlikely.

A more likely scenario was that large areas, including northern Europe and Britain which have “fragile” power grids, would be without power and access to electronic devices for hours, possibly even days.

So how do we protect ourselves from this kind of trouble… or can we? Fortunately, it is expected that many cars, and perhaps even a few homes, would act as natural Faraday Cages, protecting sensitive electronic components within. However, gas pumps, which are fueled electronically, would likely become inoperable, as would most broadcast and communications systems, unless measures are taken now to harden electrical infrastructure so that these sorts of things can be dealt with in preemptive ways. Still, even if there is a potential to protect against this sort of thing, will world leaders take the threat seriously, whether devastation lasts only a few days, or potentially several months, and mobilize an effort to ward off the threat in any ways we can? If not, one can only imagine the consequences… and what kind of a world we might have in the absence of modern conveniences we’ve grown so dangerously used to.

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Micah Hanks is a writer, podcaster, and researcher whose interests cover a variety of subjects. His areas of focus include history, science, philosophy, current events, cultural studies, technology, unexplained phenomena, and ways the future of humankind may be influenced by science and innovation in the coming decades. In addition to writing, Micah hosts the Middle Theory and Gralien Report podcasts.
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