EMP, Debunked: The Jolt That Could Fry The Cloud - InformationWeek

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9/15/2014
08:06 AM
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EMP, Debunked: The Jolt That Could Fry The Cloud

An electromagnetic pulse (EMP) from the sun or a high-altitude nuclear blast could change life as we know it, but how worried should you really be? Here's a primer.
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In July, NASA confirmed that a "Carrington Event Class" coronal mass ejection (CME) had occurred on the sun in July 2012. A billion tons of highly charged solar atmosphere had erupted off the face of the Sun and out into space at millions of miles per hour. Luckily, the center of that mighty solar belch crossed Earth's orbit well behind us. If that Carrington Class CME had occurred one week earlier, it would have struck the Earth like its namesake in 1859.

Back then, the telegraph was just a few years old, and the telegraph operators -- the only people really affected -- didn't total even 1% of 1% of the workforce. They put out the fire, fixed the gear as best they could, and were back up and running within two weeks. As recently as 1989, when a much smaller CME took down Hydro Quebec and turned off the electricity in the province for most of a week, people came to work during daylight hours and caught up on typing and filing.

How about now, in the era of the cloud?

Imagine yourself with no power and no communications links for weeks or months. Even if your emergency backup power gets your computers running, you can't access remote data and cloud applications. Your smartphone is a paperweight. People in your organization can't work together, or work at all. Your bank can't tell you how much money you have and, anyway, where would you spend it? The inventory in many stores is another process that's been moved to the cloud. In the second week of the crisis, you get snail mail from your employer telling you not to come into work until the network starts working again.

Terrified yet? Well, calm down. Our cloud-crazy culture could indeed take a jolt, but probably not as big a one as these scenarios suggest.

Since the NASA story came out in the summer news slump, the gee-whiz cohort of science reporters and headline writers had a fine old time scaring people with tales of a CME-caused electromagnetic pulse (EMP) that would fry all modern technology, plunging us back to the nineteenth century, or maybe the ninth. Pop science reporting conjured visions of cellphones up in flames, plummeting airliners, patients electrocuted by their pacemakers, and the total collapse of modern civilization.

Absent from the reporting: In a week, the Earth travels about 45 times the Earth-Moon distance. Reporting that the July 2012 CME missed Earth by 45 times as far as the moon is not quite so dramatic.

While we're at it, EMP has less effect on shorter wires -- in microcircuitry, by definition, wires are very short.  EMP is greatly diminished inside cars or steel-framed buildings or underground. It self-cancels in the increasingly common coaxial cables, and doesn't touch fiber optics at all.

But though EMP damage is not the end of the world, it's still a genuine risk today -- and not just from CMEs. Natural and manmade EMPs have done real, serious damage and potentially could do much worse. The perils, the probabilities, and the precautions, like EMPs themselves, come in many sizes from many causes.

Though the July 2012 CME was overhyped, there are real EMP risks to consider. You'll be better prepared if you understand the real odds of the real dangers. Therefore, so that you and your team can be only as scared as you actually need to be, here's a little primer on EMPs.

(Image: NASA Goddard Space Flight Center via Wikipedia)

John Barnes has 31 commercially published and 2 self-published novels,  along with hundreds of magazine articles, short stories, blog posts, and encyclopedia articles.  Most of his life he has written professionally; his day jobs have included teaching at every ... View Full Bio

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John Barnes
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John Barnes,
User Rank: Moderator
9/16/2014 | 12:58:56 AM
Re: clouds at risk
Daniel, that's exactly the trouble with most of the journalistic scare-stuff out there about EMP: it conflates different threats to different systems, and to use that phrase of Winston Churchill's that Tom Clancy borrowed, you end up with the sum of all fears. The EMPs that can damage a wide area -- basically the ionospheric events -- are relatively low in energy density and have to act over a long distance on a conductor. They threaten the power grid but won't do much to the small electronics in your workplace.  The things that produce fields strong enough to cook out small electronics (lightning, close-in tactical nukes, and ebombs) are mostly not wide-area enough to damage more than one facility (in fact, oddly enough, backup to cloud should work rather well against them).  For the most part EMPs are either a little spread out sizzle over a wide area, or a big honking ZAP in a small one. You cope with the former by unplugging and surge protecting, and with the latter with offsite backups. All of which are things people should be doing now, and I hope mostly are.


The more sensationalistic reporting has tended to claim that the big, intense effects would occur over a wide area, and that part of the field of possibility is probably unoccupied. It's a little like the media treatment of radioactive waste, which tends to combine the very slow decay of some heavy elements (so that "the threat will remain for thousands of years") with the very fierce radioactivity of some lighter ones ("kills in a short time as the patient's whole body falls apart") -- without noting that what decays slowly doesn't decay energetically, and vice versa.

 

 
danielcawrey
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danielcawrey,
User Rank: Ninja
9/15/2014 | 9:50:37 PM
Re: clouds at risk
I wouldn't think that standard infrastructure would be able to withstand an EMP attack. I just don't see that as plausible. The problem is that infrastructure has a lot of moving parts, and it doesn't take much to make these things unstable in the event of an electrical attack. I just don't see systems being able to withstand such a thing. 

I've certainly seen systems where there are backup generators and the like, but let's be realistic: EMP would probably seriously weaken networks that all systems rely on. 
John Barnes
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John Barnes,
User Rank: Moderator
9/15/2014 | 4:06:30 PM
Re: Something new to worry about
Charlie, that's actually one of my favorite details about the Carrington Event: for almost a week, telegraphs could be operated with the batteries disconnected (assuming the lines were still up). The induced currents amounted to a few volts per hundred miles of wires (and in those days, nothing interrupted the line -- relays were still more than a decade in the future -- and power came from a-few-volt batteries). Some of the fires were caused by arcing, a few by melted wires, but most by battery explosions; not good for a bi-metal acid battery to be hooked up to several times the current it produces!
John Barnes
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John Barnes,
User Rank: Moderator
9/15/2014 | 4:00:40 PM
Re: clouds at risk
JonLakeland, that's a reasonable assessment. Most events that can produce an EMP big enough to worry about are themselves big enough events to give you (and everyone around you) other, more serious problems. And as long as you're backed up it will really only be a problem if you're dealing with magnetic fields strong enough to corrupt magnetic storage media -- which are some pretty hefty fields and not terribly likely, except from a nearly direct lightning strike.
tjgkg
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tjgkg,
User Rank: Ninja
9/15/2014 | 3:58:53 PM
Re: clouds at risk
From previous reports that is what I took away as well. It was really end of the world stuff. This story made it seem to me that things aren't too bad and it seemed that we actually have some safeguards in place. The grid really needs to be protected because while there are backup power systems out there, they will not last long in an emergency. That we saw as recently as Hurricane Sandy.
Charlie Babcock
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Charlie Babcock,
User Rank: Author
9/15/2014 | 3:55:54 PM
Something new to worry about
The 1859 event moved visibility of the Northern Ligfhts far down into the temperate zones and charged the telegraph wires with so much electricity that they sparked at office junctions, creating fires. The coronal mass ejection is an unlikely event to happen in any one part of the world. Nevertheless, the fact that the 1989 one affected the Hydro-Quebeck region so severely as it did should be a warning. Our electronic devices -- and data --  may get knocked out by nature when we least expect it.
JonNLakeland
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JonNLakeland,
User Rank: Moderator
9/15/2014 | 3:50:22 PM
Re: clouds at risk
What I really took away from this is that should a large scale event occur, whether or not your data survives might not be the big question on your mind.
tjgkg
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tjgkg,
User Rank: Ninja
9/15/2014 | 1:10:08 PM
Re: clouds at risk
That is really interesting. I had no idea. All i hear (I guess like most laymen) are the reports in the news about how vulnerable the infrastructure is and how we can go bsck to the Stone Age with one bad CME. I am glad I have surge protectors on all my important equipment though! With regard to the legislator part, I wish there was a way to just put term limits on all of them. That way they are focused on doing the work of the people and nothing else.
D. Henschen
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D. Henschen,
User Rank: Author
9/15/2014 | 12:54:22 PM
Re: I'm more concerned about a big earthquake in California
That's not to take anything away from and increadibly well researched and thought-provoking presentation. In fact it's reassuring that you've put the risks and scope of possible impacts in clear and very understandable terms. It makes all those Hollywood doomsday movies seem no more real than "The Blob," one of my all-time favorite '50s B movies. Thanks for covering an off-beat topic.
John Barnes
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John Barnes,
User Rank: Moderator
9/15/2014 | 12:44:48 PM
Re: I'm more concerned about a big earthquake in California
D. Henschen, I think on the whole you're probably right.  The Northridge quake back in the 80s rolled back announced dates and deadlines by around a year and a half on average, with quite a few firms just going broke and never recovering, and others more or less leaping to their feet right after.


And the golden lesson from all of this: there's probably no such thing as too much backup when the bad stuff happens.  Unfortunately, the worst happens infrequently enough that it's easy to get careless and/or cheap about it.
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