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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D. Henschen
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D. Henschen,
User Rank: Author
9/15/2014 | 11:59:29 AM
I'm more concerned about a big earthquake in California
On the long list of things we should worry about, I'd say this ranks below the possibility of a significant earthquake disrupting the sizeble tech industry and Internet and cloud infrastructure based in the Silicon Valley and larger San Francisco area. I'm headed out to Oracle Open World and Dreamforce over the next month, so this possiblity is more on my mind than sun spots gone bad.
John Barnes
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John Barnes,
User Rank: Moderator
9/15/2014 | 11:01:14 AM
Re: clouds at risk
Problem here, tgjkg, is that you really can't do much about hardening a long wire, which is what a high-voltage line is; to do what it does it needs to be long and continuous.  You can put fuses or circuit breakers in more often, but a big enough EMP will arc them and there are technical problems with doing that at very high voltages.


The best solution would be to be able to replace the most vulnerable part of the grid, the high voltage transformers, very rapidly if you had to. That's the major bottleneck to getting the power back on.


This is really a classic case of market failure; once in a great while the world might need 5000 HVDC transformers in a period of a few weeks, but normal demand is around 100 per year. The capacity to build a lot more in a hurry will be worth a lot, maybe, once in a lifetime, unpredictably, and there's no way that the information from a very low probability event percolates into market pricing, structure, and investment. It's like FICA or the New Orleans levees: you need a government program that won't be whittled away by legislative showing off for the voters.
John Barnes
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John Barnes,
User Rank: Moderator
9/15/2014 | 10:40:41 AM
Re: Daybreak debunked?
A very fair question, David. There are some aspects I'd do differently if I were doing it again, but yes, one big reason they work as well as they do (aside from authorial convenience) is that civilization has already been pushed back to pretty much Carrington-level technology. 

 

Another trick, which didn't make it past the editorial process in the books (I had an editor whose constant pressure was for "don't explain anything, just blow things up!")  was that (semi-spoiler alert) the EMP bombs were designed and developed by labs a generation or so ahead of the Earthly labs of 2025.  They've been optimized for gamma and X-ray output, i.e. maximum Compton scattering.  So their EMPs are really "double acting" -- a big continent-wide EMP of around a million nT/min from the Compton scattering in the ionosphere, and a local (<100 km across) billion-nT/min bubble caused by Compton scattering in the lower atmosphere directly under the bomb.  That's theoretically possible -- Edward Teller wanted to build an X-ray laser for missile defense that could have been used in that way, and he thought it was doable back in the 1980s -- but as far as anyone outside the black-research world knows, there haven't been any serious attempts at it. (And there'd be no legal and/or undetectable way to test it if you did build one).

Even so, I definitely overclaimed. A billion nT/min might cause sparking and fires in a 1940s-style radio, as I have it doing, but things like big current surges in railroad tracks are flatly impossible. Moral: don't trust fiction for your tech info, or you will be badly overcommitted to magic beans!
David F. Carr
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David F. Carr,
User Rank: Author
9/15/2014 | 10:10:54 AM
Daybreak debunked?
So do you stand by the use of EMP weapons as a plot device in your Daybreak books? I guess part of the reason it was effective there was you had a story of civilization trying to rebuild from about the level of the telegraph.
tjgkg
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tjgkg,
User Rank: Ninja
9/15/2014 | 9:57:50 AM
Re: clouds at risk
"One serious concern you can find in the OECD and FERC reports cited here, however, is that the very large transformers power grids rely on are 1) phenomenally expensive, and 2) mostly hand-built, taking months to do it; a new one takes about a year from order to delivery currently, and fewer than 100 per year are built worldwide."

 

That is what would worry me the most. Especially if you consider that certain nation states are always looking to hack into our grids or target them with missiles. I would have hoped that the powers that be have been working on strengthing the grid infrastructure after all these reports.
Ariella
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Ariella,
User Rank: Author
9/15/2014 | 9:26:50 AM
Re: clouds at risk
"nd you would really want to own stock in a transformer-building company" Ha, maybe I should look into it. My area lost power after Sandy struck. But some blocks got the power back before others. There was a premature attempt to restore power to one part that resulted in a surge that could be seen as a flash of blue light from about a mile away. 
John Barnes
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John Barnes,
User Rank: Moderator
9/15/2014 | 9:12:27 AM
Re: clouds at risk
That is indeed the real message. If your lightning protection is in order, you are already protected against the maximum EMP you are likely to be faced with. If the power grid goes down continent-wide, as long as your facility is not on the ground path for the surge (again, it won't be if you are protected against lightning) then you will have exactly the same problem everyone else does: nothing coming out of the socket for some period of time.


One serious concern you can find in the OECD and FERC reports cited here, however, is that the very large transformers power grids rely on are 1) phenomenally expensive, and 2) mostly hand-built, taking months to do it; a new one takes about a year from order to delivery currently, and fewer than 100 per year are built worldwide. They last for decades, so, for example, the US power grid has about 3000 of them. If any really large number of them were destroyed, it could be months, maybe years, before we got the grid back on line.  (And you would really want to own stock in a transformer-building company).
Ariella
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Ariella,
User Rank: Author
9/15/2014 | 9:04:15 AM
clouds at risk
So we can worry less about the clouds frying and direct all our worries to potential data breaches instead.  
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