Wednesday, May 23, 2012

EMP Event Horizon: The Point of No Return?

CYNTHIA E AYERS May 23, 2012
Merriam-Webster online defines an "event horizon" as "the boundary of a black hole beyond which nothing can escape from within it."   The Free Dictionary describes it as "the region, usually described as spherical, marking the outer boundary of a black hole, inside which the gravitational force is strong enough to prevent matter or radiation from escaping."  A quote from Wikipedia is perhaps more interesting: "In layman's terms it is defined as ‘the point of no return' i.e. the point at which the gravitational pull becomes so great as to make escape impossible. The most common case of an event horizon is that surrounding a black hole. Light emitted from beyond the horizon can never reach the observer."

A black hole is known to be a rather frightening "region of spacetime" which absorbs (or "swallows") everything unfortunate enough to venture past its event horizon.  The actual event horizon isn't the scariest part of this picture.  If put into a descriptive context more general than the conventional "black hole" scenario, however, the label "event horizon" could itself seem chilling.

An electromagnetic pulse (EMP) event caused by a high-altitude nuclear explosion, for instance, could flip the visual-a real black hole sucks matter inward toward a central "spacetime singularity," but a high-altitude nuclear explosion would emit a pulse of gamma rays 360 degrees (line of sight) from the blast toward the earth, forming an "ejected" event horizon determined largely by the altitude of the blast.  Thus, a single nuclear detonation approximately 275-300 miles above Kansas City would form a land-based "black hole" (the area within which the electric grid and other infrastructure elements collapse, long-term) with an event horizon that could encompass the entire United States, the north of Mexico, and southern portions of Canada.
emp schematic       emp usa map
In a manner similar to the mouth of a black hole, the larger the radius of the ground area affected, the more resources are gobbled up.  The geographic location encircled by the event horizon in a post-EMP attack world would go dark in more ways than one-especially if the weapon of choice is a super or advanced EMP (a much more devastating weapon).  It would be hell-on-earth for months, if not years afterward, if unprepared.   Over two-thirds of the population would die within the first year according to the Congressional EMP Commission; and some experts place that estimate closer to 90%.
Adding to the nightmare, nuclear power plants would, within days, run out of diesel fuel for the generators which are needed to continuously cool their spent-fuel rods, many of which are stacked in pools that may or may not be collocated with the power plants.  The point of exposure of these rods could be likened to the Japanese Fukushima Daiichi disaster, and yes - to Chernobyl. 
Indeed, "light emitted from beyond the horizon"-in this case, outside the event horizon-might "never reach the observer" on the inside; although the result of multiple Chernobyl-like crises might provide a terrifying form of light that no sane person would ever want to see.  Considering the potential destruction of the electric grid, followed by the collapse of interdependent infrastructures (communications, transportation, financial and govt. services, etc.), physical escape would be most desirable, but virtually impossible for the vast majority. It would be safe to assume that few, if any of our allies would (or could) come to our aid - and any attack scenario must presume the presence of a prepositioned, armed internal contingent, fully prepared to take kinetic action and/or to sit out the worst of the aftermath until victory over the remaining populous could be easily achieved.
Unfortunately, very similar scenarios can be caused by geomagnetic disturbances (GMD) resulting from large coronal mass ejections (CME).  These stunningly beautiful solar eruptions (the CMEs), when directed at Earth, have been known to destroy or otherwise initiate irreversible injury to the large, extra-high voltage (EHV) transformers that are crucial to the structure and operation of the electric grid.  Even if damage is not readily apparent after a solar superstorm, festering or cumulative injuries from multiple events could eventually cause transformer failure for which replacement is the only option.  Extra-high voltage transformers are virtually impossible to replace in a time-sensitive manner-especially if hundreds are destroyed simultaneously. 
Regardless of cause (nuclear or CME), while individuals within the event horizon will probably not immediately implode as if they were heading toward a spacetime singularity, society will certainly begin to do so. Starvation, disease, exposure and a normal survival instinct, combined with a lack of understanding as to the true nature of the catastrophe can lead to a vortex of increasing societal chaos-a huge black hole, albeit in different context.
Could we escape?  If we protect and defend the most critical parts of the electric grid, either by retrofitting transformers with inexpensive blocking devices, or by "install[ing] capacitors at the neutral-to-ground juncture," we could reduce downtime following such an event to a manageable level.  Passage of legislation such as The Shield Act (H.R. 668) would provide a mandate for action to be taken by the power industry and open avenues for collaboration on related homeland defense issues.  But whether or not efforts to mitigate the worst effects are taken by government and industry, communities and individuals need to prepare for the possibility of a long-term "grid-down" environment. If families were to take it upon themselves to ensure their own survival-as families have done in the relatively recent past-recovery time could be hastened and our prospects for survival as a nation could be vastly improved.
This is one national security issue with which everyone could truly become involved-by helping yourselves, your families, neighbors and communities-and by pressing government and industry leaders for legislation and protection of our electric lifeline.  In so doing, we might be able to ensure a less formidable event horizon following an EMP or GMD, dispelling the notion that such an event would mean the creation of a "point of no return."  There is even a possibility that we could achieve the ultimate goal-to keep a land-based black hole-whether the result of an attack or an act of nature-from forming in the first place.
Family Security Matters Contributing Editor Cynthia E. Ayers is currently Director of the Task Force on National and Homeland Security. Prior to accepting the Task Force position, she served as Vice President of EMPact Amercia, having retired from the National Security Agency after over 38 years of federal service-a period that included 8 years at the U.S. Army War College's Center for Strategic Leadership.

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