EMP, Debunked: The Jolt That Could Fry The Cloud - InformationWeek
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9/15/2014
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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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Hevans1944
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Hevans1944,
User Rank: Guru
9/19/2014 | 1:53:57 PM
iron Triangle Politics
I work (part-time) for a small company that is a probably just a rust spot on the Iron Triangle of political cronyism eminating from Washington DC. Didn't President Dwight D. Eisenhower mention something about this as he was leaving office?

For the past several years the company I work for has been developing (with government funding) a practical photo-conductive semiconductor switch (PCSS) based on a device first discovered, developed and described in the 1990s open literature by Sandia National Laboratories (SNL). Their PCSS holds off high voltages (up to megavolts), turns on very fast (sub-nanoseconds), stays on after optical triggering until current drops below a certain threshold (like an SCR), conducts high current (thousands of amperes) while turned on, and is inexpernsive to produce (a few hundred dollars each in production quantities). Unlike the SNL version, ours lasts for more than a few shots under the above conditions because we discovered how to produce a uniform current flow (instead of a "lightning-like" discharge) between the switch contacts. There are some caveats, but it works pretty well.

At this time the only (government funded) application for our new and improved PCSS is as an exciter for an EMP simulator used for testing the EMP susceptability of ... whatever. The technology is subject to export controls by the State Department, so only sales to U.S. citizens are allowed, just in case anyone reading this wants to place an order.

I believe the E1 EMP threat is real and defendable. But how do you test whether your EMP defense is adequate? We need properly instrumented testing using an EMP-producing device, preferably something that is gamma-enhanced like the orbiting x-ray lasers once proposed for a Star Wars defense against incoming ballistic missiles. Of course we would have to abrogate the nuclear test ban and several other treaties, and suffer the consequences of global condemnation and some fallout, but perhaps a half-dozen or so tests would be sufficient to verify the adequacy of our current ground-based EMP E1 simulators.

Perhaps fortunately, I doubt there are enough War Hawks left with enough political clout to move forward with realistic and verifiable EMP testing using high-altitude nuclear detonations. Also, there are probably some things best left undiscovered, like what will happen if the next CME hits the Earth dead-on. Or a gamma-ray burster a few parsecs away happens to point one of its beams in our direction.

At my age, I will adopt the Alfred E. Neuman philosophy: What? Me worry? Thank you, John Barnes for putting it all in perspective. I think I'll head on over to Amazon to see what else you have to say.
cmanto2151
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cmanto2151,
User Rank: Guru
9/19/2014 | 1:15:58 PM
Re: clouds at risk
Your point about the time it takes to produce large transformers is correct in addition to your other comment that the capacity to build many is limited so if a lot were needed in a hurry then there would be long waiting lines (years long) with the possibility of building additional factory capacity which would also take a while.

As to lighteniing protection, which is invaluable, it appears to replicate much of the E-2 portion of the EMP pulse and does not protect against the E-1 part of the pulse which functions at nanosecond rates.  It would be helpful to get a nuclear effects physicist or engineer to comment further on that part of the discussion since it is easy to oversimplify the issue.  You are raising a lot of the right questions, however.
cmanto2151
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cmanto2151,
User Rank: Guru
9/19/2014 | 9:36:05 AM
Re: Something new to worry about
I am not sure if you were aware of recent tests conducted by Idaho National Laboratory on a live portion of a power grid.  This and other research has been released just in the last year or two and may be more helpful than conjecture from the facscinating events on telegraph wires.
cmanto2151
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cmanto2151,
User Rank: Guru
9/19/2014 | 9:26:37 AM
Re: The complicated politics of E1
Just a few quick comments, again, in the interest of welcoming thoughtful homework and discussion.  It appears that you are sincere by virtue of the time you have taken to write about this, etc.  Much of the work done on this has now become avaiable to the public.  The "EMP Knots Untied" article and other related material appears to make the case that the requirements for an E-1 attack do not require as much precision as you suggested and that non-state actors could pull it off.  But, more to the point, there are commonalities with that threat and the E-3 of a manmade EMP that are similar to the ground induced currents of a strong solar storm (like the one we narrowly missed on July 23, 2012) that are worth examining.  Also, the research material shows that the cost of protecting the most critical infrastructure is not that much.  The bulk of it would be provided by many methods, mostly by organizations and companies that have little to nothing to do with an "iron triangle".  Many of the engineering methods that could be employed to resolve one or more of these electromagnetic interference issues could also save money on other day-to-day intereference problems that degrade systems and cost money.  A recent Space Journal article of this past July showed how even small solar storms create 500 insurance claims each year.  Working to improve the reliability of vulnerable systems would pay daily dividends while insuring against a more catastrophic and less frequent event.  This is not unlike the value being offered by engineers in the electromagnetic compatibility field who help every time they make their systems less susceptible to the interference of a neighboring motherboard or power supply.  (Note the valuable on-going work of the IEEE Electromagnetic Compatibility Society.)

I am personally aware of several companies that plan to build in EMP protection at no extra cost to their customers since this is an area that most customers do not understand well in the first place. (Aside from a few companies who make money selling to a shrinking defense market, most who would try to "sell" into a non-existing civilian infrastructure market will have to wait a long time for a rather small reward.)  The economic impact assessment that takes a risk based approach to the problem has also shown that protecting the most critical 10% of infrastructure could save more than 60% of the economic losses in a meduim impact event.  So, relative costs are not all that great even if not built into systems. But, relatively little has been done so far compared to what still needs to be done.

As to the motives for those who talk about this --. Thanks for mentioning your appreciation for sincerity of many working on the topic. Like you who appear to be more patriotic than mercenary, many of those who care deeply about work on this issue as volunteers.  Those who do or could make the most money on this often are on the sidelines waiting for the governement "requirement" to be issued in the form of an RFP.  Many work on this issue with no pay and at great personal sacrifice just as they do when they serve as a volunteer fire fighter or Red Cross Volunteer.  Some who do get paid on related jobs work extra on their own time to make sure these issues get a fair hearing. You and other readers are welcome to join in on various efforts to mingle with others who are putting their lives on the line to work through these issues.  It sometimes helps to meet these people face to face to better assess their sincerity, motives, credentials and various levels of capability to address these concerns.

That also addresses another need we have as we address the vulnerability of our critical infrastructure and that is the vulnerability of our relationships and communities.  If we can do a better job of helping others build stronger relationships and local communties, we will minimize these threats in the first place and be better positioned to cope with them after the fact.  In the meantime, we get to make more friends and find life more rewarding.  It also helps to diffuse what I see is a temptation to overly politicize and polarize people over these issues.

I bet you are already very involved in your local community.   I appreciate Information Week for providing such a blog.  I welcome you and others to do even more whether it is at your local church, volunteer organization... or by joining InfraGard.  (It costs nothing but some of your time.)  Maybe it will be my good fortune to  bump into some of you in these varous endeavors.  Good luck...
cmanto2151
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cmanto2151,
User Rank: Guru
9/19/2014 | 8:50:13 AM
Re: Sorting out fact from EMP fiction
Thank you.  I am the editor of the collection of articles and presentations contained in the "High-Impact Threats to Critical Infratructure" that form a series of presentations on technology and policy implications from a broad array of presenters across private and public sectors.  There are a number of policy conclusions that different presenters and panelists take but they may not all agree with each other except on a few issues including that there are policy gaps that need to be addessed.  There is also consensus that there are high-imapct threats that could impact the country for more than a month and that regardless of the cause, the effects are often similarly destructive primarily because of the cascading effects on interdependent infrastructures and supply chains.  Most who are very experienced in these various threat venues may hold different views about the degree and likelihood of the problem but still take them serously.  It would be interesting to know which policy conclusions of which presenters you believe are dubions and let them answer objections to their ideas.  In fact, we list the presenters' biographies in the book with their emails so that you can contact them on your own. In the Kindle version, those emails are hyperlinked for your convenience.

We welcomed those with opposing viewpoints and provided platforms for interactions in sessions as time permitted. We also provided a bibliography of resources in the appendix of those with various points of view and hyperlinked them in the Kindle version providing a virtual electronic library of resources.  All are welcome to see the various presentatons at no cost through YouTube or the Policy Studies Organization website covering the Dupont Summit sessions of the InfraGard National EMP Special Interest Group.  We plan to hold another series of public presentations this year on Friday Dec 5 which will also be webcast for those who cannot make it in person.  They are presented so those with emergency management and business continuity responsibility can do their own homework and form their own conclusions. Information was also provided in the DomesticPreparedness.com article on solar storms.
John Barnes
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John Barnes,
User Rank: Moderator
9/19/2014 | 5:33:41 AM
The complicated politics of E1
So when it became apparent  in the late 1990s and early 2000s that there was some real risk that the E1 pulse might produce something closer to the movie-nightmare version of EMP -- a really intense magnetic flux over a really wide area -- a classic Washington "iron triangle" formed around it. For those of you who don't know the term, an iron triangle consists of an executive branch agency or agencies at one corner, Congressional staffers of the relevant committee members (and especially heads) at the second corner, and private contractors/NGOs at the third. Personnel and ideas flow freely between the corners, with the agencies doling money to the private sector by authorization of Congress.  Each corner protects, defends, and enhances the other two.

Beginning with Congressional hearings during the Bush administration and some extensively funded research projects, there has been a fair bit of research money poured into possible severe EMP effects on infrastructure (by which they usually mean the power grid and communications networks). As a result there is a Republican-dominated EMP Caucus in the House, a dozen or so private research companies and university labs doing EMP research, and an intersection of DoD, FERC, and various other inter-agency liaisons, all dedicated to the investigation.

So far, so good; it's scary, we don't know nearly enough about it, it ought to be investigated.

It is conspicuous, however, that policy recommendations coming out of that iron triangle have tended to involve large amounts of money for various ways of hardening the infrastructure, and that that money would flow into some pretty small corners of the military industrial complex.  This is going to make some people and companies very rich, make the careers of some civil servants, and do all the things that association with a successful program do for a congressthing and his/her staff and party.

Remember, this is resting on computer models built on lab simulations, measurements of normal conditions, and a reasonably strong hypothesis about how to interpret two badly-recorded anomalous events 50 years ago.

So, since our audience here is people with an interest in government administration, is it time to add a line to the table on slide 3 for "Continent wide, billions to 10s of billions of nT/min, immediate and expensive hardening needed right now?"

Based on what I see, this is many billions of dollars of policy hanging on a pretty slim basis. That doesn't mean it will be forever; the research should be continued, the case made. The people working on this are clever and if there's a way to reach a clear, well-supported conclusion, they'll get there. But based on what has been published so far, they don't quite look like they'll get there yet.

This is not necessarily a matter of anyone's doing anything other than their best; almost by definition, if an event is rare or improbable enough and risky enough, and if the remedies are expensive enough, you run into just these kinds of debates.  At exactly what point, for example, did or should scientists move from trying to verify climate change to trying to figure out what to do about it? The evidence began fairly shaky; has firmed up quite a bit; it has not firmed up enough for everyone yet (and may never).

Here's the other reason why I don't think we need to worry about the carefully engineered super-EMP: while it seems to be technically possible (as much as a layman without a security clearance can judge) to make a prompt-gamma-enhanced warhead, it is probably very difficult for any but the very most advanced and experienced bomb-builders worldwide -- which means the US and the Russians, probably the Chinese and EU, and very likely no one else. It's not something just anybody puts together with some reading in the college library.

To achieve the really frightening E1 effects, furthermore, that bomb has to go to a fairly precise altitude over the target area, which is a job for a good-sized rocket, and any old rocket won't do that, either. 

Mating a bomb to a rocket is also extremely non-trivial.

So we can eliminate terrorist groups and criminal gangs from doing all that; it's just too hard for it to be credible.

That leaves states.  A state, by definition, has territory, people, and resources subject to retaliation, and a leadership that can be hunted down and shot, or at least dragged to the Hague and humiliated. True, if that state were able to absolutely, positively blanket its enemy with a billion nT/min, there might be nothing left capable of retaliating --

-- if in fact the science is all correct

-- if there's nothing they don't know about from not having done any tests

-- if every single part of that complex specialized nuclear bomb and rocket combination works right the first time you ever put it together (remember, you can't test).

As the leadership of a great and powerful state, would you ever take such a bet?

If there's a danger at all, it's that a collapsing state with nuclear weapons and rockets might take a wild shot on the way down, and everything might work perfectly, and the EMP would turn out to be much easier to produce and much bigger than could have been expected. Or in short, a really crazy government on its way out, takes its one sorta-working bomb, puts it on its almost-working ICBM, everything works, and then it turns out that all the unknowns in the research actually favored the attacker.

Again, how crazy do they have to be to take that bet? Knowing what will happen if it doesn't pay off, given that what they were trying to do will be screamingly apparent?

Theoretically, in martial arts, there are some "death strikes" that are supposed to enable a 110-pound desk jockey to kill or incapacitate a professional heavyweight boxer. Now imagine that desk jockey has done extensive library research and read the daylights out of descriptions of death strikes, and furthermore has lifted some weights and maybe even taken some tae kwon do. How smart would he be to attack that heavyweight, even so?

So, adding it all up: the science is still forming and being done. The cost of doing the recommended policy is enormous and looks as if it will mostly flow to one political faction and their cronies. And for an opposing nation (one of the very few that could) to launch such an attack requires some suicidal mixture of stupidity and madness.

Check back in a few years, but for right now, this one doesn't look like a reasonable deal to me. Rather, it looks like an iron triangle trying to hit a jackpot.
John Barnes
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John Barnes,
User Rank: Moderator
9/19/2014 | 4:51:44 AM
Re: CMOS - EMP
It is quite true that an IC, once "cooked", is cooked for good, where older tube electronics and electromechanical systems could quite often recover with time or a few cheap spare parts.


The issue here is whether there is a serious potential threat of an EMP of a billion or more nT/min over a wide area (roughly continent-scale seems to be the common definition of "wide").  There's no question that EMPs can cover wide areas, and no question that they can be as intense as a billion nT/min.

To let the rest of the readers in on the issue here: a high altitude nuclear EMP has 3 components: the very brief E1, caused by Compton scattering of the prompt gamma; the not-much-longer-on-the-human-scale E2, which resembles the threat from lightning or from tactical nuclear weapons (in fact, it's pretty much the same process covered in the section about tactical nukes); and the could-be-many-minutes E3, which very closely resembles a geomagnetic storm, though some orders of magnitude bigger.  E2 is intense but local; E3 is widespread and more intense than anything we've seen from a solar storm, but still comparable.

The question is what that E1 would really be like, and the answer is, at the moment, foggy. Soviet Test 184 and the Starfish test both had some very weird side effects -- a long blown out power line for 184 and significant interference with a streetlight grid 1300 miles away for Starfish.  Because no one was expecting those effects, there weren't instruments where we'd like them, but calculations from the estimated nT to produce that effect certainly does point to some process that releases energy far beyond the better understood E2 and E3.  Furthermore, instruments that were in place did detect physical signs consistent with an E1.

Because atmospheric testing was halted immediately afterward (as part of the test ban treaty) those very imperfect observations have been the basis of a great deal of study and speculation.  The eventual explanation settled on was that prompt gamma (the cause of E1) causes far more free electrons and charged particles than had been anticipated, at far higher energies, for a very brief time (which means the effect is all the more intense). Thus there are massive "Compton currents" in the upper atmosphere that, at least according to some calculations, could cause ground Dsts in the billion-nT or bigger range.

And at that point, yes, you most certainly could talk about destruction of microelectronics across wide areas, and possibly erasure/corruption of magnetic media (which would make a mess of many things), starting with hard drives.

The problem is that the possibility of such a drastic effect rests on two tests with ambiguous results, a reasonably satisfactory but hard to test explanation of the results, and computer simulations that are consistent with that explanation.

I'll write a separate note about the policy problem that poses because I'd like to make it clear that I don't doubt the integrity of people doing the studies on E1 phenomena; they do need investigating and they are something to worry about. So I'm not disputing the physics (except insofar as confirming experiments are mercifully scarce); I am arguing that the line from it to certain policy conclusions is deeply dubious.
John Barnes
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John Barnes,
User Rank: Moderator
9/19/2014 | 4:25:34 AM
Re: Sorting out fact from EMP fiction
I happily (and heartily) second it as recommended reading for people interested in the issue; I believe you are the editor of that book? 


Nonetheless, for reasons that will become clear in my other comments, I think that while the integrity of the researchers and the validity of their efforts is not in question, the policy conclusions are extremely dubious.
Gary_EL
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Gary_EL,
User Rank: Ninja
9/18/2014 | 10:57:37 PM
CMOS - EMP
What is sometimes overlooked is that while EMP will damage and temporarily incapacitate old fashioned telegraphy and vacuum tube systems, an IC is FRIED PERMANENTLY. So are the devices that build IC's, because, they, too, are composed of semiconductors. What used to be a device composed of 1,000,000's of semiconductors is now one big conductor. CMOS IC's are particularly susceptable, and if the EMP is from a high-altitude nuclear detonation, areas of 100,000's of thosands of square miles are effected.
cmanto2151
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cmanto2151,
User Rank: Guru
9/16/2014 | 2:33:40 AM
Sorting out fact from EMP fiction
There is a great article by a top EMP professional, Dr. George Baker, who wrote an article on "EMP Knots Untied".  It is part of a book entitled "High-Impact Threats to Critical Infrastructure" available from Amazon or Kindle.  There are a series of other studies in the appendix that are also helpful.  This also covers some of the work of scientists covering the July 23, 2012 near miss.  See the recent article in DomesticPreparedness.com for links to other scientific studies that have appeared this past July on solar storms.  Best of luck to all who will take the time to review research on high-impact low-frequency threats and consider how we might modify how we make our local communities and lifestyles more sustainable.
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