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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Charlie Babcock
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Charlie Babcock,
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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.
D. Henschen
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D. Henschen,
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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.
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.
David F. Carr
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David F. Carr,
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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.
Ariella
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Ariella,
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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. 
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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