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Responding To An EMP & CME

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Nothing can make an emergency worse than being far away from your entire support network.  When you’re near friends and family, there’s always someone to work with in a disaster situation.  And that can make a world of difference.

Reader Marc W. recently shared some of his concerns.

I’m a truck driver, 63 yrs old. 170 lbs. In good shape. I’m a furniture mover and I drive most of the 48 states… For me, a worst case scenario would be something like an EMP or CME while I’m out east of the Mississippi River. Especially in a heavily populated area like NYC. Where would I go, what would I do?

Well, Marc, I think we can break this down and come up with some solutions.

Electromagnetic Pulse

First of all, I want you to relax and not worry about an EMP.  As Jason Hanson mentioned in his article about how to survive a nuclear blast, the chances of getting any sort of nuclear missile past our missile defense system are slim.  That alone doesn’t mean it can’t happen, just that it’s very unlikely.

For those who don’t know, an EMP (Electromagnetic Pulse) weapon is a theoretical weapon that might be created by a nuclear explosion high in the air via a missile.  Our missile defense systems would likely stop it.

But to further decrease the chances of an EMP is the cost-benefit analysis.  We need to look at the economics of war to see how likely some things are.  Nuclear missiles cost billions of dollars.  An EMP, at most, would create billions of dollars in damage.  It’s not a high return on investment.  It would make much more sense to allow it to detonate on the ground and create trillions of dollars in damage.

That doesn’t mean the question is bad, just that you can cut your stress on the matter in half.

Coronal Mass Ejection (CME)

A coronal mass ejection, on the other hand, is a real threat.  I hesitate to use the word threat because it is an act of nature, not an enemy threat.  But it is still a threat to our survival and way of life.

I’d like to let Space Weather Live explain to you what a CME is.

A coronal mass ejection (or CME) is a giant cloud of solar plasma drenched with magnetic field lines that are blown away from the Sun during strong, long-duration solar flares and filament eruptions.

The concern here is that a powerful CME could fry electronics here on Earth.  In fact, this has happened in the past.  In 1959, one known as the Carrington Event, caused telegraph equipment to spark up and start fires.  And we are expected to have more CMEs at some point in the future.  If another event like the Carrington Event occurred today, it could take out our entire electrical grid.  The sparks that leapt from the telegraph machines might occur in transformer across the affected region, shutting down the entire system.

This event would also shut down Internet and GPS.  Needless to say, it could do some damage.

But the bright side is that, unlike an EMP, it’s a low-frequency event.  This means, at least in theory, it should require very long antennas to cause a problem.

We actually get hit by CMEs more often than most people think.  CMEs are accompanied by auroras that can reach down to the United States.  During the Carrington Event, Auroras were reported as far south as Cuba.  These normally are not powerful enough to impact our grid, but some have been.

Aurora caused by CME

Aurora and sunset by Frank Olsen | Creative Commons 3

About Your Truck

I want to point out that this section is pure speculation.  I’m neither a mechanic nor a solar scientist.  I am only going to come up with some ideas that “might” work.  If any mechanics or solar experts want to chime in, please leave a comment below.

OK…

As mentioned, this type of event should require extremely long antennas to make an impact.  Our Internet and Power Grids will act as these antennas.  Chances are that they will be shut down.  But your vehicle, at least in theory, should not be impacted.

However, there is a risk that your vehicle’s electronics could be impacted.

Most of the electronics in your truck aren’t all that important.  You can live with the windows stuck up or down.  You probably won’t be getting your favorite radio station in this situation anyway, so the fact that your radio might not work is not that big of a concern.

However, there are some electric components that are critical to the functionality of the modern vehicle.  One that comes to mind is the ignition.  If you’re in a moving truck, there’s a good chance it is a manual and you can push start it as a last resort.  The motor and transmission shouldn’t be affected at all, so it should still run.

The one caveat to that is the fuel injector.  Back when I did work on cars, the fuel injector was some new-fangled thingy and I wasn’t working on new vehicles.  If you had a carburetor, I’d be much more comfortable saying “forget the electronics”.  I’m just not sure how well a fuel injection system will work without electrical components.  You may want to ask your mechanic if there is any way to bypass the electrical systems the next time you take the truck in.

Where To Go

Whew!  We’re finally back in on a subject where I feel comfortable giving advice.

Essentially, you should try to get out of those high-population areas.  I recommend at least an hour away from major populations and some place that has a regular water source.

Where do you generally sleep?  If you’re in a big rig, this may be a truck stop where you occasionally crash for the night.

In something smaller like a U-Haul?  You may sleep in a hotel.  If you’re staying in hotels, I’d look at switching over to RV parks for these stops.  Most have cabins if you don’t have a sleeping compartment, and many have additional resources available.  I recently stayed at an RV park on Lake Santee.  The people were wonderful, the water was relatively clean, and I could have gone fishing in some sort of disaster situation.

Route Planning

Plan your routes in a way that you can stop at the same place frequently.  You may need two or three hubs near the east coast to make this work.  Maybe one on I-80 and another on I-20.  I don’t know what routes you normally take, so you’ll have to come up with this on your own.  But there are only a few major arteries that flow across the country and if you can have a “safe point” on each, you should be good.

Just make sure that you can get to these places in your truck.  Make sure to fill your gas tank prior to entering any major city.  This is good practice for anyone in any vehicle.

What To Do

Start with some basic social engineering.  This may seem like some devious, advanced spy skill, but it’s really not.  Just get to know someone at these places.  Talk with the people that run the truck stop or RV park.  It can be any employee and just a quick chat.  Get to know them by name, and get them to know you by name.  As long as someone there remembers you, you won’t likely be turned away simply because the power is out.

A couple of years ago the power went out in the neighborhood I was living in.  I went to the store to pick up a few beers and enjoy the tranquility.  As I walked in the little convenience store, the owner was turning a customer away.  When I asked if they were closed, the owner replied: “Not for you.  We’ll just run a tab and you can pay us later if you don’t have cash.”

I did have cash, but it was reassuring to know that I had options if the power stayed out.  Remember, business owners don’t want to turn away business, so if they know your name, they’ll generally be happy to run a tab for you and trust that you’ll pay when the lights come back on.

Be Prepared to Contribute

You mentioned that you generally have between 4 and 14 gallons of water on hand.  That should get you to where you’re going, but it won’t be enough to share.  Consider getting a water filter that would handle thousands of gallons.  Having a solar shower may also make you a prime contributor.  Neither take up much space or weigh very much.

Also, make sure you have cash on hand.  By just being able to pay cash, you are not only able to pay, but you give the business some working capital to make purchases on the local economy.  Other valuables like silver or gold may be accepted as well.

Can you fish?  If you know how to fish, you may want to pack a fishing pole and a small tackle box.  If you can pull a few fish out of a nearby lake or river, you can become an important member of the community when this event lasts long enough to affect food supplies (which won’t take long).

Fishing is just one example.  Only you know what talents you could bring in a disaster situation.  Be prepared to contribute to a community by having some supplies to share and skills/tools to help out.  Start making contributions early and often.  This will get you in the business owner’s good grace and keep you from being asked to leave.

The Good News

CMEs should not come as a huge surprise.  You may have a couple of days notice before one reaches us.  For the most part, planning for a CME isn’t much different than planning for other types of emergencies.  Know where you’re going to go and how you’re going to survive until things get back to normal.  That may be months with a CME, but it may be months for people in Houston right now as well.

 

13 Comments

  • Mark Willis says:

    Jason:

    Stupid question. Why is it that when a tornado or hurricane blows down all the power lines in an area, when they rebuild they always put the lines back above ground where they will get blown down again, instead of putting them below ground where they will be safe? I don’t understand the logic(?!).

    • Jason Crawford says:

      Hey Mark,

      I’m going to take a guess that it’s pure economics. Putting a power line overhead is simply much cheaper. According to Wikipedia, it can range from 2 to 14 times as much to put the lines underground.

      https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Undergrounding

      In addition, there’s a time issue. Customers will have an expectation, a reasonable one I think, that the power company will be doing everything they can to get the power back up as quickly as possible. Putting the lines underground would require significantly more time as they not only have to dig the whole line area, but they can’t even begin digging until a proper survey has been conducted. And who knows what obstacles they might run into.

      So I guess they’re making a decision that most customers don’t want to wait and don’t want to pay the higher bills that would be associated with that level of security.

      But there may be more to it than that. Maybe there’s someone from the energy industry in the audience that can expand on the situation.

    • Samuel says:

      The wires stay cooler and need less insulation. I f they are put underground they would have to be heavily insulated and much larger to deal with the heat created from the current.

  • Ken says:

    ” An EMP, at most, would create billions of dollars in damage.”

    I’d like to know how you arrived at this figure? Maybe in terms of the initial infrastructure destroyed it would “only” be in the billions but an EMP would grind all economic activity to halt. The aftermath would be devastating and cripple any ability we would have to mount a counterattack (in terms of our factories building more armaments). Sorry I stopped reading there. I can’t take anything else in the article seriously after a short sighted statement like that.

    • Jason Crawford says:

      Hey Ken,

      The United States is estimated to have over 4,000 nuclear weapons right now (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Nuclear_weapons_and_the_United_States), all of which are presumably well protected from EMP and Nuclear strikes. I’m pretty sure a counter-attack wouldn’t be a problem.

      In addition, some of the most critical parts of our infrastructure are already protected. Yes, it would cause damage to the affected area, but the idea that we’d be knocked back into the stone-age is pure fiction. It’s good fiction, but that’s it. If a nuclear weapon is going to be used, it would make a much worse impact by striking critical cities.

      I’m going to recommend you check out the article I shared with DRW.

      Thanks for your thoughts.

      Best Wishes

  • DRW says:

    Our current missile defense is predicated on the assumption that a missile launch towards the US will come from the North or West. Ballistic missiles follow “Great Circles” and in the case of North Korea the shorter Great Circle path would approach the US from the north west. However if North Korea used the longer Great Circle path, it would approach from the South where we are currently vulnerable. They have already launched two satellites into permanent orbit so it would not be prudent to believe they cannot do this, Also, it has been estimated by experts that an EMP attack on the US could kill 90% of the population during the first year of the aftermath, so economics is not the only criteria.

    • Jason Crawford says:

      Hey DRW,

      I keep hearing this “90% of Americans will be dead within the first year” claim, but nobody seems to know who these experts are or where this claim comes from. Popular Mechanics claims that it came from a fiction novel: http://www.popularmechanics.com/military/weapons/a25883/north-korea-cant-kill-ninety-percent-of-americans/

      I’d also like to see a reliable source that indicates that the U.S. is only protected from the West. This doesn’t match my understanding of our missile defense systems.

      I’m glad to have your comment, but there are enough real threats in the world that we don’t need to blow this one out of proportion.

      Best Wishes

  • Redneck Bear says:

    Hi,

    I’m a bit surprised by this part:
    “Nuclear missiles cost billions of dollars. An EMP, at most, would create billions of dollars in damage. It’s not a high return on investment.”

    Of course, the damage to the power lines, transformers, power plants … other stuff like computers, radios … and also all connected things, even backup generators … the damage costs would be terrible, but – wouldn’t it be billions of dollars in immediate damage … but with much higher damage caused by the following chaos and the dissolution of the society and laws?

    Very nice site, greetings from Czech Republic!

    Sincerely,

    Redneck 😀

    • Jason Crawford says:

      Hey Redneck Bear,

      The “dissolution of the society and laws” is very speculative. The best thing we can use as a guide for this kind of attack would be major power outages. I am yet to see any massive civil unrest during any of the major power outages that have ever occurred in the United States. While losing electricity and internet would be uncomfortable, it doesn’t compare to the devastation that would be caused by an actual nuclear blast taking out a major population area. That would certainly cause all sorts of chaos.

      I believe one of the reasons that so many people are talking about an EMP attack is that one has never occurred. This gives them free reign to make all of the claims they want without having to back it up with any historical evidence. Looking back at real history, I’m convinced the people of Hiroshima and Nagasaki would be thrilled to go back and have the U.S. explode those bombs overhead to take out their electricity.

      You mention that things like power lines, radios, and backup generators would be affected. Even in the limited experience we have with these types of disasters, powerlines have never been affected. Power lines absorb and transfer the energy, but they aren’t simply destroyed. Radios might be impacted if they are plugged in. Backup generators should have appropriate surge protection to keep them safe from the overall grid damage.

      I’m starting to think this post needs a follow up explaining how the energy from these devices is moved.

      Thanks for the great comment and bringing specific concerns.

      • Redneck Bear says:

        Thank you for your answer!

        You’re of course right about no massive civil unrest regarding major power outages in the US and about the nuclear weapon bringing much more destruction. And also about the fact no EMP attack ever occurred.

        Why I (not only, lol) find the “dissolution of the society and laws” so probable because that’s what usually happens in every large-scale, more than short-term disaster. Take Katrina – relatively small area and looting, yet quite some looting and violence after the bad guys realized no cops are going to kick their butts.

        As for the part of my concerns regarding the power lines, those were based on the the US and USSR tests of the EMP weapons in the 1962. For example:
        “It knocked out a major 1000-kilometer (600-mile) underground power line running from Astana (then called Aqmola).”
        (http://www.futurescience.com/emp.html)
        “The EMP from Test 184 also knocked out a major 570 kilometer long overhead telephone line by inducing currents of 1500 to 3400 amperes in the line.”
        (http://www.futurescience.com/emp/test184.html)

        My personal, non-professional view I got from the Net and some fiction books (LOL, I know) on the EMP is that it’s like the CME but with some other stuff – not connected to the power lines – destroyed as well.

        I would appreciate any future article regarding this issue, as well as any other. Again, nice site you have!

        Sincerely,

        Redneck 😀

        • Jason Crawford says:

          Hey Redneck Bear,

          I think Hurricane Katrina is a bad example for this type of event for a variety of reasons.

          First, New Orleans was evacuated. That means that people weren’t there to defend their homes. In an EMP, there won’t be any place to evacuate to, so people will be home to defend their property. And guns won’t be affected by an EMP.

          Second, New Orleans already had a very high crime rate. I dug up an article from before Hurricane Katrina discussing how New Orleans violent crime rate was triple that of the average U.S. city. If you’re in an area that is prone to high crime rates before a power outage, then you should expect it to rise. In comparison, we’ve seen very little looting and a lot of neighbors helping neighbors in the aftermath of Hurricane Harvey. Here’s the article on New Orleans violent crime in 2014: http://www.nola.com/crime/index.ssf/2015/01/new_orleans_murders_down_in_20.html

          As for the powerlines, it’s not the lines themselves. In the article you link to, they specifically say in the next paragraph “All of the overvoltage protectors fired, and all of the fuses on the line were blown.” My point to the lines not being destroyed is that they wouldn’t need to be replaced. Yes, fuses and other items like transformers would mostly need to be replaced. But that is a lot faster and cheaper to do that replacing all of the lines as some would have you believe is necessary. Many of the larger (step up) transformers are reported to have built-in protection against EMPs. It all boils down to how long would it take to get the power back on, and while one might turn out to be the largest power outage in U.S. history, I don’t think it would be the end of the grid as it’s portrayed.

          Thanks for bringing quality references! It’s frustrating to compete with fiction alone on these topics.

  • Brian says:

    The EMP commisiom tested vehicles up to 2002. They concluded about 10% will be effected.

    • Jason Crawford says:

      Hey Brian,

      I have seen that number in some reports, but I haven’t seen any information on what makes the difference. I wonder if it has to do with the size of the vehicle as more wire length would increase the amount of the energy received. So maybe a truck like discussed here would be more susceptible. But I don’t know that for sure. Anyways, thanks for bringing that up.

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