Solar Superstorms and the US Electric Grid
America’s existence is dangerously threatened from a devastating electromagnetic pulse (EMP) from a solar superstorm (aka a coronal mass ejection or CME), and neither Republican nor Democratic leaders have resolved to fix it. This must change quickly -- before it’s too late.
A powerful geomagnetic storm, known as the Carrington Event, occurred on September 1-2, 1859. The Carrington Event is named after the British astronomer Richard Carrington who witnessed a dramatic and large white light flare that was associated with a solar CME and resultant major geomagnetic storm. This solar storm knocked out the telegraph system across the United States, demonstrating the devastating effect powerful solar storms can have on an unprotected electric grid.
Though 158 years have passed since the Carrington Event, the United States remains under threat from a solar superstorm that could bring down the electric grid. In fact, on July 23, 2012, the Earth barely missed a solar superstorm comparable in strength to the Carrington Event. Had the 2012 solar storm occurred a mere nine days earlier, the Earth would have been hit. And if the solar superstorm had hit, according to Daniel Baker of the University of Colorado, “we would still be picking up the pieces” in 2014. In an article published in the journal Nature Communications, research physicist Dr. Janet G. Luhmann, who is part of NASA’s STEREO (Solar Terrestrial Relations Observatory) team said that if the 2012 solar storm had hit Earth, “it probably would have been like the big one in 1859, but the effect today, with our modern technologies, would have been tremendous.” Another author and fellow STEREO colleague Dr. Ying D. Liu described the results of a direct hit by a solar storm of this magnitude as follows:
An extreme space weather storm -- a solar superstorm -- is a low-probability, high-consequence event that poses severe threats to critical infrastructures of the modern society. The cost of an extreme space weather event, if it hits Earth, could reach trillions of dollars with a potential recovery time of 4-10 years. Therefore, it is paramount to the security and economic interest of the modern society to understand solar superstorms.
In a 2011 report, the Department of Homeland Security conceded the significant deleterious effects of major geomagnetic storms but claimed that cost-benefit analyses did not justify work toward hardening the electric grid. However, according to a 2012 study by physicist Pete Riley published in Space Weather and quoted by NASA, there is a 12% chance of a solar superstorm comparable to the Carrington Event hitting the Earth within 10 years. This means that within 20 years there is a 23% chance of a destructive solar storm, within 50 years a 47% chance of occurrence, and within a century a 72% chance.
While such looming danger necessitates Congressional approval of legislation that requires hardening the U.S. electric grid from EMP attacks in a thorough and expeditious manner, members of both parties have either not taken the threat seriously enough or have actively stood in the way of protecting the national electric grid. According to a study by the Foundation for Resilient Societies that was presented in 2015 before a Congressional hearing on the EMP threat, the cost of hardening the electric grid would range from $10 billion to $30 billion. In a 2013 letter to President Obama about the threat of EMP, Thomas Popik, the
Chairman of the Foundation for Resilient Societies, wrote that “grid failure is an existential threat to the survival of the United States as a nation and to the American population.”
According to an estimate by Dr. William Graham, chairman of the blue-ribbon Congressional EMP Commission, as much as 90% of the U.S. population could perish from a solar EMP. According to the Foundation for Resilient Societies, “the projected costs of a regional or nationwide electric grid outage lasting months or years vary widely, but range from $1 trillion to over $10 trillion -- plus potential widespread loss of life for the substantial majority of the 320 million people living in this nation.”
According to researchers from the University of Cambridge’s Centre for Risk Studies and other institutions, if the nation’s electric grid fails from a powerful geomagnetic storm, it would cost the U.S. economy up to $41.5 billion per day. This means that a halt to the U.S. economy of even one day would surpass the high estimate for hardening the nation’s electric grid. For perspective, if the outage lasted one year, it would cost up to $15.15 trillion or over 80% of the U.S. GDP, which stood at $18.57 trillion in 2016.
Even in a more “optimistic” scenario where only 10% or even 1% of the population died from the results of a powerful geomagnetic storm, the investment needed to prevent that would be far more than worth it. For perspective, the total number of U.S. military deaths in all American wars throughout the nation’s history amounts to less than 0.5% of the current U.S. population.
The economic costs, and certainly the potential cost in life, easily necessitate swift action to harden the grid. A cost-benefit analysis based on the chance of a major solar storm (even leaving aside the risk from manmade EMP attacks) coupled with the cost of inaction lead to the inexorable conclusion that the nation’s electric grid must be hardened immediately. It is a betrayal of the highest order to leave U.S. citizens in such grave danger.
Resolution of this threat must not be placed on the back burner as Congress and previous presidents have allowed for all too long. The Critical Infrastructure Protection Act (CIPA) that was passed into law as part of the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) in December of 2016 is a toothless bill that requires research “to the extent practicable” into protecting the electric grid. CIPA only mandates that the Department of Homeland Security produce recommendations within a year about hardening the grid, with updates to Congress every subsequent two years. After years of superior bills (like H.R. 2417) being held up in committee or otherwise blocked, CIPA is at least a first step. However, it doesn’t directly mandate any implementation of hardening the electric grid, includes vague language, and is far from adequate to effectively address the EMP threat. The bill expressly grants no regulatory authority to the Administration and no funding for the grid-hardening program.
Congress and President Trump must take accelerated steps to harden the vulnerable U.S. electric grid as well as take further steps to protect all areas within the U.S. military and civilian infrastructure that may remain vulnerable to a solar storm.