Pay Attention to a Warning from Newt Gingrich

Newt Gingrich can throw out more ideas in a week than many politicians do in a lifetime.  However, everyone -- but particularly our leaders in Washington -- should pay attention to his op-ed piece published last week in the Washington Post.

Like all others in Washington, DC, and surrounding Maryland and Virginia suburbs, the Gingrichs were trapped without power for several days caused by a massive summer storm throughout the region. 

Without power, the comforts of home become worthless. You sit in the sweltering heat, realizing you are living in a box that, without electricity, is a trap. You pray for the "juice" to return before your groceries go bad. You either make do in the heat or find refuge with friends who have electricity.

I write this now because of my concern for national security and our power grid, which are susceptible to doomsday-level damage if hit by an electromagnetic pulse (EMP) strike or a major solar storm.

While an EMP event from a nuclear attack is a doomsday scenario in more ways than one, a major solar flare storm presents a more likely possibility.  Scientists have been warning us for decades of this real and serious danger because our nation as well as northern Europe has already experienced one such a frightening occurrence.

The Solar Super Storm of 1859 -- named the Carrington Event after the amateur English astronomer who first reported it -- began as a sunspot array spotted on the morning of September 1.   As Carrington watched, the spots suddenly erupted into two brilliant flares, twice as bright as the sun itself, peaking within 5 minutes and subsiding. 

The following morning, brilliant aurora displays became visible over much of the world as far south as the tropics.  Suddenly, telegraph systems all over Europe and North America failed as wires melted and sparks sprayed out over telegraph poles igniting widespread fires.

The telegraph system represented the high technology of its era.  Imagine the situation today.  The United States relies on power distribution by a vast grid of overhead wires at distances spanning and crisscrossing nearly 200,000 miles.  As such, it presents a huge antenna system vulnerable to massive electric current surges induced by a geomagnetic solar storm.  Such huge currents could easily melt and destroy copper windings in the transformers which provide essential interconnecting links distributed all over the grid -- links which utility companies have interconnected for long distance regional control of power supply and demand.

An interconnected network of EHV transformers (Extra-High-Voltage, 345,000 volts and above) spread around the grid provide a particularly high risk today.  For example, a solar flare in March 1989 disrupted electric power transmission from the Hydro Québec generating station in Canada, blacking out most of the province and plunging 6 million people into darkness for 9 hours.  Aurora-induced power surges even melted power transformers in New Jersey.  While this storm was miniscule compared to the Carrington Event, it demonstrates how major damage to monster EHV transformers, some as large as a small building and requiring years to manufacture in large quantity, would be calamitous.

A major solar storm would wreak havoc in other ways, as landline and satellite communication links went down, sensitive computer circuits melted, and even electronics in cars and trucks failed. A huge solar flare on August 4, 1972, knocked out long-distance telephone communication across Illinois. That event, in fact, caused AT&T to redesign its power system for transatlantic cables.

At present, the principal effort to protect humanity from potential catastrophe involves a new warning system developed by physicists at the University of Delaware in the U.S. and the Chungnam National University and Hanyang University in South Korea.  For certain radiation levels, the system is designed to predict when incoming charged particles will be at their strongest point to help scientists forecast the intensity of potentially harmful radiation aimed directly at Earth.

Such warning may soon be needed as solar activity has become very threatening in recent months.  Reports already suggest that solar storms are heading towards earth once again and will grow in intensity as the sun reaches a predicted solar activity maximum in 2013.

However, a warning measured in hours is not enough.  As Mr. Gingrich notes:

The technology exists to harden at least part of the national electric grid against an EMP attack or major solar storm. Two years ago, in a time of political deadlock, the House approved the Grid Reliability and Infrastructure Defense Act with bipartisan support. It would put in place protections such as fortified bunkers for the national power grid - but this effort stalled in the Senate.

I challenge the president and Congress to picture what it would be like if the power in the nation's capital were still off - or, far worse, if the entire nation were without power for months.

Newt Gingrich is not the first to warn of the catastrophe awaiting our vulnerable, highly technological society from an EMP event.  Will Congress and the president take note?  That's not likely in the current politically charged election year.  However, everyone should urge their congressmen and senators at town hall meetings and in emails or letters to consider this matter seriously.

Oh, and you might want to store some extra food rations and water for the next 12 months or so while maintaining at least a half tank of gas for escape to an area still pumping fuel -- just in case.


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