Canada and the United States are currently vulnerable to an imminent threat that could “topple the pillars of civilization”, says the executive director of the EMP Task Force on National Homeland Security, a U.S. Congressional advisory board.
In a recent trip to Toronto, Dr. Peter Pry discussed the importance of protecting North American infrastructure from an electromagnetic pulse (EMP) attack the effects of which would be devastating.
A well-planned attack would be “a mortal threat to the West,” says Pry, who’s studied the issue since doing his doctorate in strategic studies and then becoming an analyst with the CIA, where he was their EMP point man.
In 1962 the U.S. government conducted a high-altitude nuclear missile test in Hawaii known as Starfish Prime. One of the results that puzzled researchers was why the lights were knocked out and the underground sea cables damaged.
That’s when they became aware that one effect of a nuclear explosion was super-energetic radio waves that carried many thousands of volts. If they hit electronics, they’d be fried in mere nanoseconds.
The common worry with a nuclear weapon is the on-the-ground explosion it makes. But researchers realized an EMP blast above the ground could have a much different, and arguably worse, impact. The higher up it detonates, the wider the field.
“If you can come up 300km in the centre of the USA, it will cover all the states and the edge will hit Canada. All with one bomb,” Pry says, who later worked with Congress for the House Armed Services Committee where he continued his research.
While there are zero deaths from the actual explosion – which is in the air – the EMP field would fry the entire electrical grid. The power transformers are knocked out. Cars shut off. Traffic lights stop.
“When the EMP field is created over the whole country it’s being injected into all your pipelines, all the railroad tracks, all the power lines, all the energy lines,” says Pry. “Naturally, it will cause everything electronic to collapse. This thing threatens the very existence of our electronic civilization. And we are an electronic civilization – everything depends on electronics.”
North America would be under blackout. And it would be a long blackout. Many power transformers and other major devices would need to be rebuilt – which would take a number of months, even years. Emergency generators only have fuel to survive for around 72 hours. And North America only has a food supply to feed people for a couple months.
“We estimated that given the current fact that the grid is unprotected, if something like this were to happen we could lose up to 90% of the population in a year… 9 out of 10 north Americans could die as a consequence.”
If you’re wondering why this isn’t discussed more often, it’s because it was classified information until a U.S. commission released it in 2004 and 2008. Now Pry is on a mission to educate policy makers and military planners on the issue.
Pry’s not alone in his mission either. A letter sent to President Barack Obama urging him to take action on EMP was signed not just by Pry but a former US ambassador to NATO, a former CIA director and various senators and congressmen.
But how serious is this? Could such an attack conceivably happen? Actually, it almost did. In April 2013, North Korea orbited a satellite over the centre of the United States.
“It went over us at the optimum altitude for putting an EMP field down over all 48 contiguous United States,” explains Pry. “So North Korean actually practised a satellite EMP attack.”
Plus, smaller versions of EMP attacks have been conducted by gangs and rebel groups across Europe and Asia.
The good news is protecting ourselves from an attack isn’t that difficult. “We know how to do this,” says Pry. “It doesn’t cost a lot of money. There’s no excuse for us to be vulnerable to this particular threat.”
Man-made electromagnetic pulse attacks (EMP) attacks aren’t the only thing that could take down North America’s electricity grid. They’re also natural occurrences.
Dr. Peter Pry, who’s spent much of his professional life studying EMP, warns that coronal mass injections (solar flares) can also cause massive damage to a world that’s increasingly dependent upon interconnected but fragile electrical grids.
One example of this is the March 1989 geomagnetic storm that took out the Hydro-Quebec power grid. But the big worry is that we’ll see a repeat of the 1859 Carrington Event, which Pry calls the “most powerful geokinetic storm known to us.”
The earth narrowly missed being hit by such a solar storm on July 23, 2012. It would have caused untold damage to electronics throughout the world.
“NASA estimates the probability of such an event is 12% per decade,” notes Pry. “That virtually guarantees that during our lifetime or that of our children we’re going to experience one of these. And sooner than later because we’re overdue for one.”
Will EMP impact airplanes?
“Probably all of them will come crashing down,” Peter Pry says. “This is where you get into the high fatalities because at any given time there are a half a million people being transported through the skies over North America on over a thousand airliners.”
Are EMP weapons readily available? Pry and his team gave funding to academics to test if they could independently build them:
“It took them a year but they built two radio frequency weapons. One of them was designed to fit inside a VW bus and the idea was it would go down Wall St. and shut down the computers and cause an economic crisis. The other one was designed to fit in a shipping crate for a Xerox machine and the idea was you would mail this to the Pentagon and it would sit in their mailroom and fry out all their computers.”
1962 – Starfish Prime test draws attention to nuclear EMP effects
2004/2008 – U.S. declassifies EMP information, public discussion begins
2013 – Several U.S. states undertake steps to protect their grid
TBA – Canada has yet to take steps to harden its grid