Steps You Can Take
The impact of a major solar weather event could be felt across entire continents, with areas at relatively high latitudes most vulnerable. In terms of longitude, ultimately it depends on where the earth is in its rotation and which part of the earth’s surface is facing CME when it strikes the earth. Solar storms are not the only problem.
A few months ago, I wrote about the impact of an electromagnetic pulse (EMP) on the infrastructure of this country in three-part article, “The Scariest Disaster Book I Ever Read.” Like space weather events, the United States is shockingly unprepared for an EMP attack. The impact of a major solar event is much akin to an EMP. In the previous series, I pointed out that (like a major solar event) an EMP attack would wipe out computers and the Internet. There would be no electricity, perhaps for years. Gasoline pumps would not work, and aircraft would fall from the skies. Heating and air conditioning would shut down; supermarkets would close for want of distribution. Telephones would go dead, both wireless and wireline. Water would turn off, and radio and television sets would not turn on. Banks and ATMs would cease, credit cards would become useless, and we would become a barter society again for cash, gold, or worse. Emergency services would cease, and hospitals would close. In the ensuing chaos, most Americans would die from starvation in months. According to one expert in an interview entitled “EMP Attack Could Wipe Out US.” the facts are sobering:
“We have a 60-day food supply in big regional warehouses,” Pry claims. “Typically when hurricanes take out the electric power grid locally, that food spoils because it needs temperature control systems and refrigerators to keep it preserved. And if you lose the electric grid across the whole country, you’re going to lose all that food that is the best hope for feeding the American people.”
Even insurers are beginning to take note. At Lloyd’s, the impact of solar storms on earth is an issue that’s long been on the radar, with a report on Space Weather published in 2010:
“We believe that solar storms pose a significant potential threat to business and wider society,” says Neil J. Smith, Manager of Emerging Risks & Research at Lloyd's. “Lloyd’s is working with fellow insurers, scientists, government and other experts to look at ways of addressing and mitigating the impacts.”
According to Aon Benfield, there is a 50/50 possibility that a severe space weather event could be forecast hours in advance, allowing a decoupling or shutdown of the electricity grid in order to save it—although a shutdown would obviously create other liability issues. Their report also points out that any utilities maintain a spare HV transformer, but major issues exist involving compatibility, transportation, and installation. Returning service is a matter of weeks rather than days. Some power grids now include devices to prevent entry of currents produced by space weather events.
The report also suggests that space radiation-induced errors in digital chips can be reduced by using hardened or triple-redundant chips, that high precision local clocks can be used to minimize disruption from corrupted GPS time signals. The report even suggests flying at reduced altitudes to reduce the error rate in digital chips controlling software systems and radiation exposure for passengers and crew, though at the expense of increased fuel use. Of course with adequate warning comes the ability for satellites to be parked in safe mode, minimizing much of the potential damage.
In my previous EMP series, we discussed other means to harden critical infrastructure. We focused significantly on SCADA systems. SCADA (supervisory control and data acquisition) are computer-controlled systems that monitor and control industrial processes such as power generation, refining, water treatment and distribution, wastewater collection and treatment, oil and gas pipelines, power transmission, civil defense siren and warning systems, and telecommunications networks. Because SCADA systems are silicon chip based and because they rarely are hardened against EMP or solar events, they are especially vulnerable. Even so, because SCADA systems look and act a lot like personal computers, some 20 years worth of operating and security standards exist on the care, feeding, and maintenance of such systems. It may, for example, be possible to “harden” SCADA systems against EMP and solar events cost effectively through the use of Faraday cage enclosures or other kinds of shielding.
As a general rule, SCADA system components are frequently situated in remote environments and operate without proximate human intervention. Their critical electronic components are usually contained within some sort of metallic box, which is one component of a Faraday cage. Today’s enclosures are designed to provide protection from the elements and basic physical security. They are not designed to protect the contents from EMP or solar events. But could they be? For one thing, EMP could infiltrate the case from antennas, cables, or other components. Bit is it possible to build a completely EMP-proof enclosure? Sadly, the answer is probably no. Is it possible to build an EMP-resistant enclosure? I believe it is. A few dollars spent on materials and new standards for both enclosures and shielding could drastically reduce damage, particularly for equipment in “fringe” areas more distant from ground-zero of an EMP attack or major solar event.
In any case, heightened awareness of the vulnerability of critical national infrastructures, and in particular SCADA control systems is important. We must first develop a sense of the vulnerability of the underlying hardware components themselves from all angles, and then put the engineers to work. Consider the shielding used in automobile ignition systems. Cars predated radios installed in cars. When radios were first installed, they picked up all kinds of interference from the ignition system in the car. Thereafter came new innovations such as improved shielding on ignition wires, resistor spark plugs, and better grounding and shielding on the radio itself. Consequently, when was the last time that you heard radio static when you stepped on the gas? What’s more, it did not cost a lot to do in hindsight. The same kind of effort is called for here. The first step in solving any problem however is recognition.