Tuesday, November 18, 2008

Electromagnetic Pulse: YouTube has some substantial videos on the ultimate "mega-disaster"

Imagine one day, perhaps an early morning, you’re sitting at your computer. The power goes out. That happens, even for no reason sometimes (look at the Northeast in August 2003). Okay, you have an uninterruptible power supply for your computer, or it is a laptop with a charged battery. But it freezes too, perhaps goes dark. That’s strange. You go upstairs because you have to go to work. But your car won’t start.

Outside, people mull around. Nobody knows what has happened. But this would be the scenario for an electromagnetic pulse burst, possibly from a high altitude crude or small nuclear weapon, possibly launched from a freighter ship a few hundred miles in the Atlantic. There might or might not be fallout issues later. It would be a very long time before you could get reliable information from authorities.

This has to be a good idea for a movie that ought to be made. (In fact, I do have a short film screenplay for this scenario.) But if it happens, there might not be any movies for a very long time.

Youtube has a few videos on the topic. The most informative may be “The End Time Prophet Presents Electromagnetic Pulse,” link here. True, the website flashes “Rapture Information” and has a religious motive. (The date it gave for our demise, 12/21/2007, has already passed; I wonder about 2012, the Mayan date.) But the narrator, with some pretty good illustrations over 9 minutes, traces the history of nuclear weapons, starting with the Trinity Test (as in the opera "Doctor Atomic") over New Mexico in July 1945. By 1952 we had fusion hydrogen bombs, and the Soviets were soon surpassing us. In 1961 the Tazr was the largest nuclear weapon ever detonated. In 1962 Project Dominic, by the US, accidentally did a lot of damage to the electrical infrastructure of several Hawaiian Islands 800 miles away. He goes into some discussion of submarine nuclear launch capabilities and attempts to detect them (as with Orion “submarine hunter” planes). The speaker discusses the composition of the atmosphere and gives some explanations of the physics of the blast. One of the highest blasts was 240 miles above the earth, probably capable of bathing the entire US in the pulse. He also posed a “Moonraker” scenario, a blast from a space station outside the mesosphere, capable of wiping out all electronics over the entire world. He says that such an event would happen to end a nuclear war.

This video has about 25000 views so far, rather moderate given the seriousness of the issue.

There is a short but chilling video in black and white with a man speaking “Electromagnetic Pulse: Will It Play a Role” in which the speaker outlines a scenario a bit like the one in this post, link here. The video was posted in April 2008 and mentions the “Dark April” project.

Perhaps the most chilling is an eleven minute speech by Representative Roscoe Bartlett (R-MD) “Electronic Pulse Attack Threat Raised in U.S. Congress,” from July 2008, link here. ("CSPANjunkie" has it on it's blog here.) Again, toward the end, Mr. Bartlett explains the physics with some diagrams. He refers to the work of William Graham. He also discusses Iran’s scud tests in the Caspian Sea and says that Iran may have missiles that can reach 1000 miles or so and that could be placed on an inconspicuous freighter. But most alarming is the political and social analysis (at least as conservatives see it). EMP, at high altitude, is one of the very few ways the United States (and the West) could be defeated by a small asymmetric entity like Al Qaeda or small rogue states like Iran or North Korea. Why? Because the entire American economy and physical function depends on technological infrastructure. People would not die immediately, but prospects for long term survival for many people might be poor. More primitive countries are less vulnerable to such an attack. A high altitude EMP blast could be more devastating and a few isolated full nuclear blasts on the ground. It would appeal to an enemy with authoritarian and socially hierarchal (familial or clerical, often patriarchal) religious values, a desire to “bring others low”, and resentment of individualism enabled by technology that tends to encourage public expression. Perhaps all of this is more like a conservative "projection" of its own subtle ideas on family values than the actual reality of radical Islam mentality.

The critical step, of course, is preventing rogue states and groups like Al Qaeda from having nuclear weapons or raw materials at all. (Remember Osama bin Laden’s “threat” on Nov. 10). Not good are reports indicating how difficult it is for western Navies to prevent piracy off the coast of Somalia. They would need similar diligence to protect the East Coast from rogue ships for several hundred miles.

There have been some reports, as in a Popular Science issue published one week before 9/11 in 2001, that relatively cheap conventional devices could cause EMP damage over a wide area. There have also been discussions of whether Faraday Cages can protect electronics (at least for companies and the military). Sorry, "Oceans 11" got this concept all wrong.

The Washington Times published op-eds on this problem on September 3 and October 14, 2008, by William Graham and Clifford May, respectively (see my International Issues blog on those days).

One big question is how likely it is a "rogue" device (sponsored by Iran or North Korea or even Al Qaeda) could really reach the "necessary" altitude for the destruction that's claimed. Another good question is whether small "suitcase" or other crude weapons would actually "work" this way at high altitudes. There is a lot of right-wing hype about this, and it deserves careful reporting from the established media. Others have pointed out that Iran and most of the rest of the Muslim world in the Middle East and far East really do have a lot to lose from massive retaliation that would follow.

I don’t think that the History Channel has done a show on this possibility, for it’s “Mega Disaster” series. It sounds like an important topic.

So, if you wake up in the middle of the night, check whether the electricity is on. If it isn’t, check your laptop and car. If nothing works, we face The "Purification". I hope I don't have to say, "I told you so!" Just hope the lights never go out.

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