A study by the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) claims up to 100 million Americans could lose electrical power in the event of a magnetic space storm, which would knock out the electric grid and cause other infrastructure to fail.
An internal fact sheet in 2012, from the just-released DHS’ Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), noted that the damage and impact from a future solar storm isn’t known.
Space weather means conditions on the sun, in space, the upper atmosphere or in the earth’s magnetic field that can impact technological systems on the ground and endanger human life on earth.
The report states that a “coronal mass ejection” from the sun would first be detected by satellites and would reach the earth in 24-72 hours and affect up to 100 million people.
The largest of these storms are called G-5s and would disrupt power grid operations, GPS satellites, aircraft, manned space flights, satellite operations, communications cables and gas distribution pipelines.
“The extreme geomagnetic space weather event will cause widespread power outages to a large number of people (approximately 100 million people) in a multi-region, multi-state area of the US due to geomagnetic induced currents damaging EHV transformers, especially along coastal regions,” the report says.
Once transformers and transmissions lines are put out of action, it will cause many other electrically operated items to stop working, including water systems, refrigerators, computer systems and fuel distribution.
The report predicts that within 36 hours of the storm passing, 65 million people would have electric power again, and after two weeks another 25 million would be reconnected, but for the remaining ten million people in six states it would take two months to restore power to them, although it doesn’t say why.
However, there is some disagreement about the exact number of people that would be affected, and the document noted that in 2011 DHS experts were not convinced about the appalling consequences of an earlier study. But whatever the effect, its consequences would be huge and unknown.
“It occurs rarely, can’t be predicted, full protection is impossibly expensive and the potential impact ranges from inconvenient to cataclysmic,” said Mark Sauter, coauthor of the book Homeland Security: A Complete Guide, who managed to get hold of the report under the Freedom of Information Act.
He noted that more than 200 pages from the FEMA report were blacked out.
“This makes one wonder why FEMA is refusing to release the government’s space weather response plan. How would the government deal with ten million or many more Americans without power for two months or even longer?” said Sauter.
He questioned if the government is taking the threat seriously or just going through the bureaucratic motions and crossing its fingers that such an event won’t happen.
There were two major solar storms in 1859 and 1921, but electricity was much less prevalent then than today and so their effect was far more limited.
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