On Feb. 2, thousands of Canadians lost by a landslide – and most weren’t even in politics!
Ordinary citizens found normal life interrupted for days after a landslide near North Bend, B.C., cut fibre optic cables. Phone and Internet service was disrupted all weekend. Vancouver parking meters stopped working. Calgary security alarms started malfunctioning.
But all of this pales in comparison to the far-reaching devastation if an electromagnetic pulse (EMP) attack was ever to occur. In such an event, people could be without power for more than a year, resulting in massive casualties.
It’s essential for people and governments to prepare for such a threat.
The first EMP attack was made by the United States against itself – albeit unintentionally. During the Starfish Prime nuclear test of 1962, a 1.4-megaton nuclear bomb was detonated 385 km above sea level (the same altitude as the current orbit of the International Space Station). In Hawaii, 1,600 km away from the detonation, phone service was disrupted, street lights went down and alarms were set off.
The impact of the Starfish Prime test exceeded expectations and made the EMP threat evident. Before the year was over, MIT scientist J.C.R. Licklider proposed a means of preparedness. His idea was that a “galactic network” of computers could talk to each other so government could continue even if the telephone system was lost. This was the conceptual genesis of the Internet.
After the Internet became mainstream, the EMP threat was re-examined. In 1997, the Committee on National Security of the U.S. House of Representatives was told that an EMP attack delivered at 480 km above sea level would affect nearly all of continental U.S., Mexico and most major Canadian cities.
The work of a U.S. commission from 2001 to 2008 on military and civilian infrastructure concluded the power grid was more vulnerable than ever.
Modern electronics, communications, protection, control and computer systems work with ever-smaller margins for error. So a relatively modest upset to the system can cause functional collapse. As the system grows in complexity and interdependence, restoration from collapse or loss of significant portions of the system becomes exceedingly difficult.
The commission delivered 100 recommendations to protect food, water, communications, transportation, energy, business and finance.
None of these recommendations were implemented before the next U.S. commission on EMP dangers was formed in 2015.
Russia, China, Iran, and North Korea all apparently include EMP attacks as part of their military strategies.
Dr. Peter Vincent Pry chaired the most recent U.S. congressional EMP commission. Its 2017 report, Assessing the Threat from Electromagnetic Pulse, stated:
“A nationwide blackout of the electric power grid and grid-dependent critical infrastructures – communications, transportation, sanitation, food and water supply – could plausibly last a year or longer. Many of the systems designed to provide renewable, stand-alone power in case of an emergency, such as generators, uninterruptible power supplies, and renewable energy grid components, are also vulnerable to EMP attack.”
More serious problems would occur if the EMP attack damaged any of the 99 nuclear reactors at 61 commercial plants in 30 states.
The commission estimated it could take more than a year for the electrical grid to be restored. In the meantime, as many as 90 per cent of Americans would die due to “societal collapse, disease, and starvation.”
While national planning and preparation for such events could help mitigate the damage, few such actions are underway or even being contemplated.
Journalist Anthony Furey, author of the book Pulse Attack, says the U.S. remains ill-prepared and Canada is even worse. “The U.S. military has patchwork protection while their entire civilian infrastructure is vulnerable. Canada, it seems, isn’t even that far ahead,” Furey says.
In a Toronto Sun column in 2017, Furey wrote:
“While EMP crops up in a few Canadian government reports over the years, I’ve discovered from access to information requests that our bureaucrats and politicians are basically clueless about this serious threat to our way of life.
“There is no mitigation strategy. There is no action plan. There isn’t even significant awareness of the issue.”
There seems to be a disconnect between the political leadership of the United States and execution of their EMP preparedness plans.
The process of hardening the grid need not be onerously expensive. In the United States, the deployment of surge protectors, neutral current blockers and improved physical security for critical transformer stations could take place at the cost of $2 billion. This is less than $2 per U.S. resident for five years.
It’s reasonable to expect a similarly proportionate burden would address the problem in Canada.
Canadians should demand that their provincial and federal leaders address the threat of an EMP attack. They should also prepare themselves.
A Call to Action for America, a report by the U.S. Task Force on National and Homeland Security authored in 2017, offers advice in the event of an EMP attack that’s applicable anywhere:
- Start with the assumption that help won’t be coming, and if it did, it could be many months away.
- Clearly, three to 14 days of food won’t be enough.
- You would also need a way to collect and purify water to drink, and some means to properly defend yourself and your loved ones.
The better prepared you are, the better able government can be to direct limited resources to those who are less prepared.
Lee Harding is a research associate with the Frontier Centre for Public Policy.