Just how dependent are we on data and voice networks now? You’re reading this — it has had to go from my computer to the internet and from the WANspeak web site to your device over the network. Your phone, which you are reading so many emails, Tweets, Facebook posts and listening to your music on, just would be a dumb MP3 player without the networks. Our modern TVs and other home entertainment systems are dependent on these networks.
And that is just us as individuals. The banking system, the global supply chain, B2B communications… pretty much everything we do now is dependent on data being moved over copper, fiber or wireless technologies.
And yet, we are still dependent on pretty old ways of doing it — and, on the whole, ways that are open to being sabotaged by the one thing that we have little control over.
Forget terrorists, the one thing that could bring us all to a pre-industrial level is that yellow globe out in the sky. The Sun is our biggest threat when it comes to data networking — just because every now and again, it throws a mighty “belch” — and if that belch is pointed at the Earth, we are in trouble.
The result of such a belch is a coronal mass ejection event (one of which can be seen in this NASA video). The explosion of matter from the sun does not just throw out hot gases; it also includes a massive amount of electromagnetic energy. That electromagnetic energy gets thrown out from the Sun at the speed of light and hits the Earth less than ten minutes after the discharge — followed more slowly by another set of energy that is more material and carried by the plasma discharged during the event.
The amounts of energy involved are massive. The Aurora (both Borealis and Australis) that light up the skies as we move towards the poles show how the Earth has the capability to deflect and absorb a lot of this energy. However, a major coronal discharge could overcome the Earth’s defences – and this is where the problems starts.
For a long time, the use of an electromagnetic pulse (EMP) has been known to disable electronic equipment — an example is the EMP bomb that ‘kills’ computers but doesn’t affect organic life. The fragile capabilities of a modern processor just cannot deal with a sudden influx of electromagnetic radiation, and they shut down — often permanently. Several films (such as Pacific Rim, and the recent remakes of Red Dawn and Godzilla) have used the idea as a means of shutting down computer and other electrical equipment — but surely, outside of movies and possibly the defense industry, it is all fiction?
Now imagine that the EMP comes via a seemingly inexhaustible nuclear power plant that has no care about what it does. The Sun just throws out these events on a regular basis — and a biggie coming our way could play havoc with our systems.
Few of our networks have been built to cope with a massive EMP. It is presumed that any EMP created on purpose would create an overall event that would take the general population’s mind away from not being able to get on to Facebook and look cute cat pictures for a while, and that defense networks would still operate as they would be hardened against a pulse. Any impact would be localized anyway, as a massive enough EMP to bring down more than a few blocks would require something akin to a few hundred nuclear bombs. However, if one sunny day the Sun sends through a major eruption, it could have a global effect. Any satellites not shielded by the earth itself would be knocked out. Any network on the day side of the planet where its switches and routers have not been hardened would be taken down. All civilian mobile phone systems would go; many of the devices we count on for our day-to-day living would cease to work. Cars — now so dependent on computers — would fail to start. Security systems would fail to their safe setting. Shops would not be able to deal with retail transactions; ATMs would shut down. Just how long would a modern civilization last like this before it started to fall out amongst itself without its capabilities to electronically transact business and watch Netflix?
Scientists have been waiting for such an occurrence for quite some time — the event shown in the YouTube video was from 2013, and was expected to be such a biggie. Luckily, the main “charge” of the EMP pushed away from the Earth, and we did not face any major problems.
The crazy thing is that hardening systems to cope with an EMP is actually not that difficult. In 1843, Benjamin Franklin laid the foundations for a system that Michael Faraday perfected in 1836. The Faraday Cage is a simple mesh of conductive material that creates a path of least resistance for energy to go around, leaving a volume of low energy in the middle. That is, the EMP force is “captured” and routed by the mesh; the inside of the cage remains untouched.
Instead of using plain metal and/or plastic boxes in which network equipment is held, the use of Faraday cages would make for a far more hardened system, even in the civilian space.
The costs for doing this would be low. With the impact on law and order that an EMP could have on large parts of the Earth, maybe it is time that a more EMP-capable network approach was taken?
However, many devices would still struggle. Our continued search for the thinnest, lightest, most functional device precludes the use of mesh all round many of the devices we currently use. That, unfortunately, is our choice – and if and when the EMP hits, we can all look to having a lot more ex-electronic door stops on our hands – and a lot more time for doing other things as well.
Image credit: WikiMedia Commons / CC-BY