Should We Be More Afraid of a Worldwide Blackout Than Nuclear War?

Monday, 11 August 2014 - 12:03PM
Monday, 11 August 2014 - 12:03PM

Could an electromagnetic pulse (EMP) lead to a Revolution-style apocalypse? Paul Singer, manager of the Elliott Management hedge fund, wrote in their newsletter that EMPs may be a greater threat to humanity than nuclear war. 


He's quoted as saying, "Even horrendous nuclear war, except in its most extreme form, can be a relatively localised issue, and the threat from asteroids can possibly be mitigated. The risks associated with an electromagnetic pulse, or EMP, represent another story entirely." He is specifically concerned about geomagnetic storms triggering an EMP as a result of solar wind interacting with Earth's magnetic field, or an EMP from a powerful e-weapon. These electromagnetic weapons are currently used to disable enemy electronics, and were described by as "a revolution in military hardware--perhaps more so than the atomic bomb."


In the recent television show Revolution, the world instantly goes dark as all electronics are permanently disabled. The government is unable to retain control of the country and militias institute a hostile takeover. The fabric of society essentially collapses. While this may be an exaggeration, there's no doubt that our civilization would be profoundly impacted by a worldwide blackout, possibly in such a way that could be characterized as apocalyptic.


But could this happen in real life? A recent report from Lloyds emerging risk group asserted that we are almost guaranteed to have another devastating geomagnetic storm on the level of the Carrington Event. The Carrington Event, which occurred in 1859, is the largest geomagnetic event on record. Northern Lights could be seen all the way to Cuba, and telegraph lines all over the world began to spark. Luckily, back then society was not nearly as dependent on electronics. If the same event were to happen today, the effects would be catastrophic. The National Academy of Sciences estimates that economic impact could reach $2 trillion, which is 20 times larger than Hurricane Katrina. And this is fairly likely to happen again in the near future, according to the experts. We already had a near-miss in 2012 in which billion-ton coronal mass ejection (CME) clouds that would have caused a storm at least as strong as the Carrington event barely avoided colliding with Earth. Even more frightening, scientists estimate that there is a 12% chance of a catastrophic geomagnetic storm occurring by 2022.


The triggering of an EMP by nuclear weapons is also a possibility, as destroying the electrical grids of enemy countries has become very fashionable in modern warfare. E-weapons were used by the American military during the Iraq war to disable electronics and even for crowd control. Luckily an EMP would not be fatal to humans, so on its own a massive EMP would not be apocalyptic in the strictest sense. However, there is a chance that it could lead to a post-apocalyptic state of affairs.


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