Home « Forum « Story Ideas

Forum: Story Ideas

Solar EMP revisited.

Not_a_ID

Ok, just bothered to watch a fairly recent program on the solar flare/solar EMP.

One thing they mentioned basically destroyed their own scenario that they outlayed(which is one I'd previously bought into in large part).

I was previously given to understand that the Solar EMP event was likely to only give minutes of warning. Reality?

They get 17 hours worth of warning. So "reality is" that they'd "realistically" have about a 12 to 14 hour window in which to prepare for what is coming.

I'm more inclined to suspect you'd be seeing martial law being declared within 2 hours of the CME having been detected. (15 hours left)

Power and utility companies would then begin the process of staging the needed resources needed to have all power generation capability offline and disconnected from the grid (if only at the circuit breaker) by T-30 minutes. (hydro, solar, wind, and gas turbine derivative plants basically being the last to go "offline")

Power companies would likely be doing "triage" on many of their facilities, evaluating which ones they deem to be "critical" and going so far as to not only throw breakers, but start physically disconnecting and grounding out the various power lines and systems.

So then it becomes a matter of seeing what still gets fried even with precautions being taken, and start rebuilding from there. I'd actually put good odds on random suburban neighborhoods having their stuff get fried or left offline for some time, but that much of the "industrial backbone" would be back online within a week.

Replies:   Crumbly Writer
Crumbly Writer
Updated:

@Not_a_ID


They get 17 hours worth of warning. So "reality is" that they'd "realistically" have about a 12 to 14 hour window in which to prepare for what is coming.


Most solar flares/nuclear devices don't last a full 24-hours, while solar flares typically have more than a couple minutes (observes can see the flare on the surface of the sun and then calculate when the Earth might cross in front of it, providing several days warning).

Also, not all power goes out during such an event. Most military gear/power generators/telecommunications centers/etc. are properly sheltered. Even if not, who gets affected it largely hit or miss. Those in the direct path will suffer, while those farther away will only have selective outages (i.e. no need for martial law, just plans to call in the National Guard to help restore services as soon as possible afterwards).

However, it would impact a hell of a lot of people (think millions!).

Throwing breakers wouldn't make any difference, since the damage is caused by an excessive electronic charge in the wires, potentially melting them inside their insulation, making repairs difficult since you can't identify which portion of a cable contains the actual damage. Turning off the power to everything would make sense, so count of the power companies cutting off power everywhere at a specific time, giving criminal the perfect opportunity (since there's no chance of physical damage other than potential cancers years/generations later).

Dominions Son

@Crumbly Writer

Throwing breakers wouldn't make any difference, since the damage is caused by an excessive electronic charge in the wires


1. Opening switches, fuses and breakers can protect other devices like transformers that may be harder to replace than wire.

2. From what I've read, the length of the wire impacts how much charge builds up. so segmenting lines into shorter sections by opening the switches will reduce the charge buildup in any one section.

3. Most of the primary (12 or 4 kV) overhead conductor in the US is bare wire. The insulated wire you see is either secondary (220 or 110 volts, what comes into your house) or is cable(tv) or telephone wire. I'm not sure if a solar EMP will affect underground conductor at all.

Replies:   Not_a_ID
garymrssn

FYI: NOAA Space Weather Prediction Center
http://www.swpc.noaa.gov/

Not_a_ID

@Dominions Son

1. Opening switches, fuses and breakers can protect other devices like transformers that may be harder to replace than wire.


Exactly. In the one confirmed case of an EMP managing to do damage to a coil winding, it involved a Nuclear EMP in Russia during the 1960's, which melted to coils of the diesel generator that was providing power. It just so happened to also be connected to 22 miles of cable.

So plenty of wire able to induce both a current and a voltage within that closed system by way of induction. The coils in the generator evidently proved to be the "weakest link" for finding a path to ground, so it was what got slagged.

It also didn't help the Russians that the generator was plugged in and active at the time the EMP hit.

2. From what I've read, the length of the wire impacts how much charge builds up. so segmenting lines into shorter sections by opening the switches will reduce the charge buildup in any one section.


It gets a bit more complicated than that, but the basic answer is this. The shorter an "individual wire run" is, the less voltage the line in question will be able to "absorb" via induction.

The "issue" with circuit breakers alone is the matter of the "spark gap" that is left after the switch is "thrown" and a question of is the line in question will generate both enough voltage and current that it manages to
1) "Jump the gap" to the next link in the chain.
2) Do damage when it does "make the jump"

Which is I why I opened by making comments about either physically disconnecting and/or physically grounding out specific power lines.

If there is a large physical disconnect, above and beyond "just a circuit breaker" in the mix, that provides an extra layer of protection, as the "spark gap" just became significantly larger.

Likewise, with a solar EMP, you're dealing with a wave, not a pulse, as would be seen with a nuke. As such, grounding out a power line for example may be more than sufficient to prevent it from being placed under a induced load capable of doing damage to the power line itself.

3. Most of the primary (12 or 4 kV) overhead conductor in the US is bare wire. The insulated wire you see is either secondary (220 or 110 volts, what comes into your house) or is cable(tv) or telephone wire. I'm not sure if a solar EMP will affect underground conductor at all.


Underground cable wouldn't be able to "induct" much, but it would still be subject to some within its own system as it does come up to the surface level periodically over the course of its "run" as it enters into/exits various substations or interconnects. By and large, "throwing the circuit breaker" would likely be up to the task of protecting them from a solar event... So long as it was isolated from the above ground portion of the power grid. (This would also include the customers themselves, as they too could "backfeed" onto the grid if they're not careful. A typical new construction building of any size, be it commercial or residential, is likely to potentially have miles of electrical cable within it. So plenty of pathways for inducing voltages in an EMP scenario. Thankfully for the power company, not all of that cabling will be theirs, some will be telephone services, others will be television services, and then there are the network services. But so long as everybody on a given "circuit" turns has their stuff shut off at the breaker, things should be well enough. The issue at present is that while many power companies can remotely throw breakers on their own equipment, they can't do this on the end-user side. I wouldn't be certain as to their ability to remotely shut things off "at street level" (before it gets to the customer) at this point in time. Maybe in newer constructions, probably not so much in older areas.

Obviously fiber-optics are immune to EMP in a direct sense, but as fiber optics require transceivers which require electricity in order to operate, and you need to have a relay every so often....

As to most "insulated" wiring across the world? It isn't THAT insulated. Those wires are minimally insulated in accordance to the "normal operating specifications" of the device/install(for which an EMP event is obviously not considered "normal"). A Solar flare would be able to induce voltage across much/most of said wiring, but in particular so long as said wiring isn't energized at the time of the EMP event(and it was "electrically isolated" when it happens, so that "external wiring" doesn't help increase the amounts of voltage/current it gets exposed to), it's probably going to be fine.

If you were wanting wiring that stands a chance against an EMP while in use, you're talking about "shielded" cabling, which is basically a cable which is then wrapped in an additional electrical insulator, which is then once again wrapped in yet another layer of conductive material which would then be tied to ground. As such, most "shielded cable" is often also referred to as "armored cabling" but not all "armored cabling" is actually shielded, as it hasn't been tied to ground, among other considerations.

Replies:   Dominions Son
Not_a_ID

@Crumbly Writer

Throwing breakers wouldn't make any difference, since the damage is caused by an excessive electronic charge in the wires, potentially melting them inside their insulation, making repairs difficult since you can't identify which portion of a cable contains the actual damage.


TDR's (Time-Domain Reflectometers) are wonderful things for this. You hook it up to a wire, send a signal down it, and it'll tell you various things about the characteristics of the wire and at about what distance a change is detected as occurring at. Accuracy was down to a couple feet as of about 20 years ago, honestly, the tech on site is more likely to have more trouble identifying the physical location than the TDR will, just because measuring to that level of precision isn't normally possible when it comes to cable runs.

So the tech is stuck in the odd position of knowing exactly where the electrical problem is likely to be in the wire... They just don't know exactly where that point is on the wire. Of course, there are some other special tools that could potentially help with that as well, depending on the situation.

Not_a_ID

@Crumbly Writer

Most solar flares/nuclear devices don't last a full 24-hours, while solar flares typically have more than a couple minutes (observes can see the flare on the surface of the sun and then calculate when the Earth might cross in front of it, providing several days warning).


It was made pretty clear that the interval was about 17 hours from the moment of the CME(Solar Flare) being observed on Earth to when it would cross the path of Earth's orbit. The only variable in that regard is if the Earth is above/below in front of, behind, or in the bulls eye.

Duration of the CME itself wasn't something they really touched on. I imagine that could be variable depending on a number of factors. I'd expect worst case is a couple hours.

The problem is determining how long it would take the magnetosphere to "discharge" after the solar flare event had cleared from Earth's orbit. Then once the magnetosphere is done turning it into EMP's for us to suffer through, we then get to the next step of either manually discharging any isolated circuits that haven't already bled off" the charge already, or waiting for them to "bleed off" naturally, and then starting to reconnect everything. That could be 20 minutes after the leading edge has passed us by, or that could be 20 hours later.

All I know is if you're in Texas and its daylight and you're still seeing "the northern lights" dance across the sky, turning things back on is probably a bad idea.

Dominions Son

@Not_a_ID

It gets a bit more complicated than that


I knew it was more complicated, I just don't know all the factors which I why I stopped at saying the length of the wire had an impact.

The "issue" with circuit breakers alone is the matter of the "spark gap" that is left after the switch is "thrown" and a question of is the line in question will generate both enough voltage and current that it manages to


The question is how much wire do you need to generate enough voltage to jump the spark gap. The distribution grid has enough automated switches that in a few minutes they could break the system down into segments that are no more than a few miles each. With 17 hours to prepare, manually operated switches could segment the system even further.

The big problem is the big transmission lines.

Replies:   Not_a_ID  Not_a_ID
Not_a_ID

@Dominions Son

The big problem is the big transmission lines.


Quite literally so, between their extreme height, and the extreme distances they tend to cover, they present the majors challenge. Of course, it you watch while traveling alongside even them few more than a few miles, even they have protective equipment up on the wires every so often. Not sure if they have it wired to provide a path to ground though(I'd think they'd try to make it nearly impossible to find a "path to ground" on such lines, so their deliberately creating a permanent one, even for very exceptional circumstances, seems unlikely). I suspect it'd just act as either a breaker or a fuse and creates an "open" on the line preventing it from progressing further.

Hopefully it's a breaker that can be reset, if those are (several foot long) fuses, that's going to be a lot of line work to get back online.

Replies:   Dominions Son
Dominions Son

@Not_a_ID

Hopefully it's a breaker that can be reset, if those are (several foot long) fuses, that's going to be a lot of line work to get back online.


Assuming they even have enough in stock. Might be a bit difficult getting more with the whole power grid down.

Replies:   Not_a_ID
Not_a_ID

@Dominions Son

Assuming they even have enough in stock. Might be a bit difficult getting more with the whole power grid down.


Which is a large part of why I said "critical areas" might get their power back in fairly short order, but everyone else might be a long while before they get their power turned back on. Unless they're lucky enough to live in an area that's a net energy exporter, then they could luck into a speedier restoration of service. But if you live in Santa Monica, California, your lights probably will stay out for a long time to come unless you have your own means of generating power.

Replies:   Crumbly Writer
Not_a_ID

@Dominions Son

I knew it was more complicated, I just don't know all the factors which I why I stopped at saying the length of the wire had an impact.


To expand on this one, some of the "complicating factors" that come into play are:

The orientation of the power line relative to the "magnetic flux" the solar flare is causing during the EMP event. (Parallel vs perpendicular vs other will make a difference)

Other things also coming into play is the geology of the area, if there is a lot of magnetic(iron bearing) rock in the area, that could serve to either help protect(repelling the "charge") or harm the equipment(attracting it instead) in question as the case may be.

Crumbly Writer

@Not_a_ID

Which is a large part of why I said "critical areas" might get their power back in fairly short order, but everyone else might be a long while before they get their power turned back on. Unless they're lucky enough to live in an area that's a net energy exporter, then they could luck into a speedier restoration of service. But if you live in Santa Monica, California, your lights probably will stay out for a long time to come unless you have your own means of generating power.

Conclusion: if you're writing a PA tale featuring and EMP, have your protagonist disconnect from the power grid and they may preserve much of their power supply, while the majority of the population wouldn't be as fortunate.

Also, while certain segments of the military complex might retain power, the vast majority would have the same issues the general population would.

Replies:   Not_a_ID
Not_a_ID
Updated:

@Crumbly Writer

Also, while certain segments of the military complex might retain power, the vast majority would have the same issues the general population would.


Many/most military bases have provisions for backup power generation for "critical facilities" if nothing else. So if they had RADAR before the solar EMP, chances are good they're going to still have a RADAR after the Solar EMP, at least for a couple days, at which point their generators will likely need to have their tanks topped off. Ditto for command and control facilities.

I understand most refineries also have backup power for most of their functions, so they'd potentially also retain the ability to continue operating even with a non-functional power grid. This also ignores the "fun" the Navy could be having at that stage, their Nuclear submarines should have been able to dive deep enough that the EMP would be a non-issue for them. The Nuclear Carriers are a more complicated issue, but as they're presumably built with a nuke EMP in mind, as solar event would be trivial by comparison.

The problem is those power plants are not designed with transferring power OFF the ship in mind. Those shore power connections are intended to allow them to turn the power plant off, not give them more reasons to leave it running. (Which isn't to mention the on board systems are designed to meet the electrical needs of the ship itself, not the ship + whatever else)

Regardless, for military use they don't need every refinery in the country to be operational, they just need one or two, and time to work out distribution from there. So long as they have oil for fuel, they can keep the backup generators going.

Their "worst case" from there, so long as the transformers survived, is that the power companies may need to scavenge surviving power lines from elsewhere(residential areas are screwed), and use those to create improvised "jumpers" to work around any "electrical opens" that exist on the electrical backbone that they need up and running ASAP.

It doesn't have to be pretty, it doesn't need to be particularly resilient, it just needs to work long enough to get other things back up and running until they can go back to retrofit and repair things in a more permanent manner.

As to other locations, things get more variable. Some regions deal with power disruptions frequently enough that backup power generation is a common design feature that many home and business owners pursue. So long as they were smart and shut things down during the EMP, they're going to be able to operate off of generator power after the fact.

Although they too are going be constrained by fuel supplies. So the person with more renewable options (wind, solar, hydro) is going to be better shape overall, although depending on where he is, he might need to be careful, even if the locals respect his stuff, that doesn't mean the Government, be it local, state, or federal, won't come around and appropriate his stuff.

More interesting items are the people running natural gas powered generators, and how the natural gas and other pipeline companies get roped into all of this. I know back home, the local government has some large (backup) natural gas power generators in case the lights go out. So they'd need NG in order to have their lights on in the absence of local power feeds. So that means Natural Gas would need to be alternately shut off and left on across much of the country.

Of course, in their case, they're also within 30 miles of a large hydro power project, and they're the closest city with any significant population; and that hydro project is in turn in close proximity(~10 miles) of a large wind turbine development.. And the town hosts a National Guard Battalion HQ as well as a facility that happens to manufacture power transformers, so it'd be highly likely not to be at the bottom of the list for getting transmission lines restored.

But yeah, it's going to be ugly all the same. A lot of infrastructure should survive intact, but pieces of it won't. Backup provisions will help, if they're handled properly during the EMP event itself(and not turned on when it happens). Restoration in some areas could be complete in hours, many places will likely take only days or even weeks depending on the extent of the damage, but other areas will likely take years to be brought back onto "the grid" properly.

And with human nature being as it is, most people aren't likely to be particularly content to sit in the dark for years in a home/city that wasn't designed to function without electrical services being available. They're going to relocate to where there is power. Which is going to create yet another mess.

Replies:   Crumbly Writer
Crumbly Writer

@Not_a_ID

The Nuclear Carriers are a more complicated issue, but as they're presumably built with a nuke EMP in mind, as solar event would be trivial by comparison.

I'm not sure on this, but I'd assume the lead lining of their ships would produce shielding for their wires and generators in the bowels of the ship. While the lead/steel construction would likely produce an excess static charge closer to nearer the top, further down it shouldn't be an issue. However, anyone who has any electrical engineering background could probably be more specific.

By the way, a nuclear explosion in outer space is highly unlikely to have any effect on Earth, as the U.S. conducted tests where they set off their own, and it had NO impact on anyone other than producing a 'delightful' firework show for anyone watching.

To produce an EMP effect it would have to go off in very low-orbit, and it would be difficult to determine precisely how to achieve it as it would be ameliorated by many factors (like wind, humidity, cloud cover, etc.)

Replies:   Not_a_ID
Not_a_ID
Updated:

@Crumbly Writer


By the way, a nuclear explosion in outer space is highly unlikely to have any effect on Earth, as the U.S. conducted tests where they set off their own, and it had NO impact on anyone other than producing a 'delightful' firework show for anyone watching.


Some of the depends on how you define "outer space." It is untested, but in theory, it's possible that a powerful enough fusion bomb lit off at an altitude that is arguably Low-Earth-Orbit could EMP all of North America.

But there are three factors in play there:

1) The amount of power behind the blast, as none of our nukes can rival what a Solar Flare would release energy wise.

2) The distance between "point of origin" for the blast(EMP) and what is being impacted by it. If it detonated 50 miles over Chicago, what happens in Cleveland will be different to what goes down in NYC, as the pulse will have weakened by the time reaches NYC.

3) Location of the blast relative to magnetosphere. This is where "nuclear blasts in space do nothing" EMP wise come into play. Basically the difference between letting a firecracker explode in an open palm vs a closed first.

Of course, an EMP in space is still going to do a number on any satellites that happen to be relatively nearby, so it's likely to screw with telecommunications all the same.

And it isn't that they lined the ship's or equipment with lead. It's that they've placed better/stronger EMI shielding on their equipment than is typical for consumer grade use(aside from microwave oven for obvious reasons), and they have the stuff electrically grounded up the wazoo.

If you have the vital parts of your stuff basically (internally) shielded by a faraday cage, and have it well grounded beyond that, it's going to take a very large Pulse to knock it out(You would basically need to overwhelm either the ground wire itself, or the path taken to get there). But as a Solar Flare would be doing an "EMP" that is actually more like a succession of waves at wildly different frequencies and intervals, that's a different ball game.

In that respect, the Nuclear EMP is a singular event(well, per nuke used), the Solar EMP is more like the electrical/electronic version of a tsunami only moving much faster in every respect.

Back to Top