Solar Storm Warning . . . or More?


The recent nearly concurrent East and West Coast shutdown of widely dispersed elements of the electric power grid should give us pause - and encourage a more serious consideration of the existential threat posed by an orchestrated hostile attack on our national electric grid.

Last Friday, multiple, nearly concurrent, electric grid outages in three major East and West Coast cities - New York, Los Angeles and especially San Francisco - for several hours jammed traffic, left people stranded in elevators and generally triggered emergency management operations that restored electric power within several hours during the work day. 

Click here for an important Reuters story by Alexandria Sage and Noel Randewich, which elaborated on the power outages that for seven hours "crippled" San Francisco, the city that apparently suffered the greatest disruption.

These events went largely unreported and unevaluated by the main-stream press, which has been more focused on other things, e.g., President Trump's "first 100 days" ending this weekend; a government shutdown if Congress does not provide needed funding by the end of this week; the growing dangers of North Korea's nuclear and ballistic missile development and testing; and the increasing awareness of the dangers of a nuclear-armed Shia Iran, the world's main sponsor of "radical Islamic terrorism." 

But there is quite a bit of pertinent information on the "blogosphere."

Click here for an April 21st (updated on April 22) informative article in The Sun (a United Kingdom News Company), warning that "a mega hole in the Sun could cause blackout mayhem," due to its "belching" of radioactive particles toward the Earth. In turn, this article (which includes some beautiful photos) quotes NASA as indicating this event could "whip up" a moderately strong geomagnetic storm by April 23 and 24 - presumably we're beyond the worst of that possibility, but what about the events of April 21st?  

These challenges to the Emergency Managers in New York, Los Angeles and particularly San Francisco probably were associated with solar activity - though involving somewhat different and less threatening phenomena than the Coronal Mass Ejection (CME) phenomena that many, including yours truly, refer to as "natural electromagnetic pulse (EMP)" phenomena. But it is instructive to consider other possible causes of very similar challenges to the electric grid, which could occur more or less at the same time across the nation.

Click here for a Superstation95 (FM 95.1 in New York City) account of the unfolding events in the three cities last Friday, and which attributes to a Department of Homeland Security (DHS) contact that "On their face, these power outages are a little too coincidental to be naturally occurring.  We can confirm we are looking for evidence of Cyber-Attack . . . and we think we'll find it."

Click here for more discussion by the Federalist Papers Project on April 22, which also highlighted hostile cyber operations as the possible cause of the multiple outages.

Click here for a report by Zero Hedge (a financial blog that aggregates news and presents editorial opinions, according to Wikipedia), which discusses additional threats that might have caused multiple power outages in all three cities, perhaps with the greatest impact in San Francisco, including possible sabotage like what occurred in April 2013.

Almost exactly four years ago, terrorists may have practiced such a strategy by shooting and severely damaging almost all the large transformers of the Metcalf Substation near San Jose, California. The perpetrators, still unidentified, missed cutting a single cable - that permitted the local grid to be re-stabilized, preventing a linked cascading electric power failure of all of Silicon Valley.

Click here for an important February 5, 2014 Wall Street Journal article by Rebecca Smith discussing this event that may have been a dry run for a major terrorist attack on several portions of the grid and causing cascading failures. As I have repeatedly discussed, terrorist groups like ISIS could bring down our electric power grid for a year by attacking "the Wellinghoff nine" similar electric power substations.

Click here for Rebecca Smith's subsequent March 12, 2014 Wall Street Journal article discussing the revelation by former Chairman of the Federal Electric Regulatory Commission Jon Wellinghoff that taking down only nine knowable substations - like the Metcalf station - could cause cascading Grid failures leading to loss of the entire national electric grid for 18 months. As the Chairman of the EMP Commission testified before Congress over eight years ago, the resulting societal collapse would lead to the death of most Americans within that year

usa regional power grids

To better understand the potential for cascading failures of the electric grid, click here for a substantive article by Joe Weiss entitled "Major San Francisco power outage caused by one breaker in one substation - what are the implications?"

Very early in his article, he pointedly states: "Given the walled enclosure [surrounding  the substation housing the breaker of concern], a physical attack such as the rifle attack against the PG&E Metcalf substation would not be possible."

Rather, Weiss argued that a cyber attack could "cause physical damage to the targeted breaker and/or transformer," and that failure of a single breaker in a low impact substation could have affected 500,000 or more people in San Francisco. The power outage disrupted the financial district, with its many major multinational banks and technology companies; and those sent home had to navigate traffic without about 25% of the traffic lights being fully operational adding danger to pedestrians as they left their buildings (at least those that were not trapped in elevators).

So a cyber attack could have caused this single breaker failure and the cascading failures in San Francisco. But it would not explain the nearly concurrent outages in Los Angeles and New York. And Weiss does not assess the possibility of a solar storm being the cause of these system failures.

So . . . could the recent widely dispersed, essentially concurrent, grid failures have had a nefarious origin in this context of an overall attack strategy that could involve some or all of the above possibilities - cyber, physical and/or EMP (e.g., from hand held radiofrequency) weapons? 

Maybe a stretch, but - at least in this writer's opinion - a useful question to ask in addressing what lessons might be learned, given the known facts. 

After all, if a rogue state like North Korea or Iran were to contemplate a High Altitude nuclear EMP attack on the United States, it no doubt would include precursory preemptive diversionary attacks to distract, disrupt and confuse our ability to respond effectively.

Note that Great Leader Kim Jong Un two weeks ago threatened to unleash "nuclear thunderbolts" in response to the "first sign of a U.S. preemptive strike," while also slamming China for cooperating with the West. Click here for a pertinent April 14, 2017 article, with additional details.

Understand, lightening (the cause of thunderbolts) is like EMP, except it involves a middle range frequency band generally protected against by surge arrestors that one can buy at the local hardware store. The most damaging EMP against which the grid is currently vulnerable involves very high frequency electronic shocks produced by nuclear explosions and/or by a low frequency, low amplitude component produced by both nuclear explosions and major CMEs like the 1859 Carrington event or the CME that barely missed the Earth by about a week in 2012.

Certainly, North Korea understands the importance of EMP effects - Russian Generals informed the EMP Commission years ago that Russia had passed to North Korea designs for relatively low-yield "Super EMP weapons."

I wonder if the 100 Senators assembled for Wednesday's classified White House briefing were informed of this fact and our electric grid's general vulnerability to EMP effects? North Korea reportedly already has tens of nuclear weapons; so we are foolish to ignore the possibility that the Great Leader could order an EMP attack - today!

Moreover, most of the public hand-ringing over North Korea getting an intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) is misplaced - North Korea does not need ICBMs to carry out such an attack that poses an existential threat to all Americans.

Note: I am not arguing that we should not be concerned about North Korea's quest for ICBMs - and submarine launched ballistic missiles, too, by the way. But we should stop ignoring the already existing devastating ways North Korea can attack the U.S. homeland!

North Korea could simply place one or more of their existing nuclear weapons on satellites like the one it launched over the South Polar regions five years ago, to approach the United States from our mostly undefended South. Or, as demonstrated in July 2013, they might smuggle ways to launch shorter range ballistic missiles from vessels off our undefended coasts - particularly from the Gulf of Mexico.

Moreover, North Korea's ally Iran also well understands the importance of including an EMP component into any attack on the United States - employing satellites also to deliver such an attack from the South, like the satellites it has previously launched. 

Again, I call your attention to the too little referenced July 21, 2015 statement by House EMP Caucus Chairman Representative Trent Franks (R-AZ) at the International Electric Infrastructure Security (EIS) Summit in Washington. 

emp cooper trent franks april 2017

And I encourage you to click here for a February 12, 2016 National Review article, in which I joined former CIA Director R. James Woolsey, Chairman of the EMP Commission Dr. William R. Graham, former Chairman of the National Intelligence Council Fritz Ermarth, and EMP Commission Staff Director Peter Vincent Pry in challenging those who grossly underestimate the already existing threat from North Korea and Iran.

We collectively continue to ignore this threat at our peril. So far, it seems almost everyone has ignored these facts, in the press and far too many in the Pentagon.

Moreover, it should be remembered that past initiatives by North Korea and Iran - and Iran's continuing activities as the world's largest sponsor of "radical Islamic terrorism" make it plausible that ISIS, Al Qaeda and/or other Sunni and Shia Islamic terrorist groups could be players in such an attack strategy.

Clearly, the Trump administration needs a sound integrated strategy to counter such a plausible and no doubt growing threat.

Bottom Lines.

The recent nearly concurrent East and West Coast shutdown of widely dispersed elements of the electric grid should give us pause - and encourage more serious considerations of the existential threat posed by an orchestrated hostile attack on our national electric grid.

Our enemies have such an attack in their warfighting doctrine and plans - including a significant EMP component. 

We should have effective countermeasures in our plans - and currently we don't.  

Wake up, America! 

What can you do

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Ambassador Henry F. Cooper is Chairman of High Frontier and a former Acquisition Executive for all U.S. ballistic missile defenses.  He also served in several other senior USG acquisition and policy positions, including as President Reagan's Chief Negotiator at the Geneva Defense and Space Talks with the Soviet Union. He is currently focused on helping local, state and federal authorities protect against the natural and manmade EMP threat by building effective ballistic missile defenses and hardening the electric grid. Otherwise, loss of the electric grid would freeze America's "just in time" economy, leaving most Americans without means for survival.


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