I read yet another apocalyptic novel recently that used the cessation of all electricity in the world as a theme. It seems it’s become a popular topic, with multiple books and at least one television series (Revolution) depicting a world without power.
So it occurred to me to explore the topic from the viewpoint of someone who truly understands how electricity works and what can actually happen during a nation-wide electrical failure.
First, the scenario depicted in Revolution is impossible (it violates the laws of physics) but it makes for great TV drama. Most of the writers in that series have no concept of the laws that govern the electromagnetic force but I doubt they care. After all, science fiction does require a certain suspension of reality to tell a good story.
However, good, hard science fiction should contain at least some realistic elements of science.
So let’s get real.
There are some actual dangers that that have a relatively high probability of occurring which could disable the electrical grid in a small or large portion of the world. The same causes could render a large proportion of electronic devices inert, damaged to the point of inoperability.
But these causes are limited to two; insanely strong electromagnetic fields, and intense electrostatic energy.
The only really devastating sources of these forces (that we know about) are the Sun and a thermonuclear explosion.
A solar flare of sufficient magnitude could make our lives miserable (not to mention dangerous) for a long time (weeks, months, or years) while the damage was being repaired. It could take down the electrical grid over at least one hemisphere of the world causing massive damages and deaths from panic.
The solar flare of 1859 and its consequential coronal mass ejection (CME) caused widespread disruptions of the emerging telegraph network, shocking operators and causing telegraph paper to catch on fire. It caused the northern lights to occur as far south as Georgia.
If such an event were to occur today, with our modern reliance on electrical grids and semiconductor electronics, it could prove devastating. The flare of 1859 was big, but the evidence is it’s not the biggest that could happen.
A thermonuclear blast, assuming it was from one bomb, could cause damage over a limited area. (If it was a wide scale nuclear war, lack of electricity would be least of our worries.)
Nuclear war is something we as a species can control. The solution is simple, just don’t do it.
However the sun has a mind of it own. It’s the eight hundred pound gorilla in the room and it can do anything it wants. We’ve had massive solar flares it the past and they’re certain to happen in the future.
To be dangerous, there are a lot of factors that have to be just right when (not if) a huge solar flare hits the earth.
The blast carries a massive magnetic field along with it, and to be devastating it must have the correct magnetic polarity to overcome the earth’s magnetic field. Also the highly charged particles that are expelled as a part of the explosion must penetrate the protective atmospheric gases that form a secondary barrier.
Assuming the dice come up seven, and nothing is done to prepare our technology, we could be in the dark (in more ways than one) for an extremely long time.
So what happens if the odds are against us and the unthinkable happens? (It could, there’s an uncomfortably significant possibility in our lifetimes.)
Most novels (and one TV show) depict a complete cessation of anything electrical. In truth that’s not likely to happen.
Why? I’m glad you asked.
The first myth to shoot down is the idea that you could eliminate all electrical activity. (That’s the concept in Revolution.)
All compounds are held together by electrical forces. Your brain works off electrical energy. Eliminating all electrical activity means that your brain would shut down, end of story and no worries. Water would become hydrogen and oxygen so your body would simply vanish into its constituent elements (although you wouldn’t be around to experience it.) Everything would dissolve, including the planet. So Revolution is just bad science.
But that doesn’t mean you can’t eliminate most of the things that produce electricity and the devices that depend upon it. It could happen and on a wide scale.
Assuming the worst happens, what’s the prognosis?
It depends on whether or not we’ve prepared.
Assuming we’re a bunch of dumb-shits and haven’t prepared for the worse, two things can occur.
First anything that contains modern electronics is subject to destruction. The electrostatic energy created by the solar flare and the electrical energy created by the electromagnetic pulse (EMP) can cause sparks to leap between microscopic components inside a computer chip. This action guarantees the chip won’t work again, end of laptops, cell phones, video games, television, iPods and pads, refrigerators, stoves, and more. Anything operated by a computer will die and that includes modern automobiles.
Since damn near everything is controlled by processors these days, a huge number of devices won’t work.
Not all electronic devices will be inoperative. Any device enclosed in a Faraday cage might likely survive.
(A Faraday cage is a conductive enclosure like a box made of copper mesh that is connected to the earth. For reasons that are too complicated to explain here, the electromagnetic pulse (EMP) can’t penetrate the cage.)
There are more Faraday cages around than you might imagine. A steel building is a type of Faraday cage and will provide some protection from EMP. Still, even good shielding will not withstand an EMP of sufficient magnitude.
In a worst-case scenario, about 75-90% of chip-based electronic devices will become inoperative. (Older electronic devices that operate with vacuum tubes will be unaffected.)
Batteries will still function as will flashlights (LED flashlights might fail.) Any car made before 1990 might survive and cars made before 1985 will definitely still work.
Not so with satellites. They’ll not be protected from the full force of the flare and unless they’re well shielded they’ll die. The heat of the solar wind can expand the atmosphere causing them to fall to the earth.
Combined, the damage will disrupt most of the satellite communications but land-based relay stations might still work. Fiber-optic cables will be unaffected by both the EMP and the electrostatic discharge, but the devices they connect to might fail.
So the net result will be spotty communications and in some cases a total loss in the ability to communicate.
Losing the ability to communicate could be devastating to the financial services industry since all transactions (assuming the computers still worked) go through our vast communications network. ATMs, phone and internet transactions, and point-of-sale will likely not work. Rebuilding the financial data for one-half of the world might prove impossible.
As if that isn’t bad enough, the damage to the electrical grid might be far worse.
The nation is crisscrossed by high voltage electrical cables that carry power from the power plants to homes and businesses. One of the key components in the electrical network is the transformers that change the power from a lethal level to something that won’t kill us in our homes.
This vast grid of electrical wires is a ripe victim for the EMP effects from the sun. The sun’s magnetic energy and to a lesser extent the electrostatic energy generated by the sun’s highly charged particles, can and will create massive electrical charges in those wires. This type of electrical energy (direct current) spells death to a high voltage transformer. If they’re not adequately protected by fuses or circuit breakers, the current generated by the EMP will cause them to explode. Even with protection some, or a significant percentage of them, may be damaged.
High voltage transformers are expensive and difficult to construct. It’s not something one can buy at Home Depot. It takes months to a year to create one of them and guess what? It takes infrastructure and power to build them. No power, no transformers.
The best way to prevent this is to shut down the whole electrical grid prior to the flare’s arrival. Isolate the transformers from the high tension wires to prevent them from being damaged. Ground all the grid wires and hope for the best. It would mean a nation-wide black-out but the power could be restored after the CME passes. (I hope the government’s listening. It’s a major undertaking but it’s doable.)
Store critical electronic components in Faraday cages made with multiple shields. Replacing the damaged electronics in vital infrastructure devices will get them running again.
Still if precautions are taken, some damage and major interruptions in the power grid are to be expected because the grid is controlled by computers and a major EMP will likely damage the power lines.
A loss of electrical power lasting weeks or months will be devastating to the country. Food is produced by mostly automated factories and delivered by trains, trucks, planes and ships that rely upon electronics to navigate and control the engines (electricity). Some older automobiles and ships might work and airplanes might fly, but any planes or ships using electronics might be grounded or lost at sea.
The water supply relies on pumps run by electrical motors (electricity).
Our modern Army uses vehicles and weapons controlled by computers (electronics).
Newer passenger aircraft could fall from the sky (electronics or avionics if you prefer).
The financial network relies on computers and communication. Without the financial infrastructure we’d be back to bartering (assuming there was anything to barter with.)
For those who think hording gold is the way to becoming top dog, remember, a gold coin contains no calories. You can’t eat it.
The damage to our infrastructure might be so great that to rebuild we’d have to forget there was any such thing as money. To bring ourselves back to current levels, the government would have to assume draconian powers, mobilizing the population to rebuild a lot of the hardware from scratch.
One asset would be the fact that for any solar storm and CME, only one half of the world would be affected. If the most industrialized half was spared, it could provide the nucleus to rebuild the other half.
Knowing humans, that’s an iffy proposition. The spared half would be more likely to attempt to occupy the damaged half.
Of course, perhaps the milk of human kindness might rear up and show humans at their noblest moment. People might join hands, sing kum-by-ya and work together.
Who knows, but one fateful day in the future, we're sure to find out.