Hurricanes and blizzards are petty trifles compared with the weather phenomenon that troubles apocalypse preppers: They’re worried about a giant electromagnetic storm wiping out all technology.
It’s an unlikely scenario — a massive solar storm strikes only about once every 500 years — but if the Earth was hit by one, power grids across the world could be permanently fried. “Frankly, this could be one of the most severe natural disasters that the country, and major portions of the world, could face,” renowned space weather consultant John Kappenman told Gizmodo.
How would we survive the space storm? To find out, I spoke with individuals already prepping for the technopocalypse, and engineers hoping to fortify our infrastructure against it.
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To prepare for power outages following a massive solar storm, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) advises building a disaster supply kit with enough food, water and medication to last at least 72 hours. NOAA further recommends keeping your car’s tanks at least half full (gas stations rely on electricity to power their pumps), and stocking your freezer with ice to keep essential perishables cold.
These preparations will buy first responders a little time to focus on restoring functionality to the grid. But they might not be enough.
“If you take electricity away, either immediately or within a short period of time, you’ll suffer the failure of all critical infrastructure,” Kappenman said. This includes things like water, sewage treatment, gas stations, banks and hospitals. “One of the concerns that we have is that in the worst case scenarios, we could be looking at weeks, months, maybe even years before restoration of the grid.”
That’s why preppers are taking a longer view. “I have a five year supply of food for employees and family,” a source who requested anonymity told Gizmodo. This individual says he’s rigged up a 12.5 kW solar array in the “remote wilderness,” complete with “power outlets and water spigots about every 50 feet” to support a small fleet of RV trailers for the long haul. Other preppers agree that a multi-year food and water supply is crucial. Some are also stockpiling large quantities of medications (“five year supplies of meds can be obtained from Asia without prescriptions,” one source told Gizmodo).
Preppers also say that you’ll need to have lots of cold, hard cash on hand. “But,” you protest, “there are digital copies of my money backed up in databases all over the world!” Guess what? If all those digital backups go down, so does your net worth. Stuff a bunch of cash under your mattress or bury it in your backyard. Or, as some inflation-wary individuals are doing, you can invest in physical gold and silver. Hoard that gold like a dragon.
Space weather experts say that the induced ground currents from a large geomagnetic storm are mainly a concern for big infrastructure. But if you want to be absolutely sure your data and electronics remain safe, you can build a Faraday cage.
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A Faraday cage is an electrically conductive container that shields its contents from external static electricity fields. Elaborate, NSA-proof Faraday cages are a popular plot device in action thrillers, but don’t worry, it’s easy enough to build simple a model at home. “Many people just use a metal trash can,” a design engineer told Gizmodo. “I use a vintage metal picnic basket and numerous metal “cookie” type tins.”
Another source describes a much more ambitious design: A 40-foot tall Faraday cage built from a cargo container. “Inside the leaky doors, there will be a wall of steel with the only access being bolted on plates of steel, using copper or brass mesh as the fabric between the entry plate and the steel wall,” the source wrote in an email. “Inside, put wood shelving, and put smaller metal “Faraday Cage” boxes that can hold computers, radios, water pumps, and vehicle ignitions that may be destroyed by a Solar Storm, or by an EMP attack.”
As for what to store in your Faraday cage? That’s open to debate. Some preppers are putting solar batteries inside, others, Ham radio equipment. A retired forensic analyst and amateur photographer — whose Faraday cage consists of a nested set of galvanized trash cans — told Gizmodo he’s planning to store external hard drives, thumb drives, and exposure-metering devices. He’s currently building a long-term inventory list of other critical items.
“It is one thing to start with the garbage can, but the next following question, as we’ve suggested, is ‘what’ to put in it that might be of any use, in the event of an event that will test us all ,” the source said. “If there is not commercial power, and if most other electronic devices are destroyed, what exactly will be of use if protected in one’s Faraday cage?”
The answer, it would seem, depends on what you think the world will look like after the dust settles.
When the 1859 Carrington Event — the largest geomagnetic storm on record — struck the planet, the global telegraph system acted as an antenna. Telegraph stations across the world caught fire, technicians were electrocuted, and widespread communications outages ensued. (A fascinating new research paper, available in pre-print on arXiv, describes what this event was like).
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If a Carrington-sized storm were to strike the Earth today, we could face a global telecommunications outage, the likes of which the world hasn’t seen in over a century. “Communications systems have probably the most resilient and well thought-out backup schemes out there,” Kappenman said. “But even those are typically limited to 3 days of backup fuel.”
Several preppers suggested keeping shortwave receivers handy, preferably of the hand-crank or solar-powered variety (because, you know, the grid’s out). “Personal two way com should be stored in metal boxes in each family vehicle,” one individual recommended. Another source emphasized the value of hunting down older, “tube type” communications gear. “Modern amateur radio gear is hugely susceptible to EMP,” he said. “Amateurs who have made it a part of their hobby interest to rebuild/salvage discarded military gear, especially heavy receivers, and transmitters, are thought to be very survivable.”
Of course, having a designated rendezvous location in the event that the phones fail is also critically important. Prepper advice? Make sure it’s well outside the city.
While most preppers are (understandably!) concerned with their own survival in the event of an apocalypse, some are focused on how humanity could rebuild in the aftermath. Rocky Rawlins, better known as “The Librarian,” has spent the last several years amassing a repository of forgotten knowledge that men and women can use to rebuild society in the event of a tech-obliterating EMP.
He calls it the “Survivor Library.”
“In the long run the survivors will be left with a shattered world and will have to rebuild from scratch,” Rawlins told Gizmodo. “When the last salvaged pair of scissors breaks someone is going to have to make a new pair. When there is no more soap to salvage from empty houses and stores and warehouses someone is going to have to make soap. When the remaining shoes and boots in empty homes begins to rot with age someone will have to make some new boots from scratch.”
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Can you do make scissors, soap or boots? Yea, didn’t think so. That’s why Rawlins has spent the last five years building a digital repository of over 8,000 out-of-print books, on subjects ranging from masonry to medicine to coal mining. Yes, he acknowledges the irony of storing digital books for a future where technology has all but disappeared. But Rawlins hopes that some fore-thinking individuals will take it upon themselves to shield copies of the Survivor Library (in their Faraday cages!), so that the knowledge can be eventually be restored. “With a few working computers and printers a group of small community can start printing and binding the books in the Library fairly easily,” he said. “Even if only a few in each category are printed and saved it will give the group a significant advantage over starting form scratch.”
Even if you don’t think the end is nigh, it’s worth taking a few moments to peruse Rawlins’ Survivor Library. It certainly helped me appreciate how much knowledge has slipped away over the years. And hey, if you’ve always wanted to build your own mechanical watch or learn how to make ice without modern refrigeration, now’s your opportunity.
Preppers are concerned with making it after civilization collapses. Meanwhile, space weather scientists and engineers are wondering how we can avoid getting to that point. As Kappenman puts it, the real business of “prepping” for a massive geomagnetic storm needs to happen at the infrastructure level.
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“What I think is necessary is to begin a process of reengineering the power grid to unwind some of its vulnerability,” Kappenman said. “The threat arises because power grids are connected to ground through large, high voltage transformers. That ground connection is normally a good thing, for safe operation of the grid, but at times of geomagnetic storms, it becomes a threat.”
Overcoming this issue is actually fairly straightforward. “Essentially what you can do is install a small device between the transformer connection and its connection to ground,” he said. Geomagnetic storms induce very low frequency, direct currents, while our power grid is an alternating current (AC) system. “The concept of this device would be: we install a capacitor that’ll block the DC current from flowing into the power grid during storms and allow the AC current to continue the flow.”
Turns out, Kappenman actually invented and field-tested such a device in the early 1980s. So what gives? “The industry basically ignored the problem,” he said. “It’s been very frustrating in that regard.”
But as our arsenal of space weather-observing tech grows, so has our appreciation of just how large solar storms can get. “Just in the last year or so, from observations of other sun-like stars, we’re seeing there can be a potential for storms a factor of 10 to 100 times larger than the Carrington event,” Kappenman said. (I’d like to point out how incredible it is that we’re able to observe solar flares and coronal mass ejections on distant, sun-like stars at all, but that’s another post entirely).
Those monster storms worry space weather scientists a lot; so much so that our government is finally beginning to listen. As Thomas Berger, director of NOAA’s space weather prediction center told me last month, the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy recently convened a task force to explore how we can fortify infrastructure against extreme solar events. The group’s recommendations are due out next month.
How much will it cost to harden the grid? “From what we know right now, this is probably a couple billion dollar fix,” Kappenman said. “In the grand scheme of things, this is peanuts. In terms of what it does to electric power costs for the average consumer, it’s less than one postage stamp per year to solve this problem well.”
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