The new movie, X-Men: Days of Future Past—set to release on May 23rd—reintroduces everyone’s favorite magnetic powered mutant, Magneto to the big screen. Magneto wields a destructive power, he uses his mastery over magnetism to levitate objects, and turn guns on their owners. However, a few parlor tricks displayed by a movie villain does not convey the real, devastating threat electromagnetism poses to the U.S. power grid. Despite the fact that the current U.S. grid is inadequate on many fronts (link to previous blog), it is particularly susceptible to electromagnetism, both naturally occurring geomagnetic storms, and man-made devices (potentially terrorist initiated) electro-magnetic pulses (EMPs).

Geomagnetic Storms

The major danger of geomagnetic storms to critical infrastructure is the relative alacrity in which they appear. A massive eruption of charged particles issues from the surface of the sun at unpredictable intervals, and travels outward toward earth. These storms arrive at Earth anywhere between 14 and 96 hours.[1] Being unpredictable as they are, warning is minimal at best. NASA’s Advanced Composition Explorer satellite can give minimal warning of the strength of a geomagnetic storm, with only 30 minutes of advance warning before it strikes. Fast and effective response to geomagnetic storms is of preeminent concern for those whose job it is to secure critical infrastructure. When the storm reaches Earth it “disrupts earth’s magnetic field by producing geomagnetically induced currents (GICs).[2]

These GICs can enter the power grid at multiple points of ingress, typically from transformer stations, and they can travel through the power lines to effect larger areas of the grid. The older portions of the power grid are at the greatest risk. Older transformers cannot take the fluctuations of energy coursing through the transmission lines and can overheat and overload. Newer portions of the system with a more intelligent design will try to contain the fluctuations of GICs, cutting off non-essential pathways, but this is not guaranteed. An outage caused by a typical geomagnetic storm is of little long-term risk, but a more massive storm could potentially disrupt service to 130 million customers, and the damage to the physical grid could literally take years to recover from.[3]

Electro-Magnetic Pulse (EMP)

The resiliency of the U.S. power grid to EMP attack is severely lacking, we do not currently employ hardened electronics in our substations and transformers that would shield against the ravaging gamma rays released by a nuclear device exploded miles above the U.S. These rays would course through every piece of unshielded electronic equipment. [4] Such an EMP attack on the U.S. power grid would be, in the estimation of a congressional commission tasked to research this type of attack, in a word, “catastrophic.”[5] The backbone of our critical infrastructure would be broken, with over 1,000 transformers either damaged or destroyed. The resultant power outages would cause all other critical infrastructure to fail in a domino effect.

Enemies of the U.S. are aware of this vulnerability to our critical infrastructure, namely Russia, China, North Korea, and Iran. In fact several foreign agents have been captured in attempts to steal electronics hardening technology, which could be used to protect themselves against a similar EMP attack. If these enemies were to exploit our grid vulnerability it could spell the end of American military might as all of our critical infrastructures fail and it takes years to reestablish the grid. Dr. Henry Cooper, former director of the Strategic Defense Initiative Organization, stated that in addition to our failure in effectively deploying hardened electronics in our grid, we do not have sufficient warning radars or missile defenses to protect against a surprise attack.[6] In essence we are inviting disaster.

However, ICS has solutions to help you maintain integrity in the event of such a heinous attack. If you cannot communicate, you cannot operate. That is why ICS offers you hardened electronics and communications equipment to help maintain communications and command and control during an incident such as this. This can give you the advantage in maintaining integrity, or rapidly repairing damage to transformers and substations to bring your critical infrastructure back online. Contact ICS to inquire about our hardened solutions.

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