The Sun Is Not Always Your Friend

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BY OWEN GRAHAM – In the early morning of August 9, the sun released a massive solar flare—the largest in four years—sending huge blasts of radiation out into space. Thankfully, the solar eruption was facing away from the earth. Yet, if the site of the solar eruption had been slightly different, the outcome could have been very different.

In 1859, British scientist Richard Carrington recorded the effects of a geomagnetic storm as it played out on earth in an event that is called the “Carrington Effect”—intense solar activity that can disrupt modern life dramatically. During Carrington’s time, few electromechanical systems were vulnerable to incoming solar radiation. There was the new telegraph system, however. During the event, it is said that solar-induced power surges knocked some operators from their chairs and set fire to the paper rolls used to record dashes and dots. Another Carrington-class storm today would dwarf these effects.


Today, the United States, the U.S. military, and the entire world are far more dependent on electrical infrastructure. This is a major vulnerability given that much of the planet’s energy and communications infrastructure is still too fragile to weather a massive electromagnetic onslaught. Fortunately, no Carrington Effect has occurred again since the whole world became hooked on electronics. Yet manmade threats can deliver the same damage.

A high-altitude nuclear explosion can create an electromagnetic pulse (EMP) that mimics a solar tsunami. It too has the potential to decimate America’s electrical and technological infrastructure, effectively sending the U.S. back to the 19th century—to a world without cars, cell phones, computers, or any of the critical electrical infrastructures that the American people and U.S. armed forces depend upon.

Indeed, the congressionally mandated Commission to Assess the Threat to the United States from Electromagnetic Pulse Attack found that an EMP attack “is one of a small number of threats that has the potential to hold our society seriously at risk and might result in defeat of our military forces.” It also found that a determined adversary such as Iran or a terrorist group can achieve an EMP attack capability without having a high level of sophistication. The commission also warned that “China and Russia have considered limited nuclear attack options that, unlike their Cold War plans, employ EMP as the primary or sole means of attack.”

The commission’s report represents the consensus view of the defense and intelligence communities as well as the nuclear weapon labs. In all, five commissions and major independent U.S. government studies have independently concurred with the EMP commission’s threat assessment and recommendations. Despite this broad consensus, Congress has yet to act in a substantive manner.

For the past several years, The Heritage Foundation has been working to raise awareness on the EMP threat and seek solutions to correcting this vulnerability by calling for a national EMP recognition day. This year’s event will coincide with the anniversary of the 2003 East Coast blackout, the results of which were just a small example of the devastation that could occur from an EMP attack on the United States.

To learn more, join us at Heritage on August 15 for a keynote panel discussion on “National EMP Recognition Day: The Threat That Can’t Be Ignored.