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DHS: Feds Must Assess Possible Continuity of Government Disruption in EMP Attack

power grid lines

WASHINGTON -- Proper planning for a potentially catastrophic EMP attack has been hampered by knowledge gaps about the nature of such an incident and a lack of authority for the Department of Homeland Security to call the shots in disparate critical infrastructure sectors, according to a new report.

The Strategy for Protecting and Preparing the Homeland against Threats from Electromagnetic Pulse (EMP) and Geomagnetic Disturbance (GMD) released today by DHS covers intentional electromagnetic pulse attacks, including high-altitude nuclear detonations, along with naturally occurring geomagnetic disturbances, or solar coronal mass ejections; both could wreak havoc on critical infrastructure such as the power grid, water systems, transportation and communications. "The impacts are likely to cascade, initially compromising one or more critical infrastructure sectors, spilling over into additional sectors, and expanding beyond the initial geographic regions," notes the report.

"Essentially, any electronics system that is not protected against extreme EMP or GMD events may be subject to either the direct 'shock' of the blast itself or to the damage that is inflicted on the systems and controls upon which they are dependent," DHS adds.

The strategy doesn't include a plan for implementation, which DHS said would be forthcoming to guide management, oversight and appropriations. Development of the implementation plan will also include input from other federal agencies and the private sector.

EMP and GMD incidents are characterized by DHS as "low probability/high consequence scenarios that challenge effective policymaking," and "significant uncertainties exist regarding the likely effects of extreme EMP and GMD events on existing civilian critical infrastructure." DHS is looking for hints from past events such as the 1989 solar storm that knocked out power to six million customers in much of Quebec for several hours or the Carrington Event of 1859, which electrified telegraph lines and resulted in major outages.

A severe GMD event "could create a complex set of cascading effects, including requiring rerouting of air traffic to avoid areas where communication and navigation would be limited by space weather impacts."

"Many of the most harmful effects caused by electromagnetic incidents occur within milliseconds or seconds. These effects may simultaneously damage critical energy distribution nodes and industrial control systems over wide geographic areas through damage to microprocessors and power transformers. Such simultaneous disruptions over large areas of the country would likely undermine the implementation of mutual aid plans and agreements, a cornerstone of our approach to disaster response," says the DHS strategy. "Response and recovery may be further complicated by the relative lack of awareness of electromagnetic threats and hazards in government and industry, the potential unavailability of communication systems, and the dearth of operational experience in dealing with the aftermath of electromagnetic incidents."

Priorities in the strategy, in the event of an attack or space storm, are minimizing the loss of life and restoring critical infrastructure.