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June 17, 2024 38 mins

Geomagnetic disturbances and electromagnetic pulses have the potential to cause a lot of problems for us. We learn what causes these events and how they can impact electronic systems.

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Episode Transcript

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Speaker 1 (00:04):
Welcome to tech Stuff, a production from iHeartRadio. Hey there,
and welcome to tech Stuff. I'm your host, Jonathan Strickland.
I'm an executive producer with iHeart Podcasts and how the
tech are you So? Back in May twenty twenty four,
a massive geomagnetic storm created aurora across much of the

(00:26):
contiguous United States. Even folks in my home state of
Georgia were able to see the northern lights. Sadly that
doesn't include me. I missed out on it, but I've
seen photos and videos of the night sky from that time,
and the colors are pretty darn spectacular. But while folks
were ewing and aweing over the chromatic display in the sky,
others were monitoring large systems like the power grid, because

(00:49):
geomagnetic phenomena has the potential to wreak havoc with stuff
like power lines and more. So, today I thought we
would talk about, you know, geomagnetic services or gmds, and
electromagnetic pulses or EMPs, and what happens if there's a
big enough zap applied to a region of the Earth. Now,

(01:11):
to get into this, we need to go back to
some basic earth science stuff. Our planet has a magnetic field, which,
through interaction with the solar wind, which is all this
stuff that's ejected by the Sun, will become a magnetosphere.
But let's take this step by step. So, first off,
Earth's magnetosphere is the strongest of all the rocky planets

(01:35):
in our Solar system. At the core of our planet
is a solid inner core that's made up of iron
and nickel metals, and they're hot. They're like they're real hot,
like surface of the Sun hot. And surrounding the solid
inner core is a liquid outer core. So the Earth's
core is kind of like a gusher turned inside out,

(01:56):
except it's a gusher made of super hot iron and
it probably wouldn't taste very good anyway. The outer core
of molten iron and nickel swirls around this solid core,
primarily due to heat from the inner core, kind of
making things move around through convection and the Earth's rotation.
So this churning molten goodness generates electrical currents. And these

(02:20):
currents are huge. They can stretch hundreds of miles across.
And as I'm sure you all know, there's a relationship
between electrical currents and magnetic fields. In fact, a lot
of our technology leverages this relationship, from dynamos to transformers
to lots of other stuff. So the result is the
Earth is like a giant magnet. This is why accompasses

(02:41):
needle points the way it does. The needle aligns itself
with the magnetic field of the Earth. Now that magnetic
field is really complicated, and it's constantly in flux, though
not always on a scale that we puny humans can perceive.
But we can kind of oversimplify this and say that
from space, if you were able to see the Earth's

(03:02):
magnetic field, and if we didn't have that pesky sun
coming into play, it would kind of look like the
Earth was a lot like a bar magnet. You would
see these magnetic lines emanating from the south magnetic pole,
looping around to the other side of the Earth, and
going back in through the north magnetic pole. These poles
aren't lined up with the ends of Earth's axis. Those

(03:24):
ends would actually be the true North and true South poles.
If the Earth were rotating around a stick, these would
be the two ends of that stick. But just note
that the Earth is not actually rotating around a stick.
Magnetic North is not in the same spot as true North.
In fact, magnetic north isn't always in the same spot
at all. It drifts over time. On average, the Earth's

(03:46):
magnetic poles flip every half million years or so. The
actual timing is random, so we can't just look at
a calendar and say, huh, and Thursday, in two thousand years,
the north pole is going to be on the south
end of the planet. The general hypothesis is that the
process of polarity reversal is well, let's call it gradual.
It can last like ten thousand years, not that anyone

(04:10):
in human history has actually observed this. We base our
understanding off of lots and lots of science, with the
most recent polarity reversal happening seven hundred eighty thousand years ago,
which you know, statistically means we're overdue, but there's no
reason to believe that's gonna happen anytime soon. But the
polls have swapped positions like one hundred and eighty three

(04:31):
times over the last eighty three million years. Now. There's
a whole bunch of fringe theories about pole reversals that
don't have much, if any scientific evidence to support them.
So we're not going to dive into any of that,
I'll just say that if this episode sparks your interest
in magnetic fields, make sure to employ your critical thinking
and look for good sources when you look into it further,

(04:52):
because there's tons of, like I said, fringe theories and
misinformation about this stuff, where you're gonna hear all sorts
of crazy ideas about polarity reversal that's not really grounded
in science. Also, if this episode interests you in the
band that's named the Magnetic Fields, that's awesome because I
love that band. Okay, So the geodetic poles, as in

(05:14):
the true North and South poles, they also don't stay
in the same spot either, because the rotation of the
Earth isn't a perfect spin. It's a little bit wobbly,
kind of like how a toy tops spin starts to
slow down. You'll see it begin to wobble before it
falls over. But the poles don't wander by a lot.
We're talking less than a foot of migration in a year.

(05:36):
But I figured I should mention that before any well
actually start to roll in with me talking about magnetic
North moving and geodetic North not moving. It does move,
just not very much. All Right, back to science. So
we've got this magnetic field of the Earth. So what's
the big deal. Well, for us, the big deal is
that this magnetic field serves as a kind of force

(05:57):
field for certain types of charged articles and energies. And
I think an argument can be made that because of
our magnetic field, conditions were pretty darn good for life
to form on this planet. Actually, when you look at
Earth and you look at all the different factors that
have helped contribute to life having a place to have
a foothold, it's pretty phenomenal. We're the right distance from

(06:20):
our Sun so that we can get the energy we
need for life. We're not too close where the Sun
would burn off everything, or too far where we wouldn't
get enough energy. We also have these larger planets in
the outer Solar systems, some of which have over time
blocked or potentially blocked perhaps Earth destroying asteroids on their

(06:41):
way in. Like it's almost like we've got bouncers in
our solar system that protect us. So there are a
lot of different factors at play. Our atmosphere is another one,
but the magnetosphere plays a big part in this too.
So without our magnetic field, we might not be here.
If we didn't have the magnetic field, at the very least,
I could say we would have few video streaming services.

(07:01):
Of course, our atmosphere does help protect us from stuff too.
The magnetic field also protects our atmosphere. The magnetic field
kind of protects us from stuff like electrons and protons
that have been fired off from the Sun, as well
as cosmic rays from deep within the galaxy. A flow
of charged particles and energy from the Sun called the

(07:22):
solar wind, could really do damage to the Earth if
it weren't for this magnetic field. So, for example, that
atmosphere that you and I enjoy that could be stripped
away by the solar wind if it weren't for the
magnetic field keeping the wind at bay. That might be
what happened to Mars. The red planet does have a
magnetic field, but it is far less powerful than Earth's.

(07:45):
It's a very weak magnetic field. So there's this hypothesis
that the solar wind has, over the course of billions
of years, stripped away much of Mars's atmosphere and left
it with a very very thin atmosphere. Our magnetic force
field isn't like a solid wall, however, it's flexible, so
the solar wind pushes against it, and this means that

(08:07):
the field gets shaped into what we call the magnetosphere.
The solar wind pushes against the day side of Earth's
magnetic field and smushes it a bit. On the night
side of Earth, the magnetic field trails back with a
long tail. Some people have actually compared it to being
kind of comet shaped, and the night side would be

(08:27):
the tail side of the comet. So on the day side,
the magnetic field is confined to around ten Earth radii
from the center of the Earth, so the Earth radius
is nearly four thousand miles. So you do the math,
it means the magnetosphere on the day side stretches out
a little less than forty thousand miles from the core

(08:48):
of the Earth most of the time. Anyway, the night
side stretches out hundreds of Earth radii, and that means
that the magnetosphere actually goes out beyond where the Moon's
orbit is. Moon's orbits that are around sixty Earth radii. So
on the day side of Earth, there's this boundary between
the magnetic field and the solar wind that's called the

(09:08):
magneto pause. This is really the force field thing I
was talking about. Much of it as charged particles that
were coming our way, and then they collect in one
of two zones called radiation belts. Specifically, they're called the
Van Allen radiation belts. They're named after James Van Allen.
These zones have, as the name suggests, energetic particles in them,

(09:33):
and these particles can pose a challenge for us that
scientists and engineers have to take into account when they
design satellites because the charged particles can really mess with
electronic systems. The doses of radiation are low enough so
that they pose no real serious risk to human health,
which is good because we have sent astronauts through them.
So it's a good thing that the radiation isn't at like,

(09:57):
you know, a harmful level as far as our actual
will direct health is concerned. This magnetopause force field is
pliable and it's not impenetrable. Sometimes stuff gets through it.
The Sun is constantly blasting out charged particles and such,
and sometimes during particularly active solar events, the Sun might

(10:17):
shoot a bunch of stuff our way during what's called
a coronal mass ejection. That's what happened back in May
of twenty twenty four. The sun pooped out a whole
series of CMEs toward Earth, and the National Oceanic and
Atmospheric Administration or NOAH, alerted folks to it on May tenth,
twenty twenty four. Initially, NOAH graded this geomagnetic storm as

(10:41):
a G four on its weather scale. G four is
a severe geomagnetic storm, but the agency would later upgrade
this to a G five, which is the highest on
the scale it goes from one to five. Five is
an extreme geomagnetic storm. The severity of a storm is
part of what determines what, if any effect the storm
is going to have with us here on Earth. The

(11:04):
Aurora are one such effect. We can see this beautiful
display of colors in the night sky when the magnetic
field is reacting this way. But the storm can also
interfere with our power systems, our radio broadcasts, satellite navigations,
spacecraft operation, and more. And again this gets us into
the connection between electrical and magnetic activity. A strong geomagnetic

(11:28):
storm can push the magnetosphere around and magnetic lines get
metaphorically entangled and twisted, and this in turn creates magnetic
disturbances here on Earth. Another thing that happens is the
storms can affect the density and distribution of density of
the Earth's upper atmosphere. That includes the thermosphere, which is

(11:49):
where lower orbit satellites are. They're in the thermosphere. There
are thousands of satellites in Earth's atmosphere. Technically, the thermosphere
is the penultimate layer above it's above the mesosphere as
below the exosphere, which is the final layer of the
Earth's atmosphere. The temperature of the thermosphere actually goes up

(12:09):
as you climb in height. We often think of air
getting colder as you go higher in altitude. That's true
for the troposphere. That's the part of the atmosphere where
we live. It's our atmosphere where you spend all your time,
assuming you're not an astronaut. But it's also true that
that trend of when you go higher in altitude the
temperature gets colder. That's also in the mesosphere. However, the

(12:32):
stratosphere and the thermosphere are both different. As you go
higher in both the stratosphere and the thermosphere, the temperatures
get warmer. It's funny because it's troposphere, then stratosphere, then mesosphere,
than thermosphere, so it goes cold hot cold hot. Essentially,
what's happening is in the stratosphere and the thermosphere. As
you're climbing in altitude, you're encountering atmosphere that has absorbed

(12:55):
more radiation from the Sun, including stuff like X ray
radiation and ultraviolet radiation, and thus it is warmer than
areas below. Okay, we're going to talk some more science
stuff and then we'll start talking about how these things
affect us here on Earth. But first, before we do that,
let's take a quick break to thank our sponsors. Okay,

(13:23):
So I was talking about the thermosphere and how as
you climb the thermosphere the temperature actually increases. The thermosphere
is also where the ionosphere is. This is a zone
where the energy from the Sun is strong enough to
eject electrons off of atoms, which turns them into ions.
Right Like, So, if you have an atom and you're

(13:44):
able to blast it with enough energy, you can cause
it to push out an electron and now it will
be positively charged, right, You'll have more protons than electrons.
Protons are positively charged, electrons are negatively charged. Overall, your
ion has a positive char So that happens in the ionosphere.
This is also the part of our atmosphere that can
reflect certain radio waves, which makes it possible to beam

(14:07):
shortwave radio broad casts across the world, particularly at night.
It works really well at night time anyway. By shifting
the density and the density distribution of the thermosphere, a
geomagnetic storm can create conditions that affect spacecraft passing through
those regions. So if you're passing through a denser region

(14:27):
of atmosphere, that's going to mean that you're encountering a
greater amount of drag on your spacecraft. It slows down
the spacecraft. So for a satellite, this could mean that
engineers will have to make adjustments so that the satellite
will continue to operate properly because it wouldn't be in
the position it thinks it should be due to the
fact that there's drags slowing it down. Or if a

(14:50):
satellite slows down enough, well, its orbit can start to
decay right because it's not going fast enough to maintain
that orbit, and eventually it's going to meet a fiery
end as it plunges toward Earth. So these are things
that engineers and scientists have to account for. These changes
can also affect how radio waves travel through the atmosphere,

(15:12):
which means stuff like positioning information from GPS and other
navigational systems can have errors and become unreliable. You know,
we take it for granted when we pull up a
GPS tool that we know exactly where we are, but
if they're outside factors that are affecting the satellites, the
information we have is not going to be accurate and

(15:34):
it may end up being that, you know, the GPS
tells us we're in a totally different spot than where
we actually are. Beyond that, the actual surfaces of spacecraft
can build up electrical charges due to these geomagnetic storms,
and that also can cause malfunctions. The extreme magnetic activity
can also induce current in electrical systems and overload them,

(15:54):
so you can get a system to essentially get fried.
It's kind of like if a power surge were to
fry a computer you have plugged into the wall. Like
if you don't have your computer plugged into a surge
protector and there's a power surge, yeah, your computer can
be toasted. Well, a geomagnetic storm can do that same
sort of thing by inducing a strong electric charge within

(16:17):
the computer system or within the circuitry that your computer
system is plugged into. Now that last one, as I said,
doesn't just impact spacecraft in orbit. I mean, spacecraft are
particularly vulnerable to this, but a strong enough geomagnetic storm
can actually affect large electrical systems here on Earth as well. Now,
for the most part, we're talking about big systems, right, Like,

(16:39):
most geomagnetic storms are not going to be powerful enough
to affect relatively tiny electronic systems. Like your smart watch
isn't likely to go bonkers because of a geomagnetic storm. However,
some of the systems that the watch is connected to
could be affected, right Like, if your watch is pulling
down data from a server farm, that server farm could

(17:01):
definitely be affected by a geomagnetic storm. A really strong
storm can potentially cause widespread blackouts, and transformers on the
power grid can end up getting damaged as a result, severely,
So sometimes transformers will actually suffer so much damage they
need to be replaced. So a quick reminder on what
a transformer actually is. Essentially, a transformer's job and I'm

(17:22):
talking about electrical transformers, not the more than meets the
eye robot kind. But transformer's job is to take alternating
current that's at one voltage and either step up or
step down that voltage, typically for the purposes of transmission.
So higher voltage alternating current or AC power travels further

(17:43):
through power lines with less loss. So if you want
to transmit a lot of power from a central source,
like let's say it's a power plant, you want to
crank the voltage up really high to push it through
the powers lines and then have a second transformer on
the other end to bring the voltage back down before
you deliver it to your customers. So that's what transformers do. Essentially,

(18:05):
they do this by having two electromagnetic coils next to
each other, and as current flows through one coil, it
induces current to flow through the other coil. If coil
number one has fewer loops than coil number two, then
coil number two is going to have greater voltage than
coil number one. This is stepping up. If coil number

(18:28):
two has fewer loops in its coil than coil number one,
then it's going to be a step down. The voltage
is going to decrease. That's the basics. There's more to
it than that, but that's the basic idea. So a
geomagnetic storm, which is one that can induce massive changes
in current, can really mess up an electrical system that's

(18:48):
relying upon transformers. You can suddenly have cases where the
voltage is truly out of control. Now, if you've ever
been near a transformer when it overloaded, you've likely seen
a pretty spectacular and scary display. I've seen it happen
a few times. Often there's a very loud bang. I
remember the first time I ever heard one. I thought

(19:09):
someone had fired off a shotgun next to me. And
then often there's lots and lots of sparks from the transformer.
In the event of a single transformer going out, you
can end up having power loss in that immediate area,
and a power company can sometimes do some work to
get things back in order to re route some stuff
and be able to at least restore power in a

(19:30):
region within a few hours. Replacing the transformer takes a
bit longer. But imagine that we're talking about an event
that takes effect over an entire region, not just like
one transformer on a city block or something. We're talking
about like a region that might be several states or
even countries in size. Well that large a section of

(19:53):
the power grid With that many potentially thousands of transformers overloading,
that would be truly disastrous. You would have a real
mess on your hands. It could take you more than
a year to fix something like that. So a severe
geomagnetic storm has the potential to do a lot of
damage here on Earth. With enough warning, various parties like
power companies can actually make adjustments that will mitigate the problem.

(20:17):
You can also harden things against these geomagnetic storms to
some degree. We'll talk more about that a bit later,
but we can still experience effects here on Terra Firma. However,
we do have methods to at least minimize their impact.
So if we have enough warning ahead of time, there
are certain steps that we can take that will reduce

(20:39):
the impact of these geomagnetic events. But what if we
could create the same sort of magnetic disturbance on a
human made scale, And what if we could weaponize that?
And what if we already have And I'm not talking
about hypotheticals now. We didn't necessarily set out to do
this initially. It was really a byproduct of looking for

(21:01):
a way to create really huge, deadly explosions meant to
kill people directly. But now that we've figured out how
to do it, well, what are the implications of that?
So what I'm talking about here are nuclear detonations, And
I talked about nuclear detonations a bit not too long ago,
But one thing I didn't mention is that they can
create They do create electromagnetic pulses or EMPs. When a

(21:26):
nuclear payload explodes. One of the many byproducts of that
explosion is a release of highly energetic gamma rays. These
rays truly have a tremendous amount of energy, and they
can strip electrons off of atoms and ionize air molecules,
which creates free electrons called Compton electrons and positively charged

(21:48):
ions as a result. This is also where we talk
about ionizing versus non ionizing radiation. When you talk about radiation,
most people immediately think of nuclear radiation, but radiation is
a broader term. It doesn't just mean stuff that's radioactive.
Radiation is more about how the energy propagates. Right. Well,

(22:08):
if something is non ionizing, it means that the energy
contained within that thing is not sufficient to strip electrons
away from atoms. So, for example, radio waves are non ionizing.
They do not have the energy necessary to ionize atoms,
and that's why people who are skeptical of claims that

(22:33):
radio waves, like being near a radio tower can have
a negative impact on your health. That's the big counter
argument to that is that radio waves do not have
the facility to ionize atoms, whereas something like gamma radiation,
which has a tremendous amount of energy in it, it
definitely has the ability to ionize atoms. So these charged
particles will generate an electromagnetic field, and that field is

(22:58):
extremely strong near the point of detonation, like way stronger
than other areas within our magnetosphere, and so it can
interfere with not just electronic systems here on Earth, but
the magnetosphere itself really and it can have a really
big impact on stuff like power lines, street lamps, that
sort of stuff. It can also have an impact on

(23:20):
electronic systems and devices because while the Sun can do
similar things like an electromagnetic pulse, can do it on
a scale that's far more intense and targeted to a degree.
So a high altitude nuclear detonation could do this, and
in fact it has done this. This is not theoretical,

(23:42):
we have observed it. So back in nineteen sixty two,
the United States was really getting into the spirit of
the Cold War with what was then the Soviet Union.
So both of these superpowers had at one point put
a moratorium on nuclear testing. But then the Soviet said, colmorat,
we are going to test nuclear warheads again. And that

(24:03):
was like in nineteen sixty one. And then the US
responded in kind saying, well, gosh, if you're going to
do it, we sure as heck are going to do
it too. Because this idea of mutually assured destruction was
kind of the go to for superpowers. Then, this idea
that if we can guarantee that we could destroy you,
you'll be too timid to try and destroy us, because

(24:25):
we'll just all go down together. It was a cheerful time.
Those of you who grew up in the Cold War
you know what I'm talking about. So a subset of
the weapons that the United States tested were part of
a project that was called Operation fish Bowl, which was
a series of high altitude nuclear explosion tests. One such
test took place on July ninth, nineteen sixty two. The

(24:49):
US launched a Thoor rocket because boy, we're really good
at naming stuff, and this rocket carried a one point
four megaton thermonuclear warhead. It launched off an island called
the Johnston Atoll, which is in the Pacific Ocean. It's
under the jurisdiction of the United States Air Force. It's
been under US control since the thirties, and it's about

(25:11):
nine hundred miles away from Hawaii. The explosion would be
referred to as Starfish Prime. That was the name given
to this test. So the thor rocket carried this payload
to an altitude of around two hundred and fifty miles,
then the payload detonated. The test was done in order
to get detailed measurements about the nature of the explosion,

(25:35):
which included the electromagnetic output of the explosion. Because previous
tests had not really been thorough or well done, they
didn't gather much useful data. I could argue that those
previous tests were more about the US showing the Soviet
Union the size of America's explosives and less about learning

(25:55):
anything useful. That will leave it for now. The explosion was,
of course spectacular, was terrifying, awe inspiring, all the things
that you would expect if you've seen Oppenheimer, but imagine
bigger and way up in the sky. The electromagnetic pulse
was far far more powerful than anyone anticipated, and it

(26:19):
propagated outward almost instantly because it's electromagnetic radiation, that's the
same thing that light is. Light is a type of
electromagnetic radiation, so it travels at the speed of light.
And folks in Hawaii, sure as heck noticed because the
MP caused street lights to fail. Remember this is nine
hundred miles away, and Hawaii starts seeing like entire sections

(26:44):
of the state going dark because the street lights have
all gone out. It also shut down the telephone system
between the island of Kawaii and the rest of the
Hawaiian islands, so Kawaii was kind of cut off from
everyone else. This blast created a temp a new radiation
belt at a high altitude, and by temporary, I mean
it lasted a few years, that's how long it's stuck around.

(27:07):
But yeah, this was one that was in addition to
the Van Allen Belts. This was also much much, much
more intense, stronger than the Van Allen Belts, and as
PBS would put it in an episode of Space Time,
a third of all low Earth orbit satellites that passed
through that radiation belt were destroyed due to going through
it repeatedly and slowing down and the orbit decaying and such,

(27:30):
or just having their electronics fried. Now, when you hear
a third of all the satellites that passed the root
were destroyed, that sounds like a lot, but keep in
mind this is the nineteen sixties, so a third ended
up being six satellites. We are, you know, talking about
the early days of the space race. However, if the
same thing were to happen today, it would mean that
thousands of satellites would have been affected as they passed

(27:51):
through this area. Tests like Starfish Prime showed that the
MP effects of nuclear detonations packed way more of a
wall than was originally believed, and I imagine it was
also a contributing factor to world powers agreeing on the
Partial Nuclear Test Ban Treaty of nineteen sixty three that
would outlaw nuclear detonation tests underwater or in space. We'll

(28:15):
talk about more about, you know, what EMPs would do today,
but first let's take another quick break to thank our sponsors.
So Starfish Primes EMP was literally off the charts, and

(28:37):
by that I mean US instruments that were intended to
measure the EMP nature of this nuclear detonation essentially came
back with this is way too big for me to measure, like,
this is beyond my capabilities of measuring this, And that's
when we started to get a real handle on how
potentially devastating an EMP delivered at a strategic point could be.

(28:58):
For example, think about two one hundred and fifty miles
above Kansas, because it spreads out in all directions. You know,
Hawaii was nine hundred miles away from the Johnston at
all and still was affected. If you hit above Kansas
at two hundred and fifty miles of altitude, then potentially
you could wipe out the power grid of the entire

(29:20):
United States, including ones that are not connected to the
rest of the national power grid. I'm looking at you, Texas.
So yeah, it could be a really devastating effect, and
I would argue they'd be far more disruptive today than
they would be in the nineteen sixties because we've grown
far more dependent upon electronic systems over time, particularly computers,

(29:42):
and as I mentioned earlier, computers are pretty delicate things.
A huge electric surge could fry computer systems and bring
down a lot of the infrastructure that we depend upon.
Most modern cars would be impacted because lots of cars
today have things like electronic ignition systems. Those could be
vulnerable to it. EA, older cars would have a better

(30:02):
chance of making it through, but there's no guarantee they
would get out, you know, scott free. They could also
have some issues. For one thing, you could have an
electric charge build up on a metallic surface. It's a
conductor after all, But not only could this pulse fry electronics.
I mean when you talk about large conductors and that
build up of charge. There are plenty of things that

(30:23):
we have that could end up becoming a huge issue,
like railroad tracks for example. You know miles and miles
of railroad tracks. That's just miles of metallic conductors that
could store a charge in them. Or you know, a
network of pipes, or even metal fences, like a good
long metal fence could do it. So the effect on

(30:44):
those things would be bad. The effect on organisms, that's different.
It's it's not believed that an EMP would be directly
harmful to living organisms. In fact, that's one of the
big attractive things about the potential for EMPs. Right. However,
if all of your electronic systems fail around you, you're
going to be in a pretty tight spot. Even if
you personally have the capability to get along just fine

(31:07):
without all the modern conveniences of computers and electronics, the
folks around you might not be so adept at survival,
and people who are in a tight spot can be
pretty hard to predict, which is probably why emp's factor
into a lot of science fiction post apocalyptic stories. Now,
there are ways, as I mentioned earlier, to harden electronic
systems against the effects of an EMP, but they tend

(31:30):
to be inconvenient and expensive. So, for example, you can
use metal shielding, which can help block the effects of
an EMP, but the shielding has to totally surround whatever
it is you're protecting, and you need to make sure
there aren't any gaps or holes or anything in the
shielding to boot in order to really protect whatever it
is you're trying to harden against an EMP. The other

(31:52):
thing you can do, because the e MPs are so devastating,
particularly toward anything that's based on semiconductor technology, you can,
in the design phase try to design components that are
able to handle a higher current than they're typically going
to handle. Right in other words, that you've built an overhead, Right, like,

(32:13):
while this is meant to hold x amount of current,
the overhead you built means it can handle X plus
y and it can still function. You have to build
in that capability, and you know you can't necessarily do
that for the whole thing. You might just focus on
the components that are going to be the most vulnerable
within your system, because otherwise your costs are going to

(32:36):
go out of control. Now, you know a lot of
people are going to say like, okay, so what's the
likelihood of an EMP going off? And if they determine
the likelihood is low, then it's hard to justify the
expense of hardening things against it. Right. It would be
kind of like if someone came up to me and said, hey,
do you want to buy some shark attack insurance? And
I'm like, well, i live in Atlanta. I'm not close

(32:57):
to the ocean. Atlanta is not a coastal city. No,
the chances of me being attacked by a shark in
my day to day activities is beyond minuscule. Well, you
might say the same thing about EMPs and say, well, yeah,
it would be devastating if an EMP went off. And
this system went down. But at the same time, the
likelihood that is so low that we're not going to

(33:18):
spend the money to harden the system against EMPs. The
prospect of developing a weapon that can wipe out a
nation's computer systems and other infrastructure without causing direct harm
to the population itself has tempted many nations, including the
United States, to pour a lot of R and D
into building non nuclear weapons capable of generating a large

(33:40):
EMP blast. Now I can't get into detail on this,
not because I don't want to, but because I don't
have access to all that information because a lot of
it is classified. So while I can say there are
lots of countries that have worked on various E bombs,
I don't have a ton of details. We do know
there are there are various ways to generate an EMP

(34:02):
that don't require a nuclear blast. So one is through
the use of high powered microwaves. Another is using what's
called a flux compression generator bomb. Essentially anything that can
send a blast of electromagnetic energy outward and potentially, if
you're talking about grand scale, potentially ionizing surrounding molecules, that

(34:23):
does the trick Some of These weapons are designed to
deliver much more focused pulses, so a military could use
this to take out a specific target while leaving other
areas relatively untouched. And that could be really handy if
you wanted to do something like let's say you want
to neutralize a military headquarters, right like, there's an army

(34:43):
base or something, and you want to disrupt their capabilities.
But you don't want that same attack to disrupt a
nearby hospital because obviously that would be inhumane, it would
be really it'd be a war crime, essentially, is what
it would be. And to that you would need something
to be much more precise than a nuclear detonation, you know,

(35:04):
hundreds of miles above your target, because that's going to
spread an EMP that affects a huge chunk of the region.
You need something that's going to be much more targeted,
probably not as devastating either, but at the same time,
you might be able to disrupt operations long enough to
be able to carry out some other attack or operation.

(35:26):
So you want a delivery system that can get the
job done without it being an all or nothing approach.
Those are the basics of gmds and EMPs, right like,
this is the world we live in. Even if we
didn't have EMPs, if we lived in a world that
was peaceful and you didn't have various nation states and

(35:47):
others trying to figure out how to disrupt or defeat
other ones, even if everybody was hunky dory and friendly,
we would still have gmds to worry about from the sun,
because space is trying to kill us all the time.
I've said it many times. And as we depend more
heavily on complicated computer systems, we do so with the understanding,

(36:10):
or we should have the understanding, that events, both natural
and human generated, can absolutely disrupt those systems and bring
them down. So one of the many concerns I have
about the AI fad or trend, or whatever you want
to call it, is that it's placing even more importance

(36:30):
on computer systems that if something goes wrong with those
computer systems, you lose all those capabilities. So if we
put more and more of our dependence upon those systems
and then those systems subsequently fail, will be up a
creek when that happens, and the creek will not smell nice.
I think you know which creek I mean. Here On

(36:52):
that note, I think I'm going to go camping for
a week and see how that suits me. No reason,
you know not. I'm not saying anything's gonna happen, just
it might be nice to get away from it all. Yeah,
that's what I mean, all right. I hope for those
of you who were aware of the geomagnetic storm back
in May of twenty twenty four, that you were able

(37:13):
to go out and see some northern lights. Like I said,
I missed it, and it really it really gets to
me because I think it would have been spectacular, but
I didn't even learn about it. I didn't even see
the news till it was the following day, and we
didn't get enough activity for me to be able to
see it on the subsequent nights. So the night when

(37:35):
I would have had the best chance of seeing something,
I didn't even know anything was going on. I hope
that wasn't the same for all of y'all out there.
I hope a lot of you got a chance to
see it. I hear that it was truly, you know,
inspiring and beautiful, So I hope you saw it. If not,
I hope you get a chance to see the northern lights.
At some point I might plan a trip just to
have the chance to see it. The trick, of course,

(37:57):
is that you never know if you're going to go
at a time when you can actually see it, but
you can hope. So that's probably what I'll do. And meanwhile,
I hope you're all well, and I'll talk to you
again really soon. Tech Stuff is an iHeartRadio production. For

(38:19):
more podcasts from iHeartRadio, visit the iHeartRadio app, Apple Podcasts,
or wherever you listen to your favorite shows.

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