United Kingdom – 21.15 Greenwich Mean Time
The Black Swan pub, Dawlish, Devon
‘Well just sack him then, or get a hit squad to do the job. They’re all the same.’ Lance waved his empty pint glass dangerously close to Carl’s head. They’d been there a while and Lance had just finished his fourth real ale.
‘Eh, what?’ Carl Reeves was confused, the conversation had taken a strange turn and he was lost. Maybe he’d had a few too many too. Maybe it was just Lance.
‘These MEPs, sack the bloody lot of them! We never get to vote for any Member of this so-called European Parliament. MEPs seem to get paid more by the hour than I do in a week, just to sit on their fat arses in Brussels, or Strasbourg, or wherever it is they sit on them.’
‘No, not MEP, not a Member of the European Parliament, an EMP. Electromagnetic Pulse. E-M-P.’Carl was glad his sanity had been restored, just another crossed wire after too many pints of the local Shaggy Dog bitter.
It was Lance’s turn to look confused. ‘Well what the hell’s an EMP then? Wasn’t it something to do with the Cold War in the eighties and nuclear bombs? Or are the Russians getting frisky again with some new weapon?’
Carl paused, pint first re reckoned. ‘Sort of. It’s your round, get them in and I’ll give you the five minute version, or we’ll waste VST. And, before you ask, that’s valuable supping time. Get on with it, the bar’s three deep already.’
While Lance wended his way through the many boisterous locals, some who had just burst into untuneful song as late evening approached, Carl gathered his thoughts. What could he tell Lance that wasn’t on the ‘don’t tell anyone on pain of death’ document they’d been made to sign last month?
If he was honest, Carl was intrigued about the whole SWC project when he started it. SWC, the Space Weather Centre, was a special department working within the British Weather Office, the BWO. But the new team he was now involved in was a special group set up within the SWC itself. Carl had heard of lots of special interest groups and quangos created by the UK Government, but most were involved with studies of how local services would cope with major emergencies. They usually looked at stuff like who would get flooded out if a major river burst its banks after a storm, and the cost of rebuilding and who would pay for it and over how long, that sort of thing. But this new group he had been seconded into was way more than just a side-project weather review. The tell-tale sign was this was the first time he was aware of anyone in the BWO had been made to sign the Official Secrets Act. And it had taken them over two weeks to find out which government department was running this special project either, and why it had been commissioned.
One thing was for sure, it had a big budget, as the three of them in the new project team had needed a special contract, and each had been told it was planned to run for at least a year. All of their normal day to day roles had been transferred to other parts of the BWO, so they knew it was going to require a lot of effort at the start. One month on, they now knew how much work it was going to involve, and exactly how fast they needed to produce the initial report. As the main contributor and editor, it was constantly on his mind that the deadline was now only a few days away.
True to form, Lance was back from the bar fast. He’d almost but not quite succeeded in not spilling some of Carl’s pint on the worn round oak table they’d been propped up behind for the last two hours. Dark beer began to spatter off the table edge, soaking the squashed pile of the well-worn carpet, once probably dark red but now an indeterminate sludge brown.
‘Shaggy Dog’s off, so I plumped for a couple of Cross-eyed Sheep, the barmaid tells me it’s a bit darker and slightly less hoppy around the edges.’ Lance was a member of CAMRA, the Campaign for Real Ale, and knew his beers. He was always trying to get a coach party from the Met Office to go to the Great British Beer Festival in London, regaling them with regular bawdy drinking tales from previous years of the ‘GBBF’. It had to be said though, five hours on a coach to drink beer all day didn’t seem to hit the spot for any other takers in the Met Office so far. But Carl knew Lance was nothing if not persistent, and it was still only January, so he figured Lance would put up the August GBBF trip go back up on the staff online notice board when spring came round.
‘So, where to start. You know that whatever I tell you can’t go any further than us, or I’d have to shoot you?’ This was common banter, and Lance gestured his bent index finger, broken in a teenage climbing accident, with ‘cross my heart and hope to die’. He looked interested, so Carl pondered what little he knew himself that he could legitimately tell him. He decide to stick with what most people knew, and what anyone could find out from a casual internet search.
‘Right, buck up and concentrate if you really want to know. An EMP, or Electromagnetic Pulse, is exactly what it says. It’s a pulse of electromagnetic energy. Size-wise an EMP is big, really big. It’s a massive burst of high energy electromagnetic radiation spread across a wide range of frequencies. But an EMP doesn’t include anything in the visible light range, like rainbow colours, or any infra-red or ultraviolet either.
‘So is a bolt of lightning an EMP then?’
‘Yes, that’s one type, but an EMP can be one of several sorts of radiated, electric, magnetic or conducted energy. It can also have lots of different frequencies and wavelengths, a bit like all the different types of radio stations. It can also have different sorts of waveforms.’
Lance had glazed over a bit, not surprisingly, furrowing his brow in confusion. This was an action that made him look like a reject from a gurning contestant. Not flattering. Ok, maybe that was a bit too much technical detail for the pub, Carl thought. So he added, ‘And that’s physics, captain.’
Lance grinned and perked up, they were both Trekkies and hardly an evening went by without some reference to the TV show or film franchise. Carl continued.
‘So what I’ve just described is what an EMP broadly is, but it can actually come in three types, what have been imaginatively called E1, E2 and E3.’
‘E2 is the one you just mentioned and the one most people understand, that’s the huge energy burst you get with lightning. Which gives you an idea of exactly how much energy can be delivered in an EMP. We’ve all heard tales of huge trees being cut in two and set on fire, or golfers being hit and killed on the course mid-swing.’
Lance chuckled, neither of them liked golf. The idea of a white cap-wearing local up on the common getting offed by a stray bolt from the blue was a pleasant image to consider.
‘But because we get lightning constantly, in fact there are probably tens of thousands of strikes going on around the world at any one time, we’re pretty well protected as a society from most things it can throw at us. Almost all buildings of any size have got lightning conductors, and most of our electronic stuff in the home is reasonably sorted, with power grid lightning strike surge protectors. Unless there’s a direct hit of course. OK, lightning is damn dangerous and there are some pretty wild extremes on record. Apart from lots of golfers each year, hundreds of reindeer got hit and killed in Norway with one bolt a while back. Ten years ago there was a strike in Oklahoma that covered a record distance of two hundred miles. And then, just five years ago, there was a single strike in the south of France that lasted nearly eight seconds. So don’t ever get complacent with lightning, my beery friend.
Lance ignored the polite taunt. ‘So, if lightning is E2, then I’m guessing E1 is a bigger EMP burst than lightning, and E3 is a smaller one then? Is that how it works?’
‘Good try, but no cigar my friend’, Carl quipped. ‘The three EMPs are actually very different types, and you can get ones that are both natural and man-made. An E1 is where the nuclear bomb you mentioned comes in. To be honest it also chucks in a bit of E2, but not as much as lightning can.’
Carl spotted Lance was already concentrating on busily supping back his fifth pint like a trooper. Carl pressed on. He wasn’t sure how much Lance going to remember of this conversation. However, he knew if he didn’t tell him the whole story in one go, he’d only end up with Lance keep asking him about EMPs in the pub for the whole of the next month. Or even the month after.
‘So, here comes the science bit.’ Carl took a deep breath.’
‘Let’s cover an E1 pulse, the one created by a nuclear bomb. You’ll have seen film of the bomb they dropped on Hiroshima during WW2. That’s what’s called a fission bomb. Then there’s the big hydrogen bomb poster a lot of teenagers had on their walls in the eighties. That’s your fusion bomb.’
‘Well a nuclear fission or fusion bomb generates a massive EMP that can travel hundreds of miles in all directions out from the blast area. It’s not just the blast and the radiation that does the damage, it’s the big electromagnetic pulse that goes part and parcel with it. The EMP from it is concentrated all into a few fractions of a second after it goes off. Anything in its way that’s metal and of any reasonable size or length, like a ship or a plane, will get huge voltages passing through them when the EMP hits. So, if it’s a big bomb EMP, almost all of your nearby electrical and electronic infrastructure gets fried, knocking out computers and cooking all the electronics.’
In the mad times of the late fifties both the US and Russia tried out loads of tests with nuclear bombs, just to see what would happen, I guess. They also discovered that you get more bang for your buck, so to speak, if you explode your nuclear bomb hundreds of mile above your target. One US trial in the early sixties set off over the Pacific caused electrical damage 900 miles away in Hawaii, just from the nuclear EMP E1 pulse.
Lance frowned, ‘So how the hell do we protect ourselves from nutter nations creating a nuclear bomb pulse then, if it’s going to fry wires and kill all the computer chips that far away?’
‘Well, there’s been one simple system, and that’s what the whole world has done in the last forty years. Just try and stop anyone from building any new nuclear weapons, as well as monitor and decommission a lot of the big stocks that were around in places like the US and Russia. Let’s be honest, most sensible nations get the fact that if you set off a nuclear bomb, it wouldn’t be long before someone else retaliates back, like a very bad version of spoilt kids in a school playground. They even had a term for it that finally got all the key countries to the negotiation table in the seventies, MAD. Mutually Assured Destruction, they called it, and no surprise it fired up everyone’s imagination. Basically, people finally understood that if one country fires a couple of nukes at another country, then within days the whole world is pretty well toast.
Carl paused. He’d spotted from the look on Lance’s face as soon as he’d mentioned toast, that his companion would want beer snacks. He also needed to catch up on his current pint if he was going to attempt to match even half of Lance’s beer consumption. He supped back half, pausing to wipe hoppy froth from his top lip. Might as well pre-empt what was coming anyway. Bar trip.
‘So, that’s E1 nukes and E2 lightning taken care of. Another pint and then I’ll tell you all about E3 EMPs. Crisps?’ Lance nodded.
‘Get some of those Thai chilli ones, or roast ox. Or whatever. Just bring lots.’
Carl departed for the bar, quieter now as the hour got late. He worried about Lance sometimes, but not that often. If someone had asked him to describe Lance he’d probably have mentioned that he had boyish charm, which appeared to work as well on men as it did on the many women that seemed to like his simplicity. In fact that was probably his secret, Lance had about a quarter of an inch of emotional depth, and so not enough to ever drown in. No, Carl wasn’t going to lose much sleep over his mate Lance any time soon. Lance would always be a survivor. And a good drinking buddy.
Five minutes later, with four half-opened bags of crisps settled in amongst the sticky beer mats, Carl continued.
‘So here’s the odd one, an E3 electromagnetic pulse. No bombs and no lightning with this baby. An E3 EMP is as natural as that beer you’re drinking’
Lance leant in to the table, broken crisps cascading over the table from the badly opened bag he was holding. ‘If you’re going to tell me that there’s some way of getting a huge pulse of beer, then I’m all ears!’
‘No, it’s all natural, but it’s not beer or beer related. Sorry to disappoint. It’s all to do with the sun mate. An E3 is caused by a solar flare, effectively a massive pulse of energy shot straight out from the sun.’
‘All the different types of electromagnetic radiation from the surface of the sun take about eight minutes to reach Earth. What’s weird is that a single photon starting at the centre of the Sun gets bashed around and has to change direction every time it encounters a charged particle. The only thing is the sun is so big it takes that single photon up to 100,000 years to get to the surface of the sun.
‘Wow!’ Lance exclaimed, ‘So we’re gonna get fried by tiny photons from the surface of the sun someday?’
‘Well that’s the tricky bit. Fried no. Discombobulated, yes’
‘Ooh, get you!’ Lance exclaimed. ‘Hark at mister big words after four pints.’
‘Three. Alright three and a bit. Just sit still and listen. You asked, after all. You probably know that the sun has cycles, about eleven years apart, and at peak times in this solar cycle the number of sunspots on the sun increases. The problem is the sun also naturally throws out a really big solar flare every once in a while. For reasons we don’t yet really understand, this seems fairly random, and doesn’t usually coincide with the solar sunspot maximum. Our new SWC team has looked at the really big solar flare events, right back to the first one ever recorded in 1859, what they called the Carrington event. We’ve discovered there have been thirty three over 160 years, so that’s a really big solar flare every five years or so. But that’s on average. We’ve had sometimes twenty years with nothing, then four big flares in less than ten years. This whole large solar flare thing just seems apparently completely independent, and with no space probes or satellites anywhere near the sun as yet, we just can’t work out how to predict these solar flare occurrences accurately.’
‘In fact it’s amazing we know as much as we do today. The guy Richard Carrington, who saw this first big solar flare in Victorian times, he was an astronomer and he’d been studying the sun for years. It was just a fluke he happened to be looking at the shadows from sunspots on a home-made screen, when two white-hot flares suddenly erupted from the sun. What no-one realised at the time was that the flare he saw, which only lasted for a few minutes, also shot a massive ball of plasma out from the sun. This plasma ball was what they call a CME or coronal mass ejection. It was this CME that hit the earth about eighteen hours later, mashing into the earth’s magnetic field and that interaction was what produced the world’s biggest geomagnetic storm to date. As this EMP interacted with the earth’s magnetic field it created some amazing firework displays. What the Met Office calls the Aurora Borealis but what Joe Public calls the northern lights. Normally you’d really only get to see the lights near the North Pole, but the newspapers of the day said they were shimmering in the sky even down as far as the tropics. There’s also loads of reports of people being able to read books at night and apparently it was like daylight for several days on end, the light was so bright.’
‘The one thing they didn’t really understand at the time, was that this gigantic E3 EMP pulse induced massive currents across the surface of the earth. We didn’t have anything very technical, or much electrical kit back then, but what we did have was hundreds of miles of telegraph wires for long distance communication, particularly across the US. As soon as it first hit, and for days afterwards, this EMP generated huge currents in the telegraph wires. There were plenty of stories of Morse telegraph operators getting big electric shocks off their keys, sparks shooting off the long lines all across the US, and even telegraph paper spontaneously combusting and burning down the operator shacks!’
‘Carrington was pretty lucky to have spotted the 1859 flare, but he reported it in the science journals and that’s why it got named after him. ’
Lance was entranced. ‘Sounds like this Carrington dude was the top scientist of his day studying the sun. So how come no one’s ever heard of him?’
‘Well, if you work in our department, in the Space Weather Centre, everyone has. Carrington really started the whole field of solar science. He worked out way back then that the sunspots usually rotate around the sun every twenty seven days, and that’s now called the Carrington Rotation of the sun. Every single rotation of the sun since November 1859 has had a Carrington rotation number, once for every twenty seven days, so we’re now on 2,200 and some.’
‘As the sun’s rotating all the time, it depends on at what direction the solar flare gets thrown out from the sun as to whether we get any impact here on earth with a solar EMP. Some of the most massive flares that we’ve been able to record were luckily sent off into out space, well away from us. You could say we dodged a bullet on quite a few occasions. The other problem is that, even if we can spot that the flare and EMP is going to hit earth, each one has a north or south oriented magnetic field. So half of the big solar EMPs hit the earth and their energy gets dissipated, and half hit the earth and cause big upsets, mainly in the northern hemisphere. And that’s yet another problem, as nearly ninety percent of people live in the northern hemisphere, so most people above the tropics will get affected if another solar EMP event like the big Carrington one hits us.’
‘But you’re right mate, hardly anybody knows this stuff except me, and now you. The most notice people usually take of the sun is when they complain because it’s not out as it’s covered in cloud in winter, or if its summer and then they have to constantly slather sun cream over their kids. Otherwise, it just does its thing, day after day, giving us light, hope, dreams..’
Lance chucked a broken crisp at Carl’s head. ‘Ok, thanks. I get what EMPs are now. You looking for a Nobel prize in explaining science, or what?’
Carl spotted the signs, time for bad jokes or conversation about football and the latest gossip on Lance’s love-life, or lack of it recently it seemed.