One day soon the lights in your house might go off and stay off for weeks, months or even years. If this happens on a large scale, you will likely be in the middle of a catastrophe known as a Black Sky Event.
A blackout, at first thought, might not seem like a destroyer of civilisations, however as of right now, western civilisation has built itself on thin ice. A big enough black sky event may be the crack that we never recover from, as such, it is a necessity that we, as a society, plan for the future so as to weather the proverbial ‘big one’ if, or more likely when, it hits.
When the grid fails it fails big
Our power infrastructure system, or “The Grid” for ease of explanation in this post, is currently the umbilical cord for our entire civilisation. Clean water, food, healthcare, emergency services and the financial system are all built with a reliance on power. Most of the time if the grid suffers a prolonged failure we have reserve systems ready to fill the needed resource gaps until normal functioning can be restored.
Image credit Wikimedia
Governments, corporations and international NGOs are often quick to act in such situations, and the extreme interconnectedness of our society is such that emergency supplies can be delivered anywhere in the world with spectacular speed when needed. For instance, during the devastating earthquake that hit Haiti in 2010, the aid organisation International Medical Corps were able to have personnel and supplies on the ground in Haiti, saving lives within 22 hours of the first report of the earthquake1.
When a disaster is localised, such as in Haiti, this connectedness is highly beneficial, however once devastation passes a certain threshold, the very aspect of our society that makes small scale issues relatively solvable, can quickly become our greatest weakness.
In the west, we have the worrying habit of optimising our society for everyday efficiency, rather than planning ahead with an eye on resilience to rare but devastating events.
The following example demonstrates precisely how this preference can lead to a small issue quickly snowballing out of control.
Northeaster blackout of 1965
On November 9th 1965 workers incorrectly installed a protective relay on a power line near the Canadian/American boarder. After installation, the relay tripped when it shouldn’t have tripped and, as events unfolded over the following hour or so, no doubt a great deal of creative, bilingual-swearing was unleashed by the Canadian workers.
This small failure caused power to be transferred to connected lines, where those lines’ own protective relays, working correctly, tripped due to the additional load. Suddenly, with nowhere for local power stations to send their power many were shut down for fear for overloading.
Chaos ensued. Some isolated areas were overloaded with power and some were struggling to meet the new demand left by the absence created by the emergency shutdown. Eventually mass failure of the grid occurred, with the final result, of this single failure, being a 13-hour blackout effecting 30 million people over an 80, 000 square mile area2.
The system in this case suffered a cascade failure.
Luckily on this occasion the disruption was relatively quick to repair. However, cascade failures do appear inherent to the way we organise much of our society, potentially making them the overriding factor that make even the smallest of black sky events a sizable threat to human safety.
Planning for the worst-case scenario
Earlier this year, the All-Party Parliamentary Group for Future Generations met in London to discuss the potential causes, outcomes and prevention strategies in regards to future black sky events effecting the UK3.
The group identified 6 scenarios, ranging in scope, that could cause an event where power is lost across large swathes of the UK and Europe. These included the following (which I have ordered from least to most likely to keep me awake at night with existential dread):
A terrorist attack on the country’s infrastructure using conventional explosives
A sizeable earthquake, not here in the UK but effecting international grids on which we are reliant
Extreme weather conditions, such as Storm Desmond that hit the UK in 2015
A cyber-attack instigated by a terrorist group or a foreign hostile state (cough Russia cough)
An electromagnetic-pulse caused by the detonation of a nuclear device at high-altitude
A solar coronal mass ejection, similar to the Carrington event of 1859
If I’m honest it’s the last two that occupy about 95% of my black sky worrying. Although, whenever Twitter goes down, it takes me two or three page-refreshes before I assume it must be some sort of massive coordinated cyber-attack with the aim of bring down the whole of western civilisation.
Generally speaking, when a nuclear explosion occurs most people focus their attention on the blast wave, firestorm, radiation and extensive physical damage that they cause. During tests in the 1950’s and 60’s, however, the US discovered that nuclear explosions also have a bonus feature that they overlooked during all that wrath-of-god/end-of-days-like awe for destruction of earlier tests: an electromagnetic pulse (EMP).
An EMP is harmless to people, causes no physical damage, but wreaks havoc to electrical equipment. The effects are widespread occurring in a line of sight from the blast centre to the visible horizon. Often, people have more pressing concerns to worry about when a nuclear explosion occurs within eyesight, however, when detonated at high altitude this line of sight from the blast centre is extensive.
The detonation Starfish Prime as viewed from honolulu (see image up top of post for another. Also these were taken at night time!). Image credit:Wikimedia
This was the case with the series of nuclear tests conducted in remote areas of the Pacific Ocean during July of 1962. Starfish Prime was one such test, in which a 1.4 megaton nuclear warhead was detonated at an altitude of 400 km. The EMP from the explosion was found to be far more powerful than the scientists involved expected, knocking out streetlights, setting off burglar alarms and shorting out phonelines in Hawaii, a staggering 1,445 kilometres away from the blast site4.
To put this in perspective a blast over Kansas would affect the vast majority of the continental united states5. The EMP would cause a huge electrical surge across most of the North American grid, knocking out systems and triggering tens of thousands of cascade events similar to the 1965 event mentioned above.
Across Russia and the former Soviet Union it is suspected that there are many unsecured nuclear warheads6. The nightmare scenario is a terrorist organisation (that as such, is outside of the mutually assured destruction game that nation states play) or rogue state, securing one or two of these devices and setting them off above Europe or the United States.
Solar coronal mass ejection (CME)
Image credit Wikimedia
Also known as a geomagnetic storm, a CME can cause a similar situation to that of the high-altitude EMP. The last big CME to hit the earth was in 1859. Known as the Carrington Event, this CME came at such a time in our civilisations development that our reliance on technology was low. Even so, it still managed to take down the entire telegraph system of the western world 7.
In a 2013 report, it was estimated that a Carrington-like event would likely impact around 20-40 million people in the U.S., with power outages lasting from sixteen days to “1-2 years”, inflicting $600 billion to $2.6 trillion in damage to the U.S. economy 8.
A CME seems to be rare on a day-to-day basis but extremely likely in the long-term. We had a narrow miss in 2012 9, however, it is predicted that there is around a 12% chance of a Carrington size event per decade. We’ve therefore been extremely lucky to make it through the technological revolution of the last century unscathed, but our luck won’t last for ever with this one.
The cascade continues
Currently, in the UK, there is concern that food scarcity over the next decade may cause many of the poorest in our country to going hungry 10. This concern isn’t due to any predicted natural disaster, massive war or global economic downturn, but instead is due to the possibility of the UK leaving Europe (i.e. Brexit) without a trade deal in place and, as such, falling back on WTO trading rules.
This is how fragile a food system can be.
Over the previous few decades the UK has moved from a nation that produces the vast majority of its own food, to a nation that now imports around 40% of its food from oversea.11 At the same time, our system of food delivery has moved towards the just-in-time method of supply, whereby deliveries of all consumable products are planned, with big data informed logistical precision, to reach the shelves of supermarket by the time that demand dictates they will be purchased12.
This system produces spectacular efficiency bonuses for supermarkets, as they no longer have to spend as much on warehouse storage and are able to increase the shelf life of their fresh produces, however, it does create potential food security issues related to rare but extreme events.
A recent estimate from The Department of Environment and Rural Affairs put our current food storage at around 10 days at normal consumption rates (not including fresh fruit and vegetables, which go straight from truck to shelf)12.
And suggest that:
“[W]here many or all deliveries are blocked for some reason, shelves could go empty, and this could be exacerbated by panic buying, which could worsen availability for those consumers less able to respond quickly."12
With many of our distribution systems being reliant on logistic software, communication and a constant power supply I’m sure you are now starting to see how a blackout can be much more of a danger than an inability to power electrical equipment.
Additional possible outcomes of a black sky event
If all this hasn’t scared you enough already, here are a few more things to worry about next time the lights go off:
Nuclear power stations could go a bit Fukushimary after they burn through their coolant13
The healthcare system functions on a just-in-time supply model meaning potential shortages of incline and other vital pharmaceuticals14
Water, sanitation and waste removal would could also be disrupted during an event, increasing the risk of infectious disease
An EMP device may disrupt the electronics in cars rendering all but the oldest of cars immobile15. Even if it doesn’t fuel delivery will certainly be disrupted.
Riots, looting and general unrest
Recommended prevention and recovery strategies
During their meeting the All-Party Parliamentary Group for Future Generations discussed much of what I’ve mentioned above but also, more importantly, discussed means of prevention and mitigations of effect in the event of a black sky event. The following include those that the group mentioned and other that I have found in my reading along the way.
An early warning system for CME
This seems like a genuine possibility as the only thing working to our advantage during a CME is their there relatively (compared to light) slow speed, taking around 12 hours to reach earth from the sun 16. As long as we turn all of the important stuff off we should be good to turn it back on again with minimal damage. In theory.
Increase the number of “Black Start Resources
Power stations have the annoying tendency to require power before it can start generating power.
Black Start is the process of rebooting a power station when it becomes cut off from a functioning grid. A “Black Start Resource” therefore is any resources that can kickstart this procedure. Some small power stations have back up generators for such an occasion. For the bigger power stations something bigger is needed.
Currently the UK has 12 nuclear powered submarines and seeing as we’re an island nation this might be what saves us come the big one (a hydroelectric plant would also work, but a nuclear sub off the Essex coast would be far cooler).
Build capacity and resilience in the grid
Updating our infrastructure to be both digital and resilient is challenging. Modern systems need to anticipate and absorb potentially disruptive events, adapt to them, recover rapidly and if they do fail they need to be able to fail safely. All of this is needed without scarifying levels of efficiency we have become used to. Financial incentive is part of the solution but political will is the other. Politicians need to talk more about infrastructure.
Be prepared for the worst
A cross sector emergency plan is needed. As a plan that is not rehearsed until the actual event will almost certainly fail3
This issue does not get as much thought as it should. Catastrophic risks have a habit of falling into the category of: dull to prevent, but all too exciting if they ever do happen to occur.
If you have any suggestions pleases do voice them in the comment section below, you never know you may come up with the idea that on day saves us all.
My name is Richard, I blog under the name of @nonzerosum. I’m a PhD student at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine. I write mostly on Global Health, Effective Altruism and The Psychology of Vaccine Hesitancy. If you’d like to read more on these topics in the future follow me here on steemit or on twitter @RichClarkePsy.
Also I’m in the process of building up my Steem basic income shares so I’ve decide to sponsor a share a week to someone that engages in the comments below. This week it’ll go to the best out-of-the-box suggestion for getting us through a black sky event.
 CNN: Three Years After Haiti Earthquake, International Medical Corps Continues Critical Training & Cholera Response Programs
 Wikipedia: Northeast Blackout of 1965
 The Centre for Existential Risk: APPG for Future Generations – Black Sky Events
 Wikipedia: Starfish Prime
 Wikipedia: Nuclear Electromagnetic Pulse
 Nuclear Threat Initiative: Russian Nuclear Arsenal Remains Unsecured
 New Scientist: A tech destroying solar flare could hit earth within 100 years
 Lloyd’s: Solar Storm Risk to the North American Electric Grid, Lloyd’s and the Atmospheric and Environmental Research, Inc., 2013
 P. Riley, On the Probability of Occurrence of Extreme Space Weather Events. Space Weather. 10 (2012)
 The Guardian: UK would run out of food a year from now with no-deal Brexit, NFU warns
 Global Food Security: UK Threat
 Full Fact: Is the UK's food supply hanging in the balance?
 University of Tennessee: Nuclear Power: Black Sky Liability or Black Sky Asset?
 BBC: Brexit: What would 'no deal' mean for food and medicine?
 LifeWire: Would your car survive an EMP attack
 Gizmodo: What would happen if a massive solar flare hit the earth