Dark Angel/the EMP thing

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Jennifer
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Dark Angel/the EMP thing

Post by Jennifer » 12 Dec 2011, 22:47

Okay, I absolutely loathe Gingrich, and there's no way in hell I'd ever vote for him (if he gets the GOP nod, I'm sitting out the next presidential election), but I am not certain why this is concerned foolish:

http://www.startribune.com/politics/nat ... 18943.html

He's been talking about the possibility of a high-level nuke detonation causing an EMP that fries most of America's electrical grid. The possibility strikes me as being very remote -- in that I doubt any terrorists will have the wherewithal to get and detonate such a nuke, and I doubt any other nation would be willing to launch one and effectively commit national suicide -- but I don't know why the basic concern is considered a crackpot idea. Especially considering some of the arguments the article makes against it:
Another of Gingrich's favorite topics, one that he brings up repeatedly on the campaign trail and also in a recent debate, is the possibility of an electromagnetic attack. And while the message may play well to hawkish audiences -- who might warm to the candidate's suggestion that the United States engage in pre-emptive military strikes against Iran and North Korea -- many nuclear experts dismiss the scenario. America's current missile defense system would thwart such an attack, these experts say, and the nations in question are at the kindergarten stage of developing nuclear arms.
Okay, the suggestion we engage in pre-emptive strikes is crackpottery, but since when is it the case that our missile defense system is guaranteed to work? Last time I recall reading about it -- some years ago, during the Bush/Cheney administration -- I recall the tests having been a dismal failure, even though the test conditions were beyond ideal -- real terrorists (or a nation trying to pull a sneak attack) will not call us up to say "By the way, we're going to launch a missile in 15 minutes; be prepared," yet those were the test conditions, and the MDS still had an abysmal failure rate.

Another thing which the story doesn't mention is: even without nukes, sooner or later there will be another Carrington event -- the last one, in the year 18-something, fried the telegraph wires, which at the time was the only damage a solar flare could do to our infrastructure. Now, of course, our entire civilization very much depends on a working electrical grid, and to my understanding, with the exception of certain pieces of military equipment, pretty much NOTHING is protected against either a nuke-derived EMP or a Carrington flare. It might well be true that an EMP will never happen, but a Carrington flare? Sooner or later, it's guaranteed.
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Re: Dark Angel/the EMP thing

Post by Number 6 » 12 Dec 2011, 22:58

Short reply-Yes, the EMP generated by a large nuke detonated very high up would totally screw things up. It's a real concern, but the malefactors in question would have to have access to ICBMs and high-grade nukes. NK has neither, as far as I know.
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Re: Dark Angel/the EMP thing

Post by Jennifer » 12 Dec 2011, 23:05

Number 6 wrote:Short reply-Yes, the EMP generated by a large nuke detonated very high up would totally screw things up. It's a real concern, but the malefactors in question would have to have access to ICBMs and high-grade nukes. NK has neither, as far as I know.
Granted, the fear of North Korea in particular is remote. But the idea that "somebody" could doesn't sound insane, and the idea that we should at least shield transformers against a Carrington event sounds to me no more ridiculous than the idea you should keep a fire extinguisher in your kitchen -- the cost of an extinguisher is so very, very tiny compared to the cost of repairing the damage a fire can do.
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Re: Dark Angel/the EMP thing

Post by thoreau » 12 Dec 2011, 23:10

1) Hardening the grid against solar activity seems like a reasonable thing to build into upgrade projects.

2) As long as we're talking about Dark Angel, remember how they had surveillance drones flying around Seattle? Yeah, doesn't seem so fictional anymore.

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Re: Dark Angel/the EMP thing

Post by Aresen » 12 Dec 2011, 23:37

thoreau wrote:1) Hardening the grid against solar activity seems like a reasonable thing to build into upgrade projects.

2) As long as we're talking about Dark Angel, remember how they had surveillance drones flying around Seattle? Yeah, doesn't seem so fictional anymore.

Fortunately, I doubt that the government will succeed in creating transgenic super soldiers. Unfortunately, I doubt the government will succeed in creating transgenic super soldiers who look like Jessica Alba.
I suspect that any transgenic super soldiers created by a government project will have the coordination of Barney Fife, the physique of Michael Moore, the imposing presence of GWB, and the good looks of Newt Gingrich.
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Re: Dark Angel/the EMP thing

Post by Highway » 12 Dec 2011, 23:41

Yeah, but in this case, it's not the miniscule cost of an extinguisher. It's not as high as the cost of reducing CO2 emissions down to KP levels, but it wouldn't be cheap. There are *so* many parts of the electrical grid, and so distributed, and so many varied implementations, and the shielding is not just 'throw some tinfoil over it'. And even if you prioritized by location and importance, the way the electrical grids work, there are still vulnerabilities everywhere. The Northeast Blackout of 2003 was caused by a sagging line on a tree, unbalancing the grid and overloading the failsafes. There really isn't a way to isolate a 'core' grid in such a way that you can ensure that it's going to be safe.
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Re: Dark Angel/the EMP thing

Post by Jennifer » 12 Dec 2011, 23:54

Highway wrote:Yeah, but in this case, it's not the miniscule cost of an extinguisher. It's not as high as the cost of reducing CO2 emissions down to KP levels, but it wouldn't be cheap. There are *so* many parts of the electrical grid, and so distributed, and so many varied implementations, and the shielding is not just 'throw some tinfoil over it'. And even if you prioritized by location and importance, the way the electrical grids work, there are still vulnerabilities everywhere. The Northeast Blackout of 2003 was caused by a sagging line on a tree, unbalancing the grid and overloading the failsafes. There really isn't a way to isolate a 'core' grid in such a way that you can ensure that it's going to be safe.
Granted, but I'm thinking of at least shielding the super-expensive parts: replacing downed wires is relatively easy and cheap, replacing a blown-out transformer is not.

It's similar, I suppose, to replacing obsolete bridges: no, we can't really afford to do that, but we can't really afford NOT to, either. At least, with a fire extinguisher, there's a good chance I'll never have to use it -- the overwhelming majority of kitchens and houses never catch fire. But the rusty bridge will eventually collapse if it's not upgraded, and sooner or later a Carrington event will occur. Shielding transformers now would be cheaper than replacing them later, I suspect.
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Re: Dark Angel/the EMP thing

Post by Aresen » 13 Dec 2011, 00:01

Scienterrific American had a fairly good article about what could happen in a Carrington event a little while back.

The problem with the transformers was not the act of replacing them, but having sufficient spares on hand.
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Re: Dark Angel/the EMP thing

Post by Jennifer » 13 Dec 2011, 00:10

Aresen wrote:Scienterrific American had a fairly good article about what could happen in a Carrington event a little while back.

The problem with the transformers was not the act of replacing them, but having sufficient spares on hand.
Hmm. Which would be cheaper: shielding the transformers, or stockpiling enough spares in advance to replace them all? That's not a rhetorical question; I seriously don't know.

What I don't get is the tone of that article I posted: it makes it sound like the fear of an EMP frying our electronics is as ludicrous as the fear that the Large Hadron Collider would turn the earth into a giant black hole. (Again, the fear of North Korea or Iran causing such a problem anytime soon is indeed far-fetched, but the fear that an EMP would cause such damage IF a high-altitude nuke exploded isn't far-fetched at all. EMP isn't something theoretical that only exists in mathematical equations but has never been observed in reality; it's already happened in Hawaii, after some nuke tests over the Pacific.)
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Re: Dark Angel/the EMP thing

Post by thoreau » 13 Dec 2011, 00:15

Aresen wrote:
thoreau wrote:1) Hardening the grid against solar activity seems like a reasonable thing to build into upgrade projects.

2) As long as we're talking about Dark Angel, remember how they had surveillance drones flying around Seattle? Yeah, doesn't seem so fictional anymore.

Fortunately, I doubt that the government will succeed in creating transgenic super soldiers. Unfortunately, I doubt the government will succeed in creating transgenic super soldiers who look like Jessica Alba.
I suspect that any transgenic super soldiers created by a government project will have the coordination of Barney Fife, the physique of Michael Moore, the imposing presence of GWB, and the good looks of Newt Gingrich.
In light of what you said, and in light of the animal-like transgenics of Season 2, I want to make a Chimpler joke, but I'd be confirming everyone's darkest suspicions about me.
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Re: Dark Angel/the EMP thing

Post by Highway » 13 Dec 2011, 00:19

Jennifer wrote:Granted, but I'm thinking of at least shielding the super-expensive parts: replacing downed wires is relatively easy and cheap, replacing a blown-out transformer is not.

It's similar, I suppose, to replacing obsolete bridges: no, we can't really afford to do that, but we can't really afford NOT to, either. At least, with a fire extinguisher, there's a good chance I'll never have to use it -- the overwhelming majority of kitchens and houses never catch fire. But the rusty bridge will eventually collapse if it's not upgraded, and sooner or later a Carrington event will occur. Shielding transformers now would be cheaper than replacing them later, I suspect.
Well, part of my point was that there are far far far more transformers than you'd imagine. And the grid is nearly as vulnerable if every transformer in major substations is protected but all the little pole transformers and neighborhood transformers are not.

The question of 'Which is cheaper, shielding or stockpiling?' is interesting, but neither one can realistically happen. There's just no way they can keep that level of inventory around to replace them. There isn't the capacity to manufacture enough to produce that many spares in a realistic time frame, even. So you'd first have to ramp up the production facilities, for things you're not going to use.

Shielding would likely be cheaper materials wise, but labor and logistics wise it's not going to happen.

And the fear of a nuke EMP is considered laughable in the near (10 years) future because it's not just that it could happen, it's that you have to look at the threats. It's certainly not as easy as trucking a nuke somewhere in the US. You'd realistically need a space rocket, and those just aren't available.
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Re: Dark Angel/the EMP thing

Post by Aresen » 13 Dec 2011, 00:20

I don't know that the transformers can be shielded. What blows them is the wildly oscillating load from the lines that they are connected to. The only way to protect the transformers is to disconnect them from the grid before the event.

Even in the best case for a Carrinton event, you have about 48 hours warning. I doubt you could a) shut down the entire power grid and then b) disconnect a significant fraction of the transformers in the available time. (Unless you pre-build your disconnect.)
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Re: Dark Angel/the EMP thing

Post by Aresen » 13 Dec 2011, 00:22

Highway wrote:

And the fear of a nuke EMP is considered laughable in the near (10 years) future because it's not just that it could happen, it's that you have to look at the threats. It's certainly not as easy as trucking a nuke somewhere in the US. You'd realistically need a space rocket, and those just aren't available.
I just KNEW that Richard Branson was up to something.
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Re: Dark Angel/the EMP thing

Post by Jennifer » 13 Dec 2011, 00:23

Highway wrote:
Jennifer wrote:Granted, but I'm thinking of at least shielding the super-expensive parts: replacing downed wires is relatively easy and cheap, replacing a blown-out transformer is not.

It's similar, I suppose, to replacing obsolete bridges: no, we can't really afford to do that, but we can't really afford NOT to, either. At least, with a fire extinguisher, there's a good chance I'll never have to use it -- the overwhelming majority of kitchens and houses never catch fire. But the rusty bridge will eventually collapse if it's not upgraded, and sooner or later a Carrington event will occur. Shielding transformers now would be cheaper than replacing them later, I suspect.
Well, part of my point was that there are far far far more transformers than you'd imagine. And the grid is nearly as vulnerable if every transformer in major substations is protected but all the little pole transformers and neighborhood transformers are not.

The question of 'Which is cheaper, shielding or stockpiling?' is interesting, but neither one can realistically happen. There's just no way they can keep that level of inventory around to replace them. There isn't the capacity to manufacture enough to produce that many spares in a realistic time frame, even. So you'd first have to ramp up the production facilities, for things you're not going to use.

Shielding would likely be cheaper materials wise, but labor and logistics wise it's not going to happen.

And the fear of a nuke EMP is considered laughable in the near (10 years) future because it's not just that it could happen, it's that you have to look at the threats. It's certainly not as easy as trucking a nuke somewhere in the US. You'd realistically need a space rocket, and those just aren't available.
A Carrington event is far more likely, though. And it's only a lucky coincidence that we even know about such a possibility; pure luck that Mr. Carrington just happened to be studying the sun through a telescope when the flare erupted. (Though if he hadn't, maybe people would've still figured out the connection between "unprecedented levels of auroral activity" and "telegraph machines start spitting sparks and setting fires.")
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Re: Dark Angel/the EMP thing

Post by Shem » 13 Dec 2011, 00:42

Jennifer wrote:He's been talking about the possibility of a high-level nuke detonation causing an EMP that fries most of America's electrical grid. The possibility strikes me as being very remote -- in that I doubt any terrorists will have the wherewithal to get and detonate such a nuke, and I doubt any other nation would be willing to launch one and effectively commit national suicide -- but I don't know why the basic concern is considered a crackpot idea.
Mostly, because the altitude of the explosion you'd need would be incredible; for example, the Soviets tested a high-altitude explosion during the Cuban Missile Crisis; it was a 300 kt nuclear bomb, detonated at about 290 km up, and it wound up knocking out about a thousand kilometers of buried line in Kazakhstan; replicated above the US, that would knock out, if you were lucky, a bit less than half the country. Hitting the whole continental US would require almost 500 kilometers of altitude, higher than the International Space Station. Plus, you either have to know how to get a massive enough nuke to do the job (in which case, why don't you just use it as a nuke?) or know how to make a smaller nuke with a large EMP, which isn't impossible, but takes know-how.

Now, hardening against solar radiation is not a bad idea. But, like I said above, if we're looking for something to spend money on to ensure safety, there's a lot of stuff that's much, much more likely that we'd need to worry about long before an EMP weapon. Like all those containers that come into the country with no inspection whatsoever.
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Re: Dark Angel/the EMP thing

Post by Jennifer » 13 Dec 2011, 00:46

Aresen wrote:Even in the best case for a Carrinton event, you have about 48 hours warning. I doubt you could a) shut down the entire power grid and then b) disconnect a significant fraction of the transformers in the available time. (Unless you pre-build your disconnect.)
Another question: ignoring political considerations -- that is, assuming an unrealistically best-case scenario wherein everyone immediately agrees that yeah, we need to do this -- how long would it take to "shut down the grid?" What exactly would that entail?
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Re: Dark Angel/the EMP thing

Post by Aresen » 13 Dec 2011, 01:02

Jennifer wrote:
Aresen wrote:Even in the best case for a Carrinton event, you have about 48 hours warning. I doubt you could a) shut down the entire power grid and then b) disconnect a significant fraction of the transformers in the available time. (Unless you pre-build your disconnect.)
Another question: ignoring political considerations -- that is, assuming an unrealistically best-case scenario wherein everyone immediately agrees that yeah, we need to do this -- how long would it take to "shut down the grid?" What exactly would that entail?
Good question. I have no idea, but I suspect it would take hours to do it safely. For one thing, you are going to be turning off every street light and traffic light in the world.

I believe that the North American grid is still the largest in the world (the European one is nowhere near as integrated.)

Whether or not you are not going to be giving the general population notice, you would want to gradually shut down from the lowest level to the highest - starting from neighborhoods, working your way up to districts, then whole cities and states, ending with various regions. This would protect the power plants from the consequences of suddenly going from a high load to zero.

A related problem is that people everywhere are going to have to be alerted to disconnect every single electrical appliance in their houses as the surges from the induced currents will fry anything that is hooked up. (Or at least blow every fuse in the house.)

And I just remembered the other problem - the communications network - which is every bit as vulnerable as long as the phones, cell phone towers, cable companies, etc are connected by wires. This problem is gradually being solved as communications are converted to fibre optics, but until that is complete, DON'T TOUCH THAT DIAL!
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Re: Dark Angel/the EMP thing

Post by Jennifer » 13 Dec 2011, 01:04

Shem wrote: Mostly, because the altitude of the explosion you'd need would be incredible; for example, the Soviets tested a high-altitude explosion during the Cuban Missile Crisis; it was a 300 kt nuclear bomb, detonated at about 290 km up, and it wound up knocking out about a thousand kilometers of buried line in Kazakhstan; replicated above the US, that would knock out, if you were lucky, a bit less than half the country.
In all fairness, though: even knocking out "only" half the country would still qualify as an utter catastrophe. Plus, if one nuke knocks out half the country, two or three nukes would still finish the job. Again, I have no concern than Iran, NK or terrorists would be able to do that; I'm sure the Chinese and Russians could, but doubt they would because they must know we'd nuke the everloving shit out of them in retaliation. Or at least respond in kind by frying their grids.

Or maybe not -- in 1941, maybe I could make an equally plausible argument that the Japanese would never provoke us into entering the war because they must know we would utterly smash them if we turned our full industrial capabilities toward war. The Japanese made a high-stakes gamble which clearly seemed, to them, to be a worthwhile risk at the time; perhaps some other nation might one day decide to make a similar gamble: fry the US and they'll be knocked out of the game before it starts.

If I were China or Russia or whoever, and wanted to make such a gamble, I'd launch the nukes NOT from home, but from deep-sea submarines in the open ocean. (And if I were that evil, I probably wouldn't flinch at then arresting and executing the sub crews as soon as they docked back home, so nobody would be able to spill the beans.) If anyone did such a thing, how would we-the-US even know who to retaliate against?

Again: I'm NOT saying this is/should be a major concern; I'm just saying it doesn't strike me as being as crazy/implausible as that article makes it out to be.
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Re: Dark Angel/the EMP thing

Post by Shem » 13 Dec 2011, 01:12

Jennifer wrote:Or maybe not -- in 1941, maybe I could make an equally plausible argument that the Japanese would never provoke us into entering the war because they must know we would utterly smash them if we turned our full industrial capabilities toward war. The Japanese made a high-stakes gamble which clearly seemed, to them, to be a worthwhile risk at the time; perhaps some other nation might one day decide to make a similar gamble: fry the US and they'll be knocked out of the game before it starts.
The apt comparison isn't the Japanese bombing Pearl Harbor, it's them bombing New York City. It's a theoretical possibility, but there are so many easier ways for the people who are capable to attack that do more damage and are easier, it's just not something that'd be at the top of anyone's list.
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Re: Dark Angel/the EMP thing

Post by thoreau » 13 Dec 2011, 01:17

Jennifer, don't you already have enough doom scenarios to worry about?
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Re: Dark Angel/the EMP thing

Post by Jennifer » 13 Dec 2011, 01:21

Shem wrote:
Jennifer wrote:Or maybe not -- in 1941, maybe I could make an equally plausible argument that the Japanese would never provoke us into entering the war because they must know we would utterly smash them if we turned our full industrial capabilities toward war. The Japanese made a high-stakes gamble which clearly seemed, to them, to be a worthwhile risk at the time; perhaps some other nation might one day decide to make a similar gamble: fry the US and they'll be knocked out of the game before it starts.
The apt comparison isn't the Japanese bombing Pearl Harbor, it's them bombing New York City. It's a theoretical possibility, but there are so many easier ways for the people who are capable to attack that do more damage and are easier, it's just not something that'd be at the top of anyone's list.
I'm not sure I get your analogy there: the rationale behind Pearl Harbor was "If we knock out the US Pacific fleet, they won't be able to stop us." Knocking out NYC wouldn't knock out our military capability.

But -- assuming a country or super-rich terrorist group with the ability to launch the EMP attack I outlined -- one submarine, maybe two, equipped with nuclear ICBMs -- what could they do that would be easier for them yet more damaging for us?
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Re: Dark Angel/the EMP thing

Post by Jennifer » 13 Dec 2011, 01:23

thoreau wrote:Jennifer, don't you already have enough doom scenarios to worry about?
I'm not worried about it at all, but I do find it interesting to contemplate, especially in light of the tone of that article I posted.
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Re: Dark Angel/the EMP thing

Post by Shem » 13 Dec 2011, 01:47

Jennifer wrote:I'm not sure I get your analogy there: the rationale behind Pearl Harbor was "If we knock out the US Pacific fleet, they won't be able to stop us." Knocking out NYC wouldn't knock out our military capability.
That's the point; the only end an EMP accomplishes that isn't quicker and easier to reach by other means is the temporary destruction of communications and infrastructure. And that's only a rational end if you're dealing with a terrorist organization. China, or whoever you want to use as an example, doesn't benefit from the destruction of US infrastructure. They might benefit from the aftermath, depending on what they want, but that involves further action, and unless they're planning a full-scale invasion, they can better prepare for that action by using alternative means.
what could they do that would be easier for them yet more damaging for us?
Actually using those nukes on a city, just for one. An EMP means maybe 5 years of difficulty as all the parts are replaced across the 80% of the country where most of the stuff happens**. Expensive, annoying, but long-term, really only useful if intended as the first act of a larger attack. Nuclear attacks of comparable strength on NYC/LA/DC, on the other hand, mean decades of tremendously expensive repairs, cleanup, and the complete loss of several major economic engines.*** If you have the capability, you might as well just use the nukes in a conventional manner.

**And that would mostly be limited by labor, because in the immediate aftermath, every industrialized country who wasn't involved in the attack would start shipping parts to fix things in wholesale. It's in nobody's interest to see the largest economy in the world suddenly stop consuming and producing, and in everyone's interest to start sending parts and settle up the bill later, once the global economy isn't under risk of being swamped.

***The lack of universality of which, would make external assistance much less likely, and less comprehensive when it did come. Look at New Orleans; people all over the world made offers of assistance, but most weren't taken up on it, because nobody in DC wanted to look weak, and the limited nature made it possible for them to pose in that way.
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Re: Dark Angel/the EMP thing

Post by Jadagul » 13 Dec 2011, 03:10

Jennfier: I think the tone is easy to answer: this is a "rogue asteroid" problem. The odds of it materializing are low, the consequences are bad, and everyone would prefer not to think about it. And taking precautions now is an easy position to mock because odds are you won't be proven wrong while you're still responsible.

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Re: Dark Angel/the EMP thing

Post by JasonL » 13 Dec 2011, 09:44

Jadagul wrote:Jennfier: I think the tone is easy to answer: this is a "rogue asteroid" problem. The odds of it materializing are low, the consequences are bad, and everyone would prefer not to think about it. And taking precautions now is an easy position to mock because odds are you won't be proven wrong while you're still responsible.
And there's nothing low cost about it - you aren't asking for a small premium to buy insurance against a large cost. You are asking for a gigantic premium that on an ongoing basis looks for all the world like setting money on fire unless an event happens that's so dramatic it's unclear your insurance will pay off anyway. Like for this to happen, nukes had to be detonated overhead. If NYC eats it, it is unclear how much additional value emp shielding would add.

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