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On Sept. 2, 1859, an incredible storm of charged particles sent by the sun slammed into Earth's atmosphere, overpowered it, and caused havoc on the ground. Telegraph wires, the high-tech stuff of the time, suddenly shorted out in the United States and Europe, igniting widespread fires. Colorful aurora, normally visible only in polar regions, were seen as far south as Cuba and Hawaii.
Earth's magnetic field normally protects the surface of the planet from some storms. In 1859, the planet's defenses were totally overwhelmed. Over the past decade, similar but less powerful storms have likewise busted through, giving scientists insight into what will eventually happen again.
The outlook is not rosy.
The solar storm of 1859 was three times more powerful than one that cut power to an entire Canadian province in 1989. Experts say if it happened today – and it could – the result might be unthinkable.
If a storm that severe occurred today, it could cause up to $2 trillion in initial damages by crippling communications on Earth and fueling chaos among residents and even governments in a scenario that would require four to 10 years for recovery, according to a report earlier this year by the National Academy of Sciences.
NATURE OF THE PROBLEM
EMP can damage or disrupt the infrastructure that supplies food to the population of the United States. Recent federal efforts to better protect the food infrastructure from terrorist attack tend to focus on preventing small-scale disruption of the food infrastructure, such as would result from terrorists poisoning some food. Yet an EMP attack could potentially disrupt the food infrastructure over a large region encompassing many cities for a protracted period of weeks to months.
Technology has made possible a dramatic revolution in US agricultural productivity. The transformation of the United States from a nation of farmers to a nation where less than 2 percent of the population is able to feed the other 98 percent and supply export markets is made possible only by technological advancements that, since 1900, have increased the productivity of the modern farmer by more than 50-fold. Technology, in the form of knowledge, machines, modern fertilizers and pesticides, high-yield crops and feeds, is the key to this revolution in food production. Much of the technology for food production directly or indirectly depends upon electricity, transportation, and other infrastructures.
The distribution system is a chokepoint in the US food infrastructure. Supermarkets typically carry only enough food to provision the local population for 1 to 3 days. Supermarkets replenish their stocks on virtually a daily basis from regional warehouses that usually carry enough food to supply a multi-county area for about one month. The large quantities of food kept in regional warehouses will do little to alleviate a crisis if it cannot be distributed to the population in a timely manner. Distribution depends largely on a functioning transportation system.