Computer System Resiliency Following An Extinction Level Event
*Note: This article was originally published by the author on September 24, 2018.
Since the Manhattan Project and the invention of the Atomic bomb, the threat of nuclear warfare has been a steady constant in today’s global political quagmire with alliances such as the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) and United Nations (UN) created to counter Russian aggression and maintain some semblance of world peace. The U.S. is the only country to have used nukes during World War II against Japan at Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Since then, it has been a race to develop as many and increasingly powerful nukes as possible to use as political and military deterrents by nations that possess nuclear weapons. There have been some tense moments throughout history such as during the Cold War between Russia and the U.S when tensions escalated nearly to the brink of global disaster following the Soviet-Cuban missile crisis in October 1962, almost 56 years ago.
In recent months since the election of U.S President Donald J. Trump, political tensions between the U.S. and North Korea have re-ignited. There have been periods of ups and downs with North Korea including the first-ever political summit between the leaders of both nations which seemingly had little effect on quelling international unease. Political tensions between many countries including former U.S. allies have escalated in recent months following Trump’s election which has caused otherwise sane, rational, people to question where current events are headed. The possibility of a nuclear holocaust or an Extinction Level Event (E.L.E.) has crept up again in world politics. It’s the sort of stuff blockbuster movies are made of. The number of nuclear nations is higher than it ever has been with the unstable regimes of North Korea and Iran either already proving they have nukes or currently vying to add their names to the list in the case of the latter. Russia and the U.S. top the list as the two heavy hitters in the nuke game, but several other nations could also use them and have plenty to spare.
Of the 195 officially recognized countries in the world, according to Wikipedia, there are over 100 metropolitan areas with populations over 4.5 million. The only nuclear nations on the 2017 Business Insider figure (below) reportedly having less than 100 nukes are Israel and North Korea. Doing some basic math based on the population densities of the top 100 metropolitan areas (i.e., Wikipedia admittedly not being a reliably accurate source), it only amounts to 1.16 billion people of a planet that is estimated to have nearly 8 billion people. I suspect that the number of people living in or near major metropolitan areas is incorrect and low. Studying geography, we know that most of the world’s population tends to live near or in major cities because of the amenities they offer such as shelter, food, and protection that more remote, rural areas do not provide.
A smaller percentage of people live in rural areas either out of choice or due to economic factors. It is scary to consider, but we can safely assume that most people who are not sheltering underground with long-term sustainment provisions will not survive a wide-scale nuclear war. It is just a fact of life, a matter of science. Medically speaking, anyone exposed to nuclear blast radiation will become ill and perish. The water and food supply will be unusable, and it is predicted that even a few nuclear blasts would potentially result in a sun-blotting effect on the atmosphere in which there would be no sunlight. Without sunlight, all life perishes. Governments would collapse, law and order would quickly turn to chaos, and every man, woman, and child for themselves.
In a nutshell, things would get extremely ugly very quickly. Life would change as we know it. It is not a pretty picture to think about, and I realize that. However, it is a grim reality that we should prepare for in any case because it is not out of the realm of possibility. Most of us hope that a situation like the one I am describing never occurs. But there are some who would revel in the world’s demise. It is because of those people that we have to prepare for the worst-case scenario. It is only by anticipating and planning for worst-case scenarios that we can even hope to survive them. In the Marines, we had a saying that said, “You can defecate [polite term] in one hand and hope in the other, then see which one fills up first!” Put bluntly, hope is not a course of action, and we [humanity], unfortunately, cannot afford to rely on our idiot leaders, elected or self-appointed, to protect us from such a scenario because all too often it seems to be an international dick-measuring contest instead of mutual cooperation to solve world problems.
Let’s assume for the sake of argument that the situation is a bit less dramatic and only a couple of nukes are detonated with at least some percentage of humanity surviving whether due to being geographically distant to one or more nuclear blast zone(s) or because they were hunkered-down deep enough underground with adequate survival rations to survive for several months. Does this scenario necessarily mean a total reset of technology back to the Stone Age? Not necessarily. The question of whether electronic devices and the Internet would survive such an event is highly speculative and dependent on the number of nuclear bombs impacting the planet and the proximity of the blasts to your location. Many so-called disaster experts have written about this type of scenario quoting scientific facts to support their assertions, but I think it is interesting to attempt to think through how such a nuclear scenario would unfold and whether electronics would remain usable in meaningful ways.
Computer and Network Resiliency
Some may argue that the last thing they would be concerned with following a nuclear E.L.E. is computer systems, but on the contrary computer systems could be humanity’s saving grace. Considering that the average American spends approximately 11 hours a day using electronic devices, not being able to use any electronic devices would be a significant departure from life as we know it. Think of all the years of knowledge and work that are now stored and retrievable on the Internet. Where would humanity be as a species if we lost all of that and had to start over? It is a scary proposition, to say the least. All the progress made on advanced medicine studies, mapping the human genome, great literary works, and scientific discoveries, gone in the blink of an eye. The Internet is a giant cluster of computer nodes spread out all over the globe. If nuclear blasts were to take out several major international cities suddenly, this could dramatically impact the amount of data that would be available online and also affect the information flow across networks.
High-Altitude Electro-Magnetic Pulse
Before we can determine if electronics would remain usable, however, we first need to understand a little bit about the science behind nuclear bombs and what Electro-Magnetic Pulses (EMP) are. EMPs occur naturally in the environment from lightning strikes and occasional solar flares from the Sun, but they are very rarely strong enough to cause damage to electronics. On the contrary, if a nuclear detonation were to occur, a man-made high-altitude electromagnetic pulse (HEMP) would be produced that, depending on the magnitude of the blast, can ‘brick’ all electronics within an undetermined specific square-mile radius. To achieve maximum blast energy effect, it is highly likely that an aggressor would launch multiple nukes that would be programmed to automatically detonate in the atmosphere miles above ground level to achieve maximum damage effect.
A HEMP attack will effectively neutralize any electronic device (e.g., anything with a diode junction such as radios, computers, cell phones, circuit boards, all types of modern cars that contain electronic circuitry, etc.), via the Compton effect, either by disrupting or destroying (a.k.a., “bricking”) the electronic device completely. In the event of a HEMP attack, the electric grid, phones, the Internet, and ATMs would be shut down and long-term damaged. The resulting situation would be grim, but what that effectively means is that there would be no electricity to power any electronics, no way to communicate outside, and no way to get money.
So, following this logic, we then arrive at the subsequent questions of what good are electronics and money if a major nuclear attack were to occur? While the paper currency may not hold any value following such an event, there are some things people would still likely consider valuable provided there were a means to sell, barter, or trade them assuming there were areas unaffected by global post-nuclear blast radiation effects. For instance, precious metals such as jewelry (diamonds, gold, silver), and even non-perishable food, water, and medical supplies become extremely valuable in a situation such as this. Fossil fuels to operate non-electric equipment and machinery would be very valuable, as well as guns and ammunition. The list goes on and on. That cash you’re carrying in your pocket though probably won’t hold much value. So, that being said, is it a wise decision to save thousands of dollars in your home safe? Perhaps, it is better to set some cash aside for emergencies, but also use some to invest in survival gear such as water purification systems, non-perishable food and water supplies, underground bug-out shelters, basic medical supplies, tools, generators, and weapons that do require ammunition and those that don’t (e.g., bow and arrow, ax, machete, sword, knives, staffs, etc.).
Electronics that were still functional following a HEMP attack would be extremely valuable. There is even a chance that the Internet would survive to some extent, though probably not in the same manner it currently exists, provided it wasn’t a complete nuclear armageddon. The Internet is valuable for many reasons, but perhaps the most important reason is for the information that is shared and accessible on the Internet. We’re talking about thousands of years of human technological advancements that are saved in one shape or another digitally. If even a portion of the digital Encyclopedia Britannica is salvaged in a time capsule buried underground, think of all the good that info could do. That information could be used as a blueprint to design a better future for humanity. It is information that is the real value we’re concerned with after the immediate emergency needs of food, shelter, and water.
Can Faraday Cages Save Your Electronics?
So, how can we best protect our computer systems against a potential nuclear attack? Faraday cages can be described as a box within a box where the outer layer box is shielded with an electric conductor such as aluminum or some other type of thick metal sheeting that shields the inner container from the damaging effects of HEMP. Faraday cages have no electrical power running to them, and no way for Radio Frequency (RF) signals to emit into or out of the container. Think of it as a connection-free zone or space. No electric wires going and none going out. Complete isolation. The question then becomes one of practicality. How practical is it for the average person to construct a Faraday cage in their underground bunker? That is assuming they even have one, which let’s face it, most people don’t. Having a Faraday cage in your above-ground house is likely not going to prevent HEMP attack damage depending on the blast magnitude.
Based on scientific research that has been conducted and published in numerous studies, it is scientifically feasible to suggest that a Faraday cage that is buried deep enough (minimum of 3 feet of below-ground soil) underground in some type of man-made bunker would protect against even a HEMP event. Faraday cages can either be DIY-made or some other pre-fabricated Faraday cage-types of products available for sale on Amazon.com. As the world has never experienced a global nuclear war (and hopefully it never does), the theory of whether or not Faraday cages actually work effectively to prevent fried electronic circuitry remains untested and is largely circumstantial. There are a number of factors that could affect the outcome, primarily though it is the proximity of the blast to the Faraday cage and, of course, the strength of the blast which will determine how strong the gamma rays are. Underground bunkers with several feet of protection in the form of concrete or Earth soil combined with Faraday cages that have thick metal sheeting is still thought to be the best protection against HEMP attacks. If computer systems were able to survive a nuclear blast, they would need some type of power source to operate whether it was solar-powered (unlikely if the atmosphere is completely shrouded by cloud cover), wind turbine, hydroelectric, or generator-powered.
One thing is certain, those who have computer technology following such a disaster will be light years ahead of those who do not.