The video above shows the full pilot episode of Revolution, a TV show on NBC. It examines what happens after a catastrophic blackout. The characters have to confront a world without electricity. Watch the video, then read on and leave your comments.
Blackout: What Are the Odds?
How plausible is this blackout scenario? It depends on how the power would go out.
Some U.S. experts estimate as much as a 7 percent chance of a superstorm in the next decade, which seems a slight risk, but the effects would be so wide-ranging — akin to a major meteorite strike — that it has drawn official concern.
Although the likelihood of this kind of geomagnetic storm, like a big hit from a space rock, is extremely low, its impact would be great. By comparison, the probability of a large meteorite hitting Earth is at some fraction of 1 percent.
It's a serious threat, but odds are still in humanity's favor. What about a man-made attack? Could an EMP (electromagnetic pulse) attack cause a continent-wide blackout?
First, understand how an EMP attack would work. The method commonly referred to is HEMP, or high-altitude electromagnetic pulse. Here's a good rundown on it from Discover magazine:
The idea of HEMP has been around probably since the 1950s, when scientists noticed that nuclear bomb blasts gave off intense bursts of gamma rays into the atmosphere. The latter collide with atoms in the atmosphere, knocking loose a whole lot of electrons, an effect known as Compton scattering. When they reach the upper atmosphere, the electrons don't have anything to hit, so they spiral around the Earth's magnetic field lines. The result is a very brief — about 10 nanoseconds — pulse of extremely high-voltage electromagnetic energy that's capable of damaging computers, landline telephone systems, power grids, radio transmitters and anything else on the ground that contains circuitry.
Back in the '50s, the EMP threat pertained mostly to the Soviet Union. Now it's terrorists using newer EMP technologies. The following quote is from a 2008 hearing at the Committee on Armed Services in the United States House of Representatives. It discussed in great detail the threat posed by an EMP attack. (You can download the transcript in its entirety here, courtesy of the from the Federation of American Scientists.)
Therefore, terrorists or state actors that possess one or a few relatively unsophisticated nuclear-armed missiles may well calculate that instead of, or in addition to, destroying a city or a military base, they could obtain the greatest economic-political-military utility from conducting an EMP attack, while experiencing the lowest risk of being intercepted or otherwise stopped before they are able to detonate the weapon.
How likely is this to occur? The transcript doesn't lay it out in clear terms. It presents a number of current events issues and scenarios. It also explores how relatively easy it'd be to protect against such an attack. Read the document for full details. Warning: You might not sleep well tonight.
What Would Happen in a Blackout
What would happen if a massive blackout hit? The most widespread blackout in history happened this year in India. Twice the population of the United States – 600 million – was affected. Here's a video report:
What would have happened to those 600 million people had the power not come back on? Frustration would boil over into anger. Just watch this video from Gun Digest‘s article about the big Northeast blackout of 2012.
It only took a little more than a week for people to start to lose their rationality. It only gets worse as time passes. In fact, that EMP hearing from 2008 describes a loss of 90% of the United States population after one year of a blackout.
However, there is some better news on the next page.
However, the hearing also produced a less gloomy bit about cars working after an EMP attack. (NBC producers may want to take note).
We tested about 50 vehicles. About 10 of them—and we only tested them to 25 kilovolts per meter, which is the kind of threat you would get from more ordinary designs of nuclear weapons—about 10 percent of them stopped running when we tested them at that level. All but one or two of them could be restarted by just switching off the power and then switching on the key again. The computer basically stops the car, but it can be reset by turning off the power. There were one or two of them that actually had computer chip failures in the vehicle and had to be towed back to the dealership to have the chips replaced.
Caught in a Blackout
One of Gun Digest‘s survival experts, Scott Wagner, was part of that Northeast blackout. He wrote about the experience in this blackout blog post. Even with his years of experience, he felt under prepared:
As the event unfolded, I realized I had a large gap in my basic plans that I needed to address.
We have a well at our house with three pressure tanks, to allow the water to keep flowing in outages. I stored 30 gallons of treated water in the basement for general use including flushing toilets. The faucets and toilets worked from Friday night until Sunday. In years past it was no big deal. But, I will be 55 in August. When the faucets stopped, I reached and exceeded my fun threshold. I am getting a generator once they become available again. I put it off since we are trying to sell our house. Big mistake.
Your Turn: Are You Prepared for a Blackout? Did the TV Show Get it Right?
Whether the Revolution TV show accurately portrays reality or not, blackouts are among the most plausible disaster scenarios. How are you preparing for such an event? Do you think the fact there's a show about a massive blackout helps or hurts preparedness? Leave a comment below.