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Newt Gingrich On Blackout And Record Heat Wave: Forget Climate, Let’s Worry About Electromagnetic Pulses

By Stephen Lacey on July 13, 2012 at 12:21 pm

"Newt Gingrich On Blackout And Record Heat Wave: Forget Climate, Let’s Worry About Electromagnetic Pulses"

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Newt Gingrich tests virtual reality goggles.

With drought baking one third of counties across the country, an historic wildfire that torched the arid landscape of Colorado, and record heat and violent storms that recently left millions without power on the East Coast, scientists and government officials in the U.S. are issuing stronger warnings about the influence of climate change on intensifying extreme weather.

But former House Speaker Newt Gingrich has a different worry: Electromagnetic pulses.

In a Washington Post op-ed published yesterday, Gingrich — who recently ran for the GOP presidential nomination — used the violent storms, blackout and heat wave to discuss his long-time concern for EMPs.

The introduction makes it seem like he might actually talk about climate change:

Callista and I live in the Virginia suburbs of Washington, and, like many in the region, we lost power in the recent storms. The blackout, combined with a record heat wave, made homes nearly uninhabitable. The storm and heat were this region’s greater leveler: Rich or poor, urban or suburban, six-figure income or just barely getting by, we were all cast on the same strange shores.

But no. Gingrich instead pivots to an issue that experts at the Missile Defense Agency call “pretty theoretical.”

I write this now because of my concern for national security and our power grid, which are susceptible to doomsday-level damage if hit by an electromagnetic pulse (EMP) strike or a major solar storm.

It is almost unthinkable, yet possible, that an enemy could detonate a nuclear weapon over the atmosphere over the continental United States, triggering an electromagnetic pulse. This would short-circuit our power grid, taking power off­line for months, perhaps even years.

One scientist looking at the data on the recent heat wave says it’s “highly unlikely that the extremity of the heat during the past 13 months could have occurred without a warming climate.” That seems like something worth mentioning.

Instead, Gingrich attempts to focus our national attention to a problem that defense experts say they’re only mildly concerned about:

The Missile Defense Agency, an arm of the Pentagon that maintains an arsenal of ground-based interceptors ready to fly into space and smash enemy warheads, says that defeating such an attack would be as straightforward as any other defense of the continental United States.

“It doesn’t matter if the target is Chicago or 100 miles over Nebraska,” said Richard Lehner, an agency spokesman. “For the interceptor, it’s the same thing.” He called the potential damage from a nuclear electromagnetic pulse attack “pretty theoretical.”

Compare that to what Defense Department says about climate change. In May, Defense Secretary Leon Panetta declared that “climate change has a dramatic impact on national security.”

“Rising sea levels, severe droughts, the melting of the polar caps, the more frequent and devastating natural disasters all raise demand for humanitarian assistance and disaster relief.”

Ironically, Gingrich calls for a national war-like effort to create “fortified bunkers for the national power grid.” But when asked about dealing with climate change — a direct, oncoming threat that the military establishment is planning extensively around — Gingrich said he thinks “there is no evidence that justifies a large government centralized response of any kind right now.”

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40 Responses to Newt Gingrich On Blackout And Record Heat Wave: Forget Climate, Let’s Worry About Electromagnetic Pulses

  1. Tom L says:

    Aren’t we beyond this irrevelant, methane emitting space fascist yet?

  2. BillD says:

    Is this what some Americans really think–that one scientist looked over the climate/weather data and said that this is something that I think that we should be concerned about.

    Somehow, people don’t understand that there are thousands of scientists from around the world and thousands of publications based on data each year.

  3. Byron Smith says:

    “The storm and heat were this region’s greater leveler: Rich or poor, urban or suburban, six-figure income or just barely getting by, we were all cast on the same strange shores.”

    Yes, rich and poor can both jump into their private jets with A/C and nip off to Canada to cool down for a few weeks. Rich and poor alike can claim all damages on their comprehensive house insurance. Rich and poor alike can buy up votes in Congress to ensure the threats to their future are effectively managed.

    We’re all in this together.

  4. Rollin says:

    When owned by big business, whose interests are the cause of global warming, one must find somewhere else to focus the minds of the gullible public on somethng else fearful. Maybe he will discover asteroids next.

    • Mulga Mumblebrain says:

      Maybe one of his patrons, say the estimable Mr Adelson, intends to market that fetching device that the amphibious one is wearing, as ‘EMP Protectors’?

  5. SecularAnimist says:

    Stephen, your article omits any mention of the other danger that Gingrich discusses — solar flares which could trigger geomagnetic storms that would shut down the entire North American electric grid for months, or even years.

    The danger from solar flares is not at all “theoretical” — it is very real, and events capable of knocking out the electric grid for months are known to have occurred in the past, for example the 1859 Carrington Event that Gingrich mentions (which occurred before there was an electric grid, but which generated sufficient voltage in telegraph wires to set telegraph stations on fire).

    The danger to the grid from solar flares should not be dismissed just because Gingrich is concerned about it — any more than it makes sense for “conservatives” to dismiss global warming because Al Gore is concerned about it.

    It’s not a joke. The National Academy of Sciences released a report on the potentially devastating consequences of a major geomagnetic storm in 2008 and there have been scientific conferences on the subject — Steve Tracton of the Washington Post’s Capital Weather Gang has written an excellent summary of a recent conference, which points out just how utterly unprepared we are for an event that could literally end modern industrial society overnight.

    And, as it happens, as Jason Samenow at the Post reports, at this very moment “a wave of plasma stoked by an X-class solar flare, the most intense type, is headed towards Earth. This blast of charged particles, known as a coronal mass ejection (CME), is forecast to ignite a geomagnetic storm on Earth over the weekend. NOAA predicts it will be minor, maybe moderate. NASA says it will be moderate to severe.”

    A “moderate to severe” geomagnetic storm would likely cause serious disruptions to the power grid, and in the worst case, could cause massive damage that might take months to repair — during which time much of the USA would be without electricity.

    This could happen THIS WEEKEND.

    • Merrelyn Emery says:

      Pictures of sunspot 1520 and its X1.4 flare at spaceweather.com, ME

    • Faith says:

      Thank you for saying that SO well.

      SO the threat of an enemy is easier for politicians to justify this with than the bigger immediate threat this year through 2014?

      EMP is far more serious a threat due to the SUN than a defence situation. Building a bunker for a real and emminent threat is wise and makes you wonder why that threat is so guarded.

      The odds are this move of the power grid to be protected is in the works and Newt is putting it out there so his party candidate doesn’t lose popularity for ‘wasting money’ meanwhile it would save civiliization as we know it.

    • David Lewis says:

      FEMA Director Fugate referred to what he called “space weather”, meaning solar events that have the potential to knock out critical infrastructure, as one of the event types FEMA now sees as real threats.

      Climate change caused extreme weather events appeared to dominate in his thinking however. He gave a speech to a LEED conference outlining his views here: http://vimeo.com/usgbc/fugate

  6. Ric Merritt says:

    Newt doesn’t need any fancy goggles to inhabit his own preferred version of reality.

  7. Peter M says:

    Newt is lost in another world- of his kind of passion, whatever that is.

  8. What an entertaining doofus.

  9. Carl Forscht says:

    The only thing Newt is missing, is an aluminum foil hat to protect him from the EMP. He is very close to a room in a mental hospital. However, distracting attention away from problems that are real and verifiable is a conservative tactic. I don’t know if people like Newt and Mitt actually sit around discussing how they can preserve the status quo through lies,deception and misinformation or if it comes naturally – but I sure do wish this crap would stop.

    • During the last presidential campaign, pundits frequently used the term “post partisan” when discussing Obama. In new blog post this week, NYU journalism professor Jay Rosen considers whether the Romney campaign has now embarked on a strategy that could be called “post truth” and then doubts that any of the mainstream media would cover it.

  10. M Tucker says:

    All you need to know about the modern Republican Party is that it is still dominated by old white men, mostly obese, who suffer from severe chronic stupidity. The same old tired men touting the same old tired ideas with a few joke issues thrown in to keep the ignorant conspiracy loving base of their party from being distracted by reality.

    • Mulga Mumblebrain says:

      I fondly remember ‘Dobie Gillis’ and the doughty Mrs Chatsworth Osborne Senior, admonishing her son, Chatsworth Junior, as a successor to great-uncle Jedediah Osborne, who ‘died of stupidity at the age of 96′.

  11. publius2012 says:

    I’m surprised people here don’t take this more seriously — you all know that the sun is coming out the longest deepest solar minimum in history and NASA reports increased strong solar flare activity

    Here’s what Matt Stein (When Tech. Fails) says: In the past 152 years, the Earth has been struck by roughly 100 solar storms causing significant geomagnetic disturbances (GMD), two of which were powerful enough to rank as “extreme GMDs.” If an extreme GMD of such magnitude were to occur today, it could initiate a chain of events leading to catastrophic failures our world’s nuclear reactors, quite similar to the disasters at both Chernobyl and Fukushima, but multiplied many times. When massive solar flares launch a huge mass of highly charged plasma (a coronal mass ejection, or CME) directly toward Earth, colliding with our planet’s outer atmosphere and magnetosphere, the result is a significant geomagnetic disturbance.

    Since an extreme GMD last occurred in May of 1921, long before the advent of modern electronics, widespread electric power grids and nuclear power plants, we are for the most part blissfully unaware of this threat and totally unprepared for its consequences. . . Our global system of electrical power generation and distribution — “the grid” — upon which every facet of our modern life is utterly dependent, in its current form is extremely vulnerable to severe geomagnetic storms of a magnitude that tends to strike our planet on an average of approximately once every 70 to 100 years.

    To do nothing is to behave like ostriches with our heads in the sand, blindly believing that “everything will be okay,” as our world inexorably drifts towards the next naturally recurring, 100 percent inevitable, super solar storm and resultant extreme GMD.

    • Mulga Mumblebrain says:

      You are absolutely correct, and the ensuing chaos would tip us into a global systemic collapse. It’s just that the presence of Gingrich infects any topic with the malodorous stench of political opportunism.

  12. Lori says:

    I will never take the side of Newt, but isn’t the risk to our grid from a solar storm a real threat? Can we separate this windbag from something important? NASA and others track “space weather” and can warn us in time, but will politicians have the guts to shut down power to avoid the damage?

  13. Tominator says:

    Oh good god. For a world-renowned physicist and climatologist, Newt sure is a feckless politician.

  14. Joan Savage says:

    Perhaps Newt thinks he and his wife can get through climate change just fine, IF they have reliable electricity. That is a classic example of “bunker mentality.”

  15. M Tucker says:

    Newt is going on about EMP. He only includes CME as an aside. It is part of his extreme paranoia of nuclear attack and he is not really interested in having the federal government strengthen the electric grid. Replacing thousands upon thousands of old transformers and upgrading substations is not really on his agenda, missile defense is.

    If someone wanted to take down the grid it has been demonstrated that cyber attack is much more likely.

    As for the risk of a CME severely damaging the grid I’m not convinced that even the science and engineering community have given it much of a thought. NOAA and NASA can’t even decide on the severity of the current solar storm headed our way. We will just have to wait and see.

    • Mulga Mumblebrain says:

      Nuclear paranoia is simply a device utilised by the Right to maintain vast nuclear stockpiles, missile forces, and, in the case of the USA (but not the USSR which renounced a first-strike policy)planning for nuclear first-strike and the ‘missile defence’ systems required to mop up any surviving missiles from the victim state.

  16. Mark E says:

    Fortunately, much of what we must do to defend the grid against EM disruption (be it nuclear or solar) and must do for the sake of efficient distributed generation and storage… is the same!

    We should all welcome Newt’s help getting money for the parts we agree on, regardless of how we arrived at our desire to do those things.

  17. Joan Savage says:

    I’m no expert on CME and the grid, but here are some topics, at least for starters.

    – satellites are really part of the grid, given the monitoring, communications, spot market logistics, and GPS. Shutting them down temporarily etc is usually done by their caretakers.

    – grounding the grid from a geomagnetic pulse works better where there is deep moist soil to take the current.
    –dry soil not so good.
    –bedrock not so good. Granite in the Laurentian Shield was no help in the Quebec outage.

    –east-west oriented lines (and pipelines) take a bigger hit from a geomagnetic storm than do north-south oriented lines.

    – a Faraday cage protects against voltage spikes, but only when its correctly assembled, and one is isolated inside it. Perhaps “bunkers” was an easier term for Newt than “cages?” Just wondering.

    • Mulga Mumblebrain says:

      Newt raging in his bunker as his enemies draw nigh, or Newt restlessly pacing back and forth, driven mad inside his cage? It’s a difficult choice as to which is the more felicitous image.

    • Dick Smith says:

      It’s not the sun that will put our satellites out of business. It’s the Republicans in Congress. We’re looking at a 75% cut in operational instruments in the next few years.

      • Mulga Mumblebrain says:

        Like Harper in Canada, the malignant Right hates scientific facts that do not concur with their insane dogma, so they are beginning to purge science from their societies. I’d say that the Chinese are probably worried by such a development, because a hyperpower that has lobotomised itself is a frightful prospect.

      • Joan Savage says:

        If Newt and his GOP allies want forewarning for either a nuclear or solar electromagnetic pulse they’d better wake up to the necessity of keeping aloft the monitoring satellites. They might try to skimp on satellite information about melting ice, stratospheric chemistry, drought, wildfire winds, and on and on, but sooner or later someone will notice the utility.

  18. otter17 says:

    Hmm, sounds like Newt has been taking video games like Call of Duty Modern Warfare seriously.

  19. According to physicist Michio Kaku, electromagnetic pulses are a serious problem that could have been addressed some years ago when a team of physicists asked Congress for a few billion dollars to fix it. Given the risk, which is in the trillions if a solar storm knocks out satellites, this is a problem with an easy solution, if Congress would act. We should solve the electromagnetic problem and move on to climate change by eliminating fossil fuels.

  20. Tom Lewis says:

    Electromagnetic pulses, like climate change, are neither Republican nor Democratic; they are real. Failing to understand and deal with them is neither liberal nor conservative, it’s stupid. The fact that Newt Gingrich happens to notice them does not, of itself, discredit them. Neither does the fact that the top missile-defense guy in the country doesn’t understand them.

  21. Joel Gordes says:

    What the Newtster and many others don’t appear to grasp is that one potential defense for the ravages of EMP/CME or intense weather driven by climate change would be to decentralize the electric grid by using less large transmission but more small, modular, clean generation closer to the point of use. In both cases it can add resilience to a a tightly-coupled, complex grid that is becoming less able to meet the challenges we face.

  22. junkwaffle says:

    Gingrich may be waiting for Michael Renney or Keanu Reeves to show up, too.

  23. Joan Savage says:

    For future use, NOAA has a convenient chart on the strengths of geomagnetic storms.

    Even though Newt and many CP commentators focus on relative severity of electrical power disruption, there are other outcomes. The lowest level, G-1, can disrupt birds in migration.

    The NOAA chart does not address how a geomagnetic storm might affect a distributed-source grid or localized grids.

    Although I initially liked the notion that distributed power sources would be a better protection, upon reflection that is not really proven. A geomagnetic storm hits everything..everything.

    http://www.swpc.noaa.gov/NOAAscales/index.html#GeomagneticStorms