[I was trolling the internet the other day for a blog topic when I ran across the Trestle program. Trestle first appeared on my desk back in the long ago, when I worked for the Government. It was super hush-hush at the time but today, of course, the essential facts are out there for anyone who wants to watch or read. There’s a movie about Trestle, as well as lots of written material[1]. Even Wikipedia has an entry.[2] ]

What was Trestle? Well, for one thing it was (and is) a very large structure, as long as two football fields, built over an enormous, bowl-shaped arroyo inside Kirtland AFB, New Mexico.[3] Today it looks a lot like a railroad bridge, entering the arroyo on one side, spanning it and terminating at a bank of instruments, generators, etc. at the other. It’s 12 stories tall and is made almost entirely of wood. For the most part, it was fastened together with wood or fiberglass bolts, said to be furniture grade. [4]

Why would the Government build such a thing? Well, even back then the Government knew that nuclear weapons, especially those detonated in the air, would generate an enormous electromagnetic pulse (aka, an EMP.) Basically, an EMP is a relatively short burst of electromagnetic energy. Depending upon the pulse generated, i.e. its source, strength, the range of frequencies, etc., an EMP could disrupt or destroy equipment that relied on electricity.

So Trestle was used to test the effects of EMP on the kinds of things the military used. The generators at the far end of Trestle could simulate on a small scale the pulse that would come from a high altitude nuclear explosion. While small the output was “a lot of energy for a short period of time in a limited space.[5]” An aircraft would be rolled onto the wood structure; stopped on the platform near the generators; the generators would be turned on; the pulse would pulsate; and scientists would study the results.

The program was very active between 1980 and 1990. “The purpose of these classified experiments was to measure the effects of these electromagnetic waves on the delicate electronics and soft underbelly of military aircraft.”[6] Once they were understood, countermeasures could be developed. Today, of course, we have different ways to attack the same problem. Actual experiments are replaced by computer simulations, which, it is said, are equally reliable and less expensive. Of course, not everyone agrees.

These and other experiments were directed toward protecting military equipment and facilities in time of war. But not everything was protected, or “hardened.”. Missile launch facilities,[7] for example, were thought to be ideal candidates; but other, less robust installations were not, because quite likely they wouldn’t survive a first strike by an enemy and therefore wouldn’t be useful in later phases of a war.[8]

Today, of course, we’re no longer planning for a massive nuclear exchange between two or more relatively equal opponents. As they say, “The Cold War is over,” so that’s not the great threat. Instead our “what if?” scenarios focus more on the possibility that some minor hostile power might find a way to detonate a single nuclear weapon in or over the United States or one of our allies. What would be the EMP effects of that?

The consensus seems to be that (i) if a nuclear weapon is detonated on our (or an ally’s) soil, the blast effects would considerably damage the immediate area, and the EMP effects would extend further out; and (ii) if the weapon detonates at a high altitude, the physical effects of blast, etc., would be minimized, but the resulting electromagnetic pulse could affect quite a bit more geography, and possibly damage a large part of our power grid.[9]

A lot of us know from recent experience what happens when the power goes off. The lights go out, the internet fails, the air conditioning dies, the refrigerator begins to defrost, the water and sewer systems may not work (especially if they are pump dependent), etc., etc. Life is like being stuck on a cursed cruise ship, possibly with millions of other passengers. And, of course, if nothing works, then the economy doesn’t, either.

The United States is a very large, if not the predominant nuclear power in the world. Any country or identifiable group that did this kind of thing to us would no doubt face immediate and very unpleasant retaliation. But retaliation, no matter how satisfying, probably will not improve the situation at home. When the power’s off, it needs to be put back on.

Are there other potential EMP threats to the power grid? Yes, indeed. Nature can be our enemy. Our sun[10], for example, lets loose the occasional flare and ejects a lot of waves and particles in the process. Not every flare is aimed at our little planet, but some are[11]. And when they hit, they definitely can mess with our electricity.[12] Back in 1989 that very thing happened to Quebec, Canada. On March 10, 1989[13], the sun experienced a coronal mass ejection from an area that more or less faced the Earth; three days later this resulted in a geomagnetic storm on the Earth, which in turn tripped circuit breakers on Hydro Quebec’s power grid. Power went off and was not restored for 9 hours.[14] If you want to see an up-to-date explanation by a professional astronomer, go to http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=KqXtwAZFfUQ

Anyway, when nature attacks it’s not really possible to retaliate, at least not against the sun. So perhaps it would be best for the Government to develop some countermeasures, to avoid the problem, if possible.

So my point is this. There seem to be two potential threats against our electric grid: one posed by potential enemies around the world; the other by Mother Nature. Whether you believe one is likely, or the other, or both, the solution seems to be the same. Harden the sites to protect key parts of the Grid from EMP, no matter how it’s generated. How could that be done? I leave that to the experts, if we have any. In the meantime, for a good discussion of the issues, military, political and whatever, take a look at http://www.centerforsecuritypolicy.org/2013/07/30/jim-woolsey-electromagnetic-pulse-emp-is-existential-threat-to-america/ You need to be prepared to spend about an hour on this video, but if you’re interested, you will enjoy it.


[1] For both, see notes on the web Giri, This is Where the Notes Live at http://www.ece.unm.edu/summa/notes/index.html

[2] See Wikipedia’s piece on ATLAS-I, at http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/TRESTLE

[3] See notes on the web, Reuben, The Atlas-I Trestle at Kirtland Air Force Base at http://www.ece.unm.edu/summa/notes/trestle.html

[4] See Reuben, note 3.

[5] See Reuben (quoting Dr. Carl E. Baum), note 3. Dr. Baum was a Senior Scientist at the Air Force Research Laboratory until 2005. He retired as a civilian in 2005 and, at last report, is at the University of New Mexico. See the introductory page to notes on the web, at http://www.ece.unm.edu/summa/notes/index.html

[6] See Reuben, note 3.

[7] See Federation of American Scientists, Special Weapons Primer, Nuclear Weapons EMP Effects, at http://www.fas.org/nuke/intro/nuke/emp.htm

[8] See Federation of American Scientists, Special Weapons Primer, Nuclear Weapons EMP Effects, at http://www.fas.org/nuke/intro/nuke/emp.htm  (“During the Cold War, SREMP was conceived primarily as a threat to the electronic and electrical systems within hardened targets such as missile launch facilities. Clearly, SREMP effects are only important if the targeted systems are expected to survive the primary damage-causing mechanisms of blast, shock, and thermal pulse. Because SREMP is uniquely associated with nuclear strikes, technology associated with SREMP generation has no commercial applications.”)

[9] See R. James Woolsey, Testimony before The House Committee on Energy and Commerce (May 21, 2013), available at http://democrats.energycommerce.house.gov/sites/default/files/documents/Testimony-Woolsey-FC-Cyber-Threats-Security-Solutions-2013-5-21.pdf Henceforth, the testimony will be cited as Woolsey at __. See Woolsey at p. 4: “A more ambitious EMP attack could use a freighter to launch a medium-range missile from the Gulf of Mexico, to detonate a nuclear warhead over the geographic center of the United States at an altitude of 400 kilometers. The EMP field would extend to a radius of 2,200 kilometers on the ground, covering all of the contiguous 48 United States, causing a nationwide blackout and collapse of the critical infrastructures everywhere. All of this would result from the high-altitude detonation of a single nuclear warhead.”

[10] Want to know about solar flares? For an explanation, go to National Aeronautics and Space Administration, What is a Solar Flare? at http://hesperia.gsfc.nasa.gov/sftheory/flare.htm

[11] See Huff Post Science, Malik, Solar Flare 2013: Intense Sun Eruption Aimed At Earth, Scientists Say (02/10/2013) at http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2013/02/11/solar-flare-2013-earth_n_2661587.html

[12] Want a list of solar flares. There’s a good, short one at Space.com, Malik, Our Angry Sun at http://www.space.com/12584-worst-solar-storms-sun-flares-history.html

[13] Wikipedia says the flare/ mass ejection was on March 9; the astronomer cited in our text says it was March 10. Take your pick.

[14] Wikipedia has an entry on this. It’s a work in progress, but still useful. Go to Wikipedia and search “March 1989 geomagnetic storm” or simply click here: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/March_1989_geomagnetic_storm