The threat of a massive solar event or a weaponized EMP is very real.
An electromagnetic pulse or EMP has been a staple of science fiction stories and terrorist dramatizations like 24 for a while. The effects of an EMP would destroy any electronic circuitry and render most of the devices we depend upon useless, as well as disrupt electricity delivery necessary for the population's access to fresh water, heating, cooling and lighting systems. While extreme natural occurrences such as solar flares might produce an EMP, modern societies must also be prepared for a malicious attack using nuclear explosions that creates EMPs. The British government is not taking these risks lightly, and is planning for such contingencies.
In 1859, a major solar storm known as the Carrington event occurred. English astronomer Richard Christopher Carrington saw a large bright spot on the Sun and a few days later as the wave of energy hit the Earth and knocked out the most advanced technology of the era - the telegraph. Telegraph workers reported disruption of services, some even being shocked through the equipment and telegraph paper spontaneously igniting into flame.
"The risk of severe space weather is fully recognized by the Government. It has published its initial assessment of the likelihood and likely impact of a Carrington-magnitude event in the National Risk Register of civil emergencies," read the United Kingdom Parliament's response to a report on EMP preparedness from the House of Commons Defense Committee.
"Depending on the magnitude of the event, the current assessment is that severe space weather would be expected to have moderate to significant effects upon a range of technologies and infrastructure, including communications systems, electronic circuits and power grids," the report continued.
The use of a nuclear bomb detonated in the atmosphere would have a similar effect to space weather, and the British government recognizes that threat as well. States which have nuclear capabilities are the clear threat, but the Brits acknowledge a crude EMP device could be built using public knowledge. "There is evidence of the proliferation of the technology, which may have already led to its acquisition by countries and/or non-state actors of concern to the UK; for example, some open source information is available on the internet."
With EMP blast seen as a possibility, the question then becomes how to prevent or mitigate the dangers. The UK already concentrates on stopping nuclear attacks - by employing MI6 agents with a license to kill, of course - and advances in predicting space weather will aid in dealing with solar flares. But there is some debate whether the cost in shielding electronics through hard metal shells is cost effective.
"It would not be cost-effective to harden civilian infrastructure unnecessarily. In some larger and diffuse structures, hardening one part of a system may simply transfer the vulnerability to another area," read the report. "Hardening should be undertaken in a way that is cost-effective and appropriate to both the infrastructure and the risk in question."
The plan, then, is to concentrate EMP shielding on vital military targets, and to communicate with civilian infrastructure organizations like National Grid on how to respond to an EMP.
Even after reading through this report, I don't really feel that much safer. Do you?