A Radiation Shock Too Powerful to Examine (EMP)

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  • #1
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Hi all - I'm not a physics grad, my knowledge is limited to whatever I can glean from popular science publications. Anyway, I'm crafting a hard sci-fi story - 'hard' because it's written to seem kind of plausible, or at least not outrageously surreal - no shape-shifting or anti-gravity or wormholes.

A central feature of the story is a radiation shock which affects Northern Europe. The idea is based on EMP research - the fact that a high-altitude nuke can set off an electromagnetic pulse capable of destroying microprocessors. This is what seems to happen, except that there is no discernable nuclear explosion - it seems instead to have an interstellar origin. It immediately disables the computers in millions of cars and a very large number of satellites. It's not strictly apocalyptic, because it affects only a bounded area, and doesn't directly affect humans, but it's pretty catastrophic, also causing a number of SCADAs to fail in power utilities and the like.

At this point, my intuition about what's feasible and what's not reaches its limit. The way I've described it, the event is so powerful that it basically wrecks any of the instruments that would normally record such events. So after the event, there's precious little by way of forensics as to where it originated or how powerful it was, as it basically blew the dials on anything that might normally be expected to record it.

Remember, this is a fiction story, but I want to retain at least an edge of plausibility, so I thought I would run it by this forum to see if you all fall about laughing at it.
 

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  • #2
berkeman
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For obvious reasons, we won't be discussing too many technical details about EMP generation or damage here at PF. The Wikipedia articles are a good place to start for you, IMO. You can start with this one and then look at the Nuclear EMP Weapon article for more directed (no pun intended) references:

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Electromagnetic_pulse
This article is about the phenomenon in general. For nuclear EMP weapons, see Nuclear electromagnetic pulse. For Earth magnetosphere pulsations, see Magnetic pulsations.
 
  • #3
Hornbein
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Recently a gamma ray burst affected the ionosphere enough to disturb radio transmissions. It came from 2.4 billion light years away. It came from a star collapsing into a black hole. If that happened a thousand light years away it seems to me that it would do the job and more. Having it affect only a limited region seems kind of unrealistic -- I think it would wipe out everything -- but this is fiction.
 
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  • #4
berkeman
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If it happened with the Moon between the source and Earth, would the Moon protect the shadowed part of the Earth, or would diffraction around the Moon keep that from happening?
 
  • #5
Quotidian
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If it happened with the Moon between the source and Earth, would the Moon protect the shadowed part of the Earth, or would diffraction around the Moon keep that from happening?
Interesting idea. It turns out to be interstellar, and the source seems to be related to a supernovae event, but, as I say, it turns out to be very difficult to analyse - which is a part of the story.

Having it affect only a limited region seems kind of unrealistic -- I think it would wipe out everything -- but this is fiction.
That's also part of the story, and one of the reasons that it defies analysis.

The story mentions the Carrington Event in 1854, which is really interesting in its own right, for those who've never heard of it. Definitly worth googling.
 
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  • #6
hutchphd
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Also detonation Starfish (prime) which produced unexpectedly large localized EMP effects on other side of the equator from a Mega-ton sized warhead at 100 miles altitude
 
  • #7
Quotidian
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Also detonation Starfish (prime) which produced unexpectedly large localized EMP effects on other side of the equator from a Mega-ton sized warhead at 100 miles altitude
thanks, great tip. Hadn't heard of that one. 'Starfish Prime caused an electromagnetic pulse (EMP) that was far larger than expected, so much larger that it drove much of the instrumentation off scale, causing great difficulty in getting accurate measurements.' Bingo!
 
  • #8
Hornbein
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I can't think of a natural phenomenon that is focused enough on a limited area. So how about unnatural phenomena. You could have a large solar energy collector orbiting a Lagrange point like the Webb telescope or in a plain ordinary Earth-like solar orbit far from Earth. It beams the energy to Earth. It gets hit by a solar flare that messes up the best laid plans of mice and men. There is a plan to fold up the collector in such a case but it doesn't work (darn). The beam moves randomly about Earth for a while.

By the way, it seems to me that living things are more vulnerable to ionizing radiation than are computers, so that radiation would kill everything in the vicinity with possibly a delay of a week or two.
 
  • #9
pinball1970
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Hi all - I'm not a physics grad, my knowledge is limited to whatever I can glean from popular science publications. Anyway, I'm crafting a hard sci-fi story - 'hard' because it's written to seem kind of plausible, or at least not outrageously surreal - no shape-shifting or anti-gravity or wormholes.

A central feature of the story is a radiation shock which affects Northern Europe. The idea is based on EMP research - the fact that a high-altitude nuke can set off an electromagnetic pulse capable of destroying microprocessors. This is what seems to happen, except that there is no discernable nuclear explosion - it seems instead to have an interstellar origin. It immediately disables the computers in millions of cars and a very large number of satellites. It's not strictly apocalyptic, because it affects only a bounded area, and doesn't directly affect humans, but it's pretty catastrophic, also causing a number of SCADAs to fail in power utilities and the like.

At this point, my intuition about what's feasible and what's not reaches its limit. The way I've described it, the event is so powerful that it basically wrecks any of the instruments that would normally record such events. So after the event, there's precious little by way of forensics as to where it originated or how powerful it was, as it basically blew the dials on anything that might normally be expected to record it.

Remember, this is a fiction story, but I want to retain at least an edge of plausibility, so I thought I would run it by this forum to see if you all fall about laughing at it.
Your post reminded me of this

https://www.scientificamerican.com/...which seems,season in the Northern Hemisphere.
 
  • #10
hutchphd
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By the way, it seems to me that living things are more vulnerable to ionizing radiation than are computers, so that radiation would kill everything in the vicinity with possibly a delay of a week or two.
That is not correct. As witnessed by the aforementioned starfish series of nuclear tests which killed no person (directly at least) but wreaked havoc on instruments. This is why I mentioned them.
Some ionizing radiation can be focussed by magnetic fields yet have a high cross-section in matter. This makes for quite variable effects.
 
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  • #11
pinball1970
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By the way, it seems to me that living things are more vulnerable to ionizing radiation than are computers, so that radiation would kill everything in the vicinity with possibly a delay of a week or two.
I would check out my post on Chernobyl frogs and the Ecosystem they inhabit.
I don't know anything about instruments but some species appear to be able to endure relatively high and prolonged levels of radiation.
 
  • #12
Quotidian
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how about unnatural phenomena
That becomes the main question (but I don't want to give too much away).
 
  • #13
Hornbein
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That is not correct. As witnessed by the aforementioned starfish series of nuclear tests which killed no person (directly at least) but wreaked havoc on instruments. This is why I mentioned them.
Some ionizing radiation can be focussed by magnetic fields yet have a high cross-section in matter. This makes for quite variable effects.
Yes but I suppose the instruments were much closer to the detonation than was any unsheltered person.

"To give you a comparison of effects, it takes a radiation dose of about 5 Sv to cause death to most people. Diodes and computer chips will show very little functional detriment up to about 50 to 100 Sv. Also, some electronics can be "hardened" (made to be not affected as much by larger gamma radiation doses) by providing shielding or by selecting radiation-resistant materials." Though it is true that he specified that it exceed the design limits of the detection device, not actually destroy it, so maybe I'm off base with this.

You could have longer wavelength non-ionizing radiation like microwaves. Living things are less affected by that.

https://hps.org/publicinformation/ate/q11162.html
 
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  • #14
hutchphd
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Yes but I suppose the instruments were much closer to the detonation than was any unsheltered person.
It is my understanding that the detonation was at 250 miles altitude and the instruments in question were in 900 miles away in Honolulu. The instrumentation effects were caused by induced currents and potentials from the EMP as mediated by the Earth magnetic field, not the direct effects of ionizing radiation. Luckilly, in this case at least, we are not that conductive nor are we large. Please read the documentation.
 

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