It's a well-established rule: Rich nations endure natural disasters better than poor nations. But there may be an exception. Stay with me for a moment and you'll see what I mean.
In recent years, Americans have become dependent not just on electricity but also on computers, microchips and satellites. The infrastructure that supports all this has become increasingly sophisticated - but not more resilient. On the contrary, as this infrastructure has become more complex, it also has become more fragile and therefore more vulnerable - an Achilles' heel.
That is why, in 2001, the U.S. government established a commission to "assess the threat to the United States from Electromagnetic Pulse attack." Such an attack would involve the detonation of a nuclear warhead at high altitude over the American mainland, producing a shockwave powerful enough to knock out electrical power, electronics, communications, transportation and much more. Think of a blackout, but one of indefinite duration - because we have no plan for recovery and could expect little or no help from abroad.
The EMP commission also reported that Iran - which is feverishly working to acquire nuclear weapons - has conducted tests in which it launched missiles and exploded warheads at high altitudes. And the CIA has translated Iranian military journals in which EMP attacks against the U.S. are explicitly discussed.
Might Iran's rulers orchestrate such an attack if and when they acquire a nuclear capability? That is a heated debate among defense experts. But what is almost never discussed is the threat of a naturally occurring EMP event.
I first learned about this possibility a few months ago at a conference organized by Empact America, an organization concerned exclusively with the EMP challenge. Scientists there explained about "severe space weather" - in particular, storms on the surface of the sun that could trigger an EMP event.
The strongest solar storm on record is the Carrington Event of 1859, named after Richard Carrington, an astronomer who witnessed the super solar flare that set off the event as he was projecting an image of the sun on a white screen. In those days, of course, there was nothing much to damage. A high-intensity burst of electro-magnetic energy shot through telegraph lines, disrupting communications, shocking technicians and setting their papers on fire. Northern Lights were visible as far south as Cuba and Hawaii. But otherwise life went on as normal.
The same would not be true were a solar storm of similar magnitude to erupt today. Most of us would not adapt well to this sudden return to a pre-industrial age.
How likely is a repeat of the Carrington Event? Scientists say it is not only possible - it is inevitable. What they don't know is when. The best estimates are that super solar storms occur once every 100 years - which means we are about 50 years overdue.
Both the EMP Commission and a 2008 study by the National Academy of Sciences call for a response: hardening the electrical grid and other components of the infrastructure to increase the chances they would survive, as well as pre-positioning spares of essential but complex components of the electrical grid and other infrastructure critical to communications and emergency public services.
President Obama has pledged $100 million to help Haiti recover from its recent earthquake. By coincidence, that's precisely the amount that the NAS recommends be spent on measures it estimates would limit the damage resulting from an EMP event by 60 to 70 percent. When you consider that such an event - whether naturally occurring or a "man-caused disaster" - could cause trillions of dollars in damage and claim more lives than were lost in World War II, that sounds like a reasonably priced investment.
Clifford D. May is president of the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies, a policy institute focusing on terrorism.