In the discussion that occurs within the United States over the tragic humanitarian crisis in Venezuela, recent talk has been about whether the United States will intervene militarily and overthrow the dictator Nicolas Maduro, whose reign has contributed more than anything to the widespread starvation, thirst and disease being most Venezuelans are experiencing. When considering the plight of the Venezuelan people, who have been deprived of many things people in bordering countries deem commonplace, an interesting scenario arises. One can ask, what would happen if the people in another country, say the United States, were deprived of this vital infrastructure? 

For any person, a lack of basic life-sustaining necessities could make life significantly more difficult. Such a deprivation on a large scale is unlikely to occur in countries with stable democracies, but for the sake of argument, we can think of a scenario where, for a period of time, the U.S., an otherwise modern, industrialized nation, experiences an electricity blackout that extends from coast to coast. Over a period of a few days, refrigerated food begins to spoil and gas stations, unable to pump fuel, are unable to deliver to trucks and cars which quickly run out of gas, immobilizing millions. Hospitals are unable to power the life support systems many patients rely on and emergency response services experience difficulty communicating and responding to the chaos that would likely ensue after America is plunged into darkness. The country would then begin to strongly resemble Venezuela, with many Americans lacking in any basic necessities for long-term survival. Like the nation currently experiencing a famine and in drastic need of humanitarian aid, the United States too would be plunged into a deadly predicament. 

The above scenario seems like post-apocalyptic fiction. It is also possible for such a large-scale power outage and the subsequent chaos to occur. A country’s electricity-related infrastructure, the U.S. in particular, is vulnerable to a number of threats, both natural and man-made. However, the United States has the ability and resources to prevent such an event from occuring and mitigate its effects if it does. To gain some insight into the nature of this threat, we need to contextualize it and understand where it originates from and how to best deal with it.

While life on earth would be impossible without it, the sun can wreak havoc on the electric grid, which is comprised of generation plants, transformers and thousands of miles of transmission lines. The sun is constantly emitting massive bursts of energy from its outer layer called coronal-mass ejections, many of which collide with the earth and interact with its magnetic field to produce the beautiful aurora borealis, commonly referred to as the “northern lights.” Every 150 years or so, the sun emits a particularly large CME whose effects can spread across the globe, and whose magnitude can interfere with or even destroy many vital parts of the electricity grid, capable of producing the blackout described above. The last one of these events to occur happened in 1859, where British astronomer Richard Carrington observed several large black spots on the sun. Several days later, the auroras were so bright that miners in Colorado mistook the light for a sunrise and began to make breakfast. More importantly, the magnetic interference caused a large-scale disruption of telegraph lines to the point where it gave operators electric shocks and allowed those who switched their lines off to communicate without an outside source of electricity. Fortunately, for those living in the 19th century, there was no complex electricity grid to interfere with. No doubt, if such an event happened today, it would have disastrous consequences, as a CME of this magnitude could very well cause a great deal of widespread destruction of infrastructure, causing the U.S. to resemble Venezuela in its current state. There is no doubt that this is a gloomy scenario, one which America, and by extension, all of humanity should seek to avoid. 

Additionally, our electrical infrastructure is vulnerable to terrorism and foreign interference. In the 21st century, if an adversary truly wished to deal crippling damage to an enemy, it would likely not even have to fire any bullets. In 2018, the Department of Homeland Security reported that Russian hackers digitally infiltrated American critical infrastructure systems including water treatment plants and nuclear power plants, and, while the hackers did not seek to do any damage, their probing of the system could set up a future attack. The battlefield of the future might not even be a physical place; enemies could simply inflict long lasting damage on both civilian and military populations though the sabotage of infrastructure. Taking into account Venezuela’s current state, such a method of attack would be highly effective. 

However, all is not doom and gloom. NASA, for one, takes the threat from the sun seriously, and has the DSCOVR and Parker Solar Probe satellites revolving around and continuously monitoring the sun, which could provide a warning in case of a catastrophic solar storm. With advance knowledge, precautions can be taken to protect key parts of the electric grid and other critical infrastructures. In terms of defending against attacks from foreign adversaries, deterrence, resilience and protection of critical infrastructure should be of the highest priority. If an adversary knew that the United States anticipates a sabotage of the electric grid as a declaration of war, the enemy would be far less inclined to act. Moreover, numerous parts of the electric grid can be protected or made to recover easily from sabotage, with the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency developing and testing a system capable of restarting an electric grid that has been paralyzed by a foreign assailant, and numerous private sector companies investing in technology capable of protecting parts of critical infrastructure systems from magnetic interference. Exploiting and utilizing these technologies can do wonders to ensure the survivability of critical infrastructure systems nationwide. 

In response to what appears to a lot be fear-mongering above, one might ask, “I’m just one person, what say do I have in preventing this kind of scenario from occurring, and mitigating its impact if it does?” Individual citizens and communities, above all else, can take steps to ensure their survival in the event of a long-term collapse of critical infrastructure. Even something as simple as developing a civil defense plan for a small town or city or having a two-week supply of food and water and a transistor radio could do wonders in weathering out such a disaster. One can contact a local representative or senator and encourage legislation that protects infrastructure and takes power outages into account. Currently, the Department of Homeland Security is developing a plan on a national scale that deals with responding to and developing protections from the effects of long-term power outages and damage to critical infrastructure. Part of this plan involves communication with smaller communities and developing a greater culture of preparedness, which can only be done if a collective group of people choose to act as a community. With the ideas of preparedness and resilience in mind, we cannot only assist countries such as Venezuela who are being impacted by the effects of economic collapse and infrastructure failure, but prevent them from affecting our own lives.