Apart from the mayhem a powerful electromagnetic pulse would visit on our technologically dependent civilisation, there’s growing concern that EMPs are an imminent threat to recorded music.
Our magnetic audio recordings would be among the certain casualties, along with many other aspects of our technology. But, strangely, sound may provide us with our best line of defence.
In a recent blog Audio Archives: Gone in a Flash, I looked into the devastating effects electromagnetic pulses would have on magnetic audio recordings not protected by extremely resilient shielding. As an alternative ‘safe’ storage environment to a shielded room, we also considered the present state of the cloud as a storage and archiving resource. All good. But on the sources of electromagnetic pulses and the likelihood of their happening, I feel I came up a little short...
It would be comforting to be able to treat all of this as academic. But that is to ignore the Skylab crash in 1979, which was caused by a solar storm, and the effort being invested in electromagnetic pulse weapon technology.
While the term electromagnetic pulse (EMP) resulted from the development of nuclear weapons, the same destructive pulse can be delivered from other sources. So we have more to concern us than a nuclear war or a rogue weapon in the hands of terrorists.
For a start, an EMP can be produced without using fissionable materials – and is currently being developed as an offensive weapon in its own right by major powers. An American defence insider has warned that, given the Russians’ lack of control of conventional weapons, EMP could very easily fall into the hands of terrorists. If it did, how attractive a cultural target would a major record label’s music catalogue make?
EMPs are also a regular and entirely natural facet of the sun’s behaviour.
These have struck before, and will undoubtedly strike again. Those who know are unapologetic about their solar forecasts – the coming ten years may get rough. In addition to our precious audio recordings, navigation systems and communications are at particular risk, affecting everything from banking to warfare. We have built a fragile technological infrastructure that is wide open to being compromised by EMPs.
Ray of hope
In a curious twist of physics, audio could become our first line of defence...
A recent BBC Horizon TV programme, Listen to the Sun, investigated the causes and effects of sunspots – turning to sound rather than sight as a means of analysis. If we look at the sun we only see the sun’s surface, it argued, but by ‘listening’ to the sun, scientists can begin to gauge what is going on inside.
In fact, there is a 12-16 second advantage to ‘hearing’ a sunspot over observing its appearance on the sun’s surface. This difference equates to between one and two days’ additional warning of a solar storm. Enough time to gather up your tapes, discs and hard drives and book them into secure storage?
We are presently listening to sunspots at around 60,000km inside the sun but research scientists hope to go deeper and extend the advance warning to weeks rather than days. A little more time to gather up all those hard drives…
Sun, see and sound
On a separate but not unrelated note, in 2006 UK artists Ruth Jarman and Joe Gerhardt (working as Semiconductor Films) collaborated with NASA over its data archive of solar activity to produce a film called Brilliant Noise.
Taking some of ‘the sun’s finest unseen moments’, the film documents the activity of our star’s awesome beauty. The soundtrack translates the accompanying radio frequency emissions into an assault that would please the most hardcore of industrial and electronic music fans.
It would be ironic if this was also to become the soundtrack to the erasure of all of our music.