This seems to be a prepper’s favorite “Doomsday scenario”. Youtube has hundreds of videos on the subject. The internet is filled with web pages telling you to want you should or should not do in case of one.
But how much do you really know about one? How much does anyone know?
In this Part 1 of the article, I will attempt to explain what an EMP is. I’ll tell you what we know about them, and more importantly, what we DON’T know, how a nuclear EMP is different than a solar or CME (coronal mass ejection) EMP, and try to dispel some myths surrounding them.
Also sometimes called a transient electromagnetic disturbance, is a short burst of electromagnetic energy. Such a pulse may occur in the form of a radiated electric or magnetic field or conducted electrical current depending on the source, and may be natural or man-made. The term “electromagnetic pulse” is commonly abbreviated to the acronym EMP (which is pronounced by saying the letters separately, “E-M-P”).
In layman’s terms, it is an intense burst of electromagnetic energy caused by an abrupt and rapid acceleration of charged particles. This can cause all kinds of problems with electronic equipment and devices. In some cases, it can even cause physical damage to things such as buildings, airplanes, power lines, etc.
There are three things that we know cause EMPs: a bolt of lightning, a nuclear explosion (or EMP type weapon), and solar storms.
I’m hoping everyone is familiar with lightning. A lightning strike produces a surge in electric current in nearby wires and cables. This surge of electricity can damage your electronics that you may have plugged into the wall sockets of your home. That is the reason it is highly recommended that you have your computer, TVs, etc. hooked up through a surge protector.
EMPs by high altitude detonation or CMEs are caused by the release of charged particles within the Earth’s ionosphere. The ionosphere is the shell of electrons and electrically charged particles surrounding Earth. This “shell” is found from about 30 miles to 500 miles above the Earth. The size of the ionosphere can fluctuate some based on varying factors I won’t get into here.
Anyway, a huge downward surge in particles in the ionosphere would create massive electrical currents which could “short out” all sorts of electrical power grids, transformers, and other equipment dependent on electricity.
EMPs have happened before and will happen again
The Earth has experienced EMPs before. The four that will I mention here (2 from CME and 2 from nuclear detonation) are usually the most referenced.
The first is the Carrington Event of 1859, which was the first documented event of a solar flare impacting Earth. The event occurred at 11:18 a.m. EDT on Sept., 1 and is named after Richard Carrington, the solar astronomer who witnessed the event through his telescope.
The second event is the Star Fish Prime tests. In 1962, the US government launched a 1.4 megaton nuclear warhead about 250 miles into the atmosphere over the Pacific Ocean. The pulse results were much stronger than expected. It damaged street lights and microwave links in Hawaii, 900 miles away. The EMP was so intense that it was not accurately measured because “it drove much of the instrumentation off scale”.
The third event was a Soviet EMP test called “Test 184”. It happened around the same time as the Star Fish Prime tests. Not many details have been released from this. Although the warhead was not as powerful as the one from Star Fish Prime, it was exploded about 180 miles over the populated area of Kazakhstan.
What is known is that the EMP from Test 184 knocked out a 600-mile underground power line (shielded) that was buried 3 feet underground. It caused fires to the power station that the line was connected to. It also damaged diesel generators. (Most of the details have not been released and/or have remained classified.)
For the record, the nuclear warheads used in both above-mentioned tests were not designed for EMP-related events. Hence the results from both would be considered highly ineffective today.
The final event I’ll mention here is a CME that hit Canada on March 13, 1989. A powerful solar flare set off a major power blackout that left six million people without electricity for about nine hours.
According to NASA, the CME disrupted electric power transmission from the Hydro Québec generating station and even melted some power transformers in New Jersey. NASA scientists have concluded that this event was only about a 1/3 the strength of the Carrington event.
The types of EMP pulse
Scientists from the International Electrotechnical Commission (IEC) have classified EMPs into 3 categories.
- The first is called an E1. An E1 is the quickest pulse of all EMPs. It is very brief, lasting a mere microsecond. But it is extremely intense. This is the pulse from a nuclear blast or other EMP weapons.
- An E2 is a bit slower than an E1. A bolt of lightning has the characteristics of an E2. Because of this, E2 are typically the easiest to protect against. But a nuclear blast or EMP weapon has the characteristics of both an E1 and an E2 pulse. As a result, much of the protection that equipment has against an E2 might have been damaged from the initial E1 pulse in the event of a nuclear or weaponized EMP.
- The third type of pulse is an E3. This is the slowest of the pulses and could last minutes, hours, or even days. This is the type of pulse found in intense CMEs from our Sun. Our Sun is NOT known to produce E1 or E2 type pulses. (Nuclear blasts and EMP weapons will typically have all three types of pulses.)
For the record, E1 type pulses are released by other stars in our galaxy and throughout the universe, but the chances of our planet being struck by such a pulse from another star are BEYOND MINISCULE. The Earth has a better chance of being hit by a large asteroid than it does an E1 pulse from another star.
The other main difference between a nuclear EMP and a solar EMP is that while a nuclear EMP may never happen, it is only a matter of time until a solar EMP does hit Earth. The Sun releases CMEs quite often. (Depending upon the Sun’s cycle, it could release up to 3 a day, or as few as one every 5 days. But these may or may not be strong enough to have dire consequences for Earthlings.) Most are usually pointing off in a direction that does not affect Earth. But we have been hit by a few, as mentioned above. We have also had some near misses, like the one in July of 2012. At some point in the future, Earth will be hit again.
Now you should have an understanding of what an EMP is. I will look at what these types of pulses mean to us, what they are capable of doing, and what all we still do not know about them. Essentially: What you can expect if we’re hit by an EMP or CME.
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The type of pulses that could be generated with an EMP/CME
Before I begin, I want to note that it has been pointed out to me that there are some technical differences between a nuclear E3 pulse and a solar storm. However, the results to the power grid would be the same should either one hit. So for the sake of simplicity, I stated that a CME (Coronal Mass Ejection/Solar Storm) has E3 type characteristics, and referred to it as a solar EMP.
I can best explain it like this. I get in my pickup and drive to Houston. When I arrive, I say I drove a car to Houston. While you could technically argue that I drove a pickup and not a car, the end result is that I’m in Houston and I drove there. So if you want to argue semantics, please skip it. I’m here to help people learn about this, not get into a technical debate on the internet. 🙂
Ok, now on to the “good stuff”.
The E1 component is a very brief but intense electromagnetic field that can quickly induce very high voltages in electrical conductors. The E1 component causes most of its damage by causing electrical breakdown voltages to be exceeded. This could potentially damage anything with electrical microchips, and other sensitive electronic equipment we all use every day.
The E3 component will geomagnetically induce currents in long electrical conductors, which can then damage or destroy components such as power line transformers and burn out power grid transformers by inducing DC-like currents.
What this means is, the E1 pulse of a nuclear EMP has the potential to damage electronic equipment, computers, communication equipment, etc. It could be damaging to vehicles and aircraft, but I’ll get into that more in a bit.
The E3 type pulse would primarily affect the power grid and is not likely to harm things like cell phones, computers, or vehicles unless they were directly connected to the power grid.
If the CME was large enough, it could induce geomagnetic currents that could destroy a substantial fraction of the very largest transformers on the power grid (possibly over much of the world in a solar EMP).
So what does this all mean? It depends upon which event is happening and the magnitude of the event.
So what happens to us when the next large CME hits?
Basically, a large solar storm (think Carrington event or larger) could knock out the power grid. Where and how much it takes out would depend upon the size and strength of the storm.
It would NOT take out your electronic equipment. Your cell phones and computers would most likely work…until they ran out of battery power, or unless they were directly connected to the power grid.
Keep in mind that while your cell phone or Ipad would still function, the communication systems would go down. So services that your iPhone and laptop are used for, ie the internet and cell coverage, would most likely be out.
It would NOT directly affect your cars. They won’t suddenly die on the highway. (It would most likely leaving you listening to static because it fried the XM radio satellites.)
With no power grid, there would be no way to get more gas. Oil refineries need electricity to produce gas. Gas stations need electricity to work the pumps for you to put gas in your car.
No gas = no way to ship food across our country. No way to even mass produce food to feed the 300 million plus people inside the US.
Anyway, I hope you see where I am going with this. Everyone would have a very bad day all at the same time.
A massive CME has the ability to adversely affect the magnetic field of the entire planet. Should that happen and the grid across the planet is gone, it could take a lifetime to come back. In that case, I hope you know how to farm because the planet just went back in time to the 1800s. (The chances of it taking out the entire grid across the planet are slim but possible.)
The US has about 2100 electrical transformers, with about 370 (rough estimate) of those with high voltage (HV) transformers. Until about a year or two ago, no company in the US made these transformers. Today there are just two. Building just one could take weeks. Replacing one could easily take a month or more. HV transformers would take even longer.
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Compounding this problem, these transformers are NOT one size fits all. The rule of thumb is that for every 13 transformers, there are 10 different designs. Also, these different transformers are designed to handle different amounts of electric currents based on where they are located. So you have multiple types of transformers that handle multiple types of currents. And most are not interchangeable.
See the complexity this causes?
Now let me mention all of the problems that transporting these transformers would pose. (The whole no fuel thing.) Rail might still be available, but many areas where there are transformers are not accessible by rail. So this is another logistical nightmare.
Yet another issue, as highlighted in bold…
The instantaneous shutdown of the power grid would occur primarily because of the widespread use of solid-state SCADA (supervisory control and data acquisition devices) in the power grid. These would be destroyed by the E1 pulse, but could probably be replaced within several weeks. The greater problem would be in re-starting the power grid. (No procedures have ever been developed for a “black start” of the entire power grid. Starting a large power generating station actually requires electricity.) The greatest problem would be the loss of many critical large power transformers due to geomagnetically induced currents, for which no replacements could be obtained for at least a few years.
And that is just the transformers. You still have over 500,000 miles of high–voltage transmission lines in the U.S. and many hundreds of thousands of more miles of distribution lines that carry electricity to our homes. Power lines could sag and even snap as a result of the massive surge. So you could be looking at replacing who knows how much line. (And producing more/transporting it etc.)
Basically, it boils down to this: should the US lose a substantial portion of its grid, it could be years; even a decade for power to be fully restored. Again, I hope you know how to produce your own food.
What about more likely scenarios?
Ok, let’s stop thinking worst case scenario for a minute. There are so many OTHER possibilities.
What if a CME takes out the eastern seaboard, but not the rest of the country? (Or if you live on the east coast, say it hits the west coast.) It would obviously impact you differently than if you were in the middle of it. Our grid is divided into four interconnections and 8 regional sections. It is possible that a CME/E3 pulse could take out some but not all of the grid in the US.
Or say that a CME doesn’t hit the US, but instead wipes out Europe or Asia? We still have our TVs, freezers, and gas stations. But what sort of impact does that have on the global economy? I’m not an economist, but I promise you it would have a big impact on us.
An E1 Pulse would be much worse
A nuclear EMP would have a very similar effect as a solar storm as far as an E3 pulse. But as I said above, nukes also have an E1 pulse as well. And telling you about the effects of those are well, a bit of a problem.
Scientists have tried to simulate what would happen using computer models, but the hard data they have to base their calculations on is from the last high altitude nuclear EMP… in 1962.
And of course, much of that data, and the resulting computer simulations and theories are highly classified.
Unfortunately, there isn’t a lot of data available to the general public on what all might be affected by an E1 pulse. For example, scientists are not sure if airplanes would be able to stay in the air after a said pulse. Many newer planes use computers in almost all aspects of flight. Even some older planes that don’t use computers for basic flight controls still require electronics to assist with things such as the hydraulics.
Some military jets are EMP hardened, but commercial airlines are not. The FAA requires you to turn off your cell phone on take-off and landing. Why? Because devices such as mobile phones, MP3 players, and remote-controlled toys, can emit electromagnetic radiation that could adversely affect an aircraft’s navigation and communication systems and actually endanger a flight. The chances are remote but better safe than sorry. (Although the FAA is now permitting the use of some devices.)
Now imagine what a 50,000 volt (or more) EMP could do.
As for automobiles, I’m sorry to disappoint you, but we simply do not know….we can only take an educated guess. Why just a guess? Because there are too many variables and unknowns to know with certainty.
Things such as the strength of the E1 pulse, the altitude and angle of the detonation from your vehicle, the current strength of the Earth’s ionosphere at your location (it fluctuates), the direction your vehicle was facing in relation to the denotation, etc all factor into the equation.
Was your car parked and shut off? Was it running? Was it in a garage? Was that garage metal or was it concrete? All of these questions could play a factor.
As mentioned previously, the last nuclear EMP test was in 1962 and the details released have been minimal. And while EMP simulations on automobiles have been done, they were poorly conducted.
The U.S. EMP Commission tested a number of cars and trucks. Although this was the most comprehensive set of tests on vehicles that have been done, those tests were very poorly done because the Commission was financially responsible for the vehicles, but did not have the funding to pay for any of the vehicles they tested. The vehicles were borrowed from other government agencies (most vehicles came from the Department of Defense), and the vehicles had to be returned to those lending agencies in good condition.
Those vehicles were tested up to the level that some sort of upset occurred, then further testing was stopped on that vehicle.
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So only the bare minimum amount of damage was done to the vehicles during the test. No worst case scenario … not even “typical” case scenario. That shouldn’t inspire confidence in anyone.
Keep in mind a few other things about this test. The newest vehicle to be tested at that time was a 2003 model. Vehicles have significantly changed since then.
Also, it is widely believed within the scientific community (though not proven) that several nations have the ability to produce EMP weapons AT LEAST 4 to 5 times greater strengths than the test limits of the simulator.
For those of you with a 1960’s model truck/car who think it won’t be affected because it doesn’t have the complex electric systems of today’s autos, not so fast! Scientists point out the fact that the Soviet EMP tests burned out many military grade diesel generators that did not have the solid-state electronics. In addition, newly unclassified reports state that some of the vehicles in Hawaii at the time of the Star Fish Prime test had their non-electronic ignition systems damaged by the EMP.
I’m not saying older model vehicles won’t work after an E1 pulse, rather that we cannot be 100% certain they will.
Even if the nuke EMP doesn’t kill the electronics in all vehicles, there still would be problems.
The first problem is the ability to obtain fuel. No electricity means no refineries and no pumps. And even if you stockpile fuel, in optimal conditions, gas won’t keep for more than 6 months, 1-year max. Then it degrades so much it becomes muck.
Next is the traffic problems caused by those cars that did die. Even if an E1 affected only 10% of vehicles, imagine that one out of every ten cars on the road right now suddenly stopped. The congestion crashes and chaos would be enormous.
A third problem is the fact that as vehicles die or run out of fuel, those remaining that are drivable suddenly increase in value exponentially. You now have something that a lot of other people want and need. Having the “only horse” in a “one horse town” kinda puts a target on your back.
As for your electronics, chances are a lot of them would be destroyed. But without any sort of actual tests, scientists do not know the full extent that the damage would cause. The more current simulations and some theories on this remain highly classified as I mentioned previously.
Could an EMP physically harm me?
I have a friend whose wife is a neurologist. I asked her about the effects an EMP would have on the human body. She explained that electricity is different when it comes to the human body. Neurons carry their signals chemically. They do not use currents like your appliances. She got very technical, which after a while made my head hurt. But basically, the E1 pulse could NOT directly hurt someone physically except in a very specific set of circumstances.
- For people that have pacemakers or other electronic devices in their body, there is a chance that the E1 COULD short-circuit it, resulting in a very bad day
As for the E3/CME:
- If you are in outer space, you could have a very bad day
- If you are standing EXTREMELY close to a power transformer or handling power grid lines, you could have a very bad day
- People at higher altitudes (like airplanes) could experience an increase of exposure to the suns ray’s…and that could lead to a sunburn
Scientists are beginning to study the correlation of solar storms to migraines and disrupted sleep cycles. But basically, if we were to experience an EMP/CME, the direct physical harm to our bodies would be negligible. You would have much BIGGER problems to worry about.
Before wrapping up, I wanted to bullet point some of the important facts from this article for easy reference:
- A Coronal Mass Ejection (solar) will NOT take out your vehicles. It won’t take out your electronics unless they are directly connected to the grid. It could effectively end your ability to recharge/power them, however. It would also take down our communication systems
- Depending on the severity, an EMP could take out the power grid for many years. Replacing it would be a long and daunting task
- We do not know the extent of the damage a nuclear EMP would cause. It has been over 50 years since the last actual tests, and most of the data and simulator tests remain classified.
- Scientists say that an EMP/CME would not directly physically affect 99.9% of people, but the after effects from an EMP would be tremendous
So what can you do to be prepared for this?
Well, that depends on a lot of different variables. There are really too many “what-ifs” to give you a step by step guide. Hence there are no clear-cut answers. We will look at some general things you can do to try and be prepared should we ever experience an EMP.
This CME/EMP issue is a very difficult one to pin down. Not only are a lot of tests still classified, there haven’t been a lot of tests. Luckily, the non-DoD government is starting to take notice – but just barely.
I know I’m jumping the gun here but I wanted to give you a takeaway on some things you can do now and what you should start looking into doing. There will be much more to come.
As you know, being prepared is what we’re all about. Knowing the facts of what can and can’t happen is the foundation of being prepared. The majority of what you should do to be prepared for a widespread CME or EMP attack is the same as pretty much everything else: store water and food for short periods of disaster and have a sustainable water and food supply for long hauls, learn how to protect yourself and your family/home, make friends with others in your area so you can work together, learn basic survival skills that can be transferred to any situation, and have good communications plan to make sure you can get back in touch with your family if normal communications go down.
There are some critical items that you might want to consider putting critical items such as a ham radio in Faraday bag things get really bad. In some cases, this will be very effective. In others, it won’t matter what you do. Just make sure that if you’re going to go through all the trouble of protecting your equipment that you do it right and use effective shielding – and do your homework on what effective shielding is.
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