Imagine, if you can, a world without electricity. I’m not talking about the typical summertime brownout or power outage lasting several hours or a day or two, but the absence of any electrical power or any of the electric gadgets we have become accustomed to in modern society for months or even a year or more. As I will explain, the effects of such an interruption would be nothing short of catastrophic. This is not some sci-fi fantasy horror show, but a clear and present danger in our time; the result of an EMP attack on the United States. Let’s go deeper.
What is the EMP? Those of you without a background in theoretical physics or nuclear engineering may never have heard of the EMP, or “ElectroMagnetic Pulse”. However, a surprise EMP attack has emerged as the most likely initial threat to our survival capable of being initiated by a nuclear capable adversary. The facts are alarming, and should be understood by every survival conscious American and prepper. Current nuclear threat assessment planners and strategists no longer consider a 1960’s style massive nuclear bomb attack very likely1. The near certainty of massive counterattack with “mutually assured destruction” would provide no tactical advantage to the attacker. Besides, with global satellite surveillance and human intelligence capabilities, mobilization of key governmental leaders, populations, and military assets in preparation for the inevitable counterattack would almost certainly be detected long before the actual attack was begun.
On the other hand, a devastating EMP attack requires only a single nuclear device or weapon of sufficient size launched from a missile on a ship in international waters detonated at an altitude of 25-30 miles over the continental United States. Such a nuclear explosion would not be seen or felt on the surface and would not injure humans or animals in any way, yet be entirely capable of destroying most computers, printed circuits, microprocessors, the entire U.S. electric grid, and anything attached to it in a microsecond, instantly thrusting our society into the 19th century “horse and buggy” period; with no horse and buggy. Keep in mind that at that time, our society and technology only supported 30-40 million people; that’s only 10% of the number we have now. How is this possible?
The electromagnetic pulse is produced when gamma rays generated by a nuclear detonation collide with air molecules in the stratosphere 25-30 miles overhead, due to something called the “Compton effect”2. Natural phenomena such as a large coronal discharge or “solar flare” can produce similar effects. The resulting interaction with the stratosphere produces a 3-phase electromagnetic energy burst that destroys electronic devices and is conducted along electrical wires and circuits that act as antennas3.
The first wave occurs in a microsecond and resembles an intense static electric discharge. The second wave is propagated over milliseconds and resembles a lightning strike. The first phase arrives so rapidly and is so intense that it damages typical lightning arresting equipment, allowing the second phase discharge to produce its damage. The third wave produces a strong magnetic power surge lasting up to a second, and is particularly destructive to long line transmission equipment and electric substations. The resulting damage to the power grid and its electrical transformers may take a year or more to repair.
What would result? Almost every facet of modern life would be affected, with effects far more devastating than nuclear bomb explosions over population centers. An EMP attack represents the most “bang for the buck” of any current nuclear attack strategy. Without electricity there would be no lights, climate control of heating and air conditioning in homes or buildings, pressurized water delivery, or flush toilets. Microprocessors in automobiles and airplanes, air traffic control systems, personal computers, communications, banking and commerce would cease. Fuel could not be pumped into trucks and trains to deliver food, medication, and essential supplies. There would be no medicine, ICU’s, or power for life-saving medical devices. Refrigeration to prevent food spoilage would be impossible. The net result? Planners and strategists predict that 70-80% of the U.S. population would perish within 90 days from starvation, disease, and domestic unrest. No atomic bomb could accomplish that, and the threat of EMP disruption is real.
The amount of nuclear sophistication and technology necessary to create a one megaton nuclear warhead and a missile delivery system to deliver and detonate it in the stratosphere 30 miles up is relatively small and within the reach of many smaller nuclear capable nations. In the example cited above, a warhead tipped missile launched from a freighter at sea could easily do it. The freighter would then be sunk making it next to impossible to determine who did it. This technology is already possessed by North Korea, Pakistan, and others. In July of 2008, Iran launched a shipboard missile with a conventional warhead and detonated it 40 miles above sea level4. There can be no other explanation for such a test other than planning for an EMP attack against an adversary, likely the United States or Israel. Our enemies are keenly aware of our vulnerabilities. We must be also, and take appropriate action for survival.
Protection from EMP attacks and the resulting societal collapse is central to the prepper mindset, and requires knowledge of the threat and appropriate preparation to improve one’s chances of survival. EMP hardened off-grid electrical power is a must. Robust residential solar systems with DC power inverters, storage batteries, and backup diesel, propane, or natural gas generators have become mainstream and often come with significant state or Federal tax credits. Commercially drilled deep water wells and submersible pumps with backup hand pumps coupled to these off-grid power systems will ensure an independent supply of electrical power and life-giving water. Sensitive personal electrical devices and spare parts for EMP resistant vehicles can be protected by placing them in a Faraday cage. Commercial EMP resistant containers and pouches are available, and a simple Faraday cage may be created from a simple metal trash can with a tight-fitting lid sealed with metallic tape to eliminate air gaps5. Freeze dried foods are available from commercial sources, do not require refrigeration, and can allow prolonged survival if and when the lights go out.
In the opinion of this observer, national preparation for EMP events and hardening has been woefully inadequate. There needs to be much greater emphasis placed on protection from EMP by governmental and civil defense authorities to protect our society and facilitate rebuilding of critical infrastructure. In the meantime, it is up to individual citizens to become aware of the threat, and take proactive steps for self-protection and survival. But that’s what “preppers” do; isn’t it?
- McCarthy, Walton W. Principles of Protection; U.S Handbook of NBC Weapon Fundamentals and Shelter Engineering Design Standards. Chapter 9, Warnings and shelter periods. 2013, Brown Books Publishing Group
- Chapter 3, Immediate effects of nuclear detonations.
- Federation of American Scientists, Nuclear Weapons EMP Effects, CRS report for Congress, High Altitude EMP and High-Power Microwave Devices. Threat Assessment https://fas.org/sgp/crs/natsec/RL32544.pdf
- McCarthy, Walton W. Principles of Protection; U.S Handbook of NBC Weapon Fundamentals and Shelter Engineering Design Standards. Chapter 2, Threats. 2013, Brown Books Publishing Group
- Hunt, Scott. The Practical Preppers Complete Guide to Disaster Preparedness. Chapter 3, Shelter; Should I stay or should I go? 2014, Martin’s Press, New York.