An EMP (Electro Magnetic Pulse) is a devastating event that could cripple the entirety of the United States in a matter of minutes. But with movies and fiction muddying the waters with ridiculous presentations of how an EMP actually works, there are plenty of misconceptions about how one actually works. This guide is meant to be a very basic primer, put in simple terms, to help the layman understand how an EMP works and what you can do to be ready if one should strike.
First up, what is an EMP?
An electro magnetic pulse can be caused by multiple causes, ranging from a simple lightning strike to a purpose-built weapon designed to be launched high into the atmosphere. Although there are other causes of note (solar flares, for example) the threat posed by a single high altitude weapon will be the focus here for simplicity’s sake.
When one of these HEMP (High Altitude Electro Magnetic Pulse) Devices is detonated, it spreads gamma rays out against the magnetic field of the earth, which then transforms the burst of gamma rays into an EMP. This EMP then descends back to earth in an area within the line of site from the explosion. Essentially, if you could see the landmass from the high point in the sky where the missile detonated then it will be hit by the EMP.
As the pulse descends upon the earth, most of it will pass harmlessly through the ground, causing little damage. The part that hits antennas, power lines, and other conductive points, however, will transmit a massive pulse of energy. In the case of power lines, the pulse will then travel along the wires, blowing transformers, switching stations, and eventually entering your home via the connecting wires. Naturally, all of your electronics that are plugged in or that have an antenna of some kind will all be instantly destroyed as their chips and other vital components are utterly destroyed by the sheer amount of energy thrown at them. Computers, cell phones, landlines, cars, TVs, radios, pacemakers, stoplights, hospital life support equipment, drawbridges, and the remainder of our entire vast electrical grid will die in a single moment of electrical power. Airplanes would crash, bereft of the computers needed to keep them alot, and every highway would become a stalled mass of silent vehicles. The world of 2013 will descend back to the world of 1813.
To emphasize, what an EMP is not
With that scenario in mind, compare the EMP you read described there and compare it to what books and Hollywood might suggest. Let us look at a few things an EMP is not to ensure that there is no confusion.
- An EMP is not a temporary thing that shuts down electricity for a short period of time before they fire back up again. Movies like Ocean’s 11 pulled this stunt, insisting that they would have only a short window of time to rob a bank before the lights came back on. In reality, an EMP permanently destroys electrical components, and those components must be replaced with functional new ones.
- An EMP is not caused by fallout. Although nuclear weapons do cause EMP (and are often part of the design for a HEMP) fallout is not usually a concern with high altitude strikes. You cannot see what is destroying every single electrical component in your home, because it is invisible energy doing the damage. Indeed, some of that energy probably passed through you without your even noticing!
- An EMP is not stopped by breakers, surge protectors, battery backups or generators. Most of the technology that works to protect your electronics from a lightning strike or other surge is simply not suited to the damage caused by an EMP. You see, most of the low-level damage that a surge protector is made for takes several milliseconds to build up to a damaging point and the surge protector can cut it off once it detects the increase in energy on the line. An EMP is like a 40,000 candlepower light suddenly entering a dark room: one minute nothing, the next minute total washout. The surge protector won’t have time to cut off the electricity before the energy wipes out all of the electronics. Furthermore, automatic generators (like those in hospitals and nursing homes) are usually hardwired in so that they can take over without interrupting power for more than a second or two during a normal outage. Unfortunately, that means they’re connected to the grid and will be fried when an EMP hits even though they’re not yet active. This will leave these places without power instantly after the strike occurs.
- An EMP is not a world ender or even a technology ender, but it will seem that way to us. Simple machines will still work, and if you have spare parts somewhere that weren’t fried you could even repair a car or a computer and get it to run. The danger of an EMP isn’t that technology will be forever destroyed, but rather that we are in many ways dependent on the benefits provided by our electronic world and that we may not be able to survive until power is finally restored. I like to use a quote by a prepper I once saw in a video to describe the degree of damage caused by an EMP to someone who can care for himself: “If the world doesn’t end tomorrow, I’ll go outside, split some wood and feed my chickens. If the world does end tomorrow…I’ll do the same thing!” Because his well being was not bound up in needing a truck to deliver food on a highway, and water to be delivered via an electric pump, he was secure in knowing that his world would change but not end if an EMP occurred.
Actual results of an EMP attack
If an EMP did occur, then, what would actually happen?
- Firstly, anyone in an airplane is going to die, period. Without computers the pilots won’t even be able to try gliding in for a landing, so the planes will nosedive right into the ground.
- Secondly, highways will become giant roadblocks as every car stalls out and grinds to a halt. Small cars with worker bees on their way to/from the office, families going to the soccer game, and truckers delivering food, parts, and packages will all be trapped in an immobile sea of unmoving vehicles.
- When emergency personnel attempt to respond to the potential problems that will arise, they will find their radios disabled, their patrol cars and ambulances dead, and their command structure in shambles as people try to figure out what is going on.
- The biggest initial problem will be the utter breakdown in communication, as rumors fly and people used to being coddled by their TV 24/7 have to try figuring out what is going on. Mass hysteria, panic, and even anger could appear within hours or days at the latest, bringing mobs howling either towards notable authority structures (capitol buildings, courthouses, jails, even schools) to vent their frustration or out into the countryside to search for food and water.
- As time goes on, people dependent on medication will die, suffer withdrawal symptoms, or possibly go mad as their body attempts to suddenly handle the external stress and the internal damage the body is suffering. Nursing homes and hospitals will become plague houses, filled with the dying who are either freezing or boiling to death depending on the season.
- Riots will engulf cities as people begin looking for food as their meager supply runs out. Many people will suffer from food and water-borne illnesses as they consume rotted meats and tainted water sources, and human waste begins piling up.
And so on. It will be chaos of an unexpected sort. The same people who watched the Superbowl and had a beer at the local bar a week ago will be killing each other over the trash can full of rotting hot dogs in the dumpster out back. Police and soldiers lacking any communication or means of transport will be forced to just stay with their families and hunker down, unable to help without some kind of resources available. More than 75% of the American population will die horribly owing to a simple lack of electricity.
What do you do?
Preparing for an EMP really isn’t that different from preparing for any other disaster. Food and water aren’t effected by an EMP after all, and most preps emphasize working off the grid in any case. The main key to successful preparation with EMP is to always be ready. A hurricane or even a financial collapse can give you time for a last minute stockup, which a single, sudden pulse will not give you. You will go from standard modern world to the 17th century in about 5 minutes. You should keep food, water, and medications properly stocked and always refill them long before they get low. Ideally, you should protect a few extra communication devices like two-way radios in a Faraday cage that can protect electrical objects from an EMP strike. You also need the skills to purify water, prepare food, and keep yourself healthy without outside help or electricity. With those available to you, you will be much better off if/when an EMP strike does hit.
What do you think?
This is just a basic primer on EMP attacks, but do you have any additional knowledge to add? Let us know in the comments below.