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The Electromagnetic Pulse: What You Need to Know

In apocalyptically-themed television shows, books, and movies, many different scenarios to explain the collapse of society and the end of the world have been imagined. Some of the creators of these dark works of fiction have chosen to center their doomsday storytelling around something called an electromagnetic pulse, which causes its own particular brand of mayhem by destroying the power grid along with most of the electronic devices and systems upon which we have all become so dependent. Without electricity and with its computerized systems no longer able to function, the implosion of society becomes all but inevitable, and the chaos and destruction that follow are something straight out of our worst nightmares of Armageddon.

Except in this instance, the nightmares are very much based on reality. In fact, there are two different scenarios—one related to natural events, the other to intentional human action—under which an electromagnetic pulse could indeed bring modern society crashing to the ground, and both are considered likely to occur at some point by experts who study the question.

Given the fact that the electromagnetic pulse, or EMP, does present a real danger to all of humankind, it is incumbent upon all of us to learn as much as we can about the nature of this threat.

What is an EMP?—The Basics

The seven-minute-long artificial aurora created by the Starfish Prime high-altitude nuclear test explosion in course of Operation Dominic on July 9, 1962

An electromagnetic pulse is a massive atmospherically-conducted current of electricity that in certain circumstances would be capable of destroying every electrical power system, as well as every electric or electronic device or appliance, within range of its point of origin. The magnitude of the current involved, which is created by the interaction between masses of charged particles descending from above and our planet’s natural magnetic field, would be so significant that it would overwhelm any systems or circuits that draw or transmit electricity, literally blowing them out or frying them from the inside. EMPs originate in the upper atmosphere, and they can strike suddenly, silently, and without warning.

Nuclear EMPs

As many people may already be aware, one potential cause of an EMP is a nuclear explosion. In order for a nuclear bomb to create an EMP, however, it must be exploded in the earth’s atmosphere at a sufficient enough height for the gamma rays it emits to interact with the earth’s magnetic field. That’s why the bombs that were dropped directly on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, for example, did not produce this kind of effect. One interesting fact about nuclear-generated EMPs is that it does not take a particularly powerful atomic bomb to create them; in fact, small-to-medium sized nukes that use fissionable uranium are more efficient at producing EMPs than hydrogen bombs or other weapons with a high-megaton yield.

A 500-kiloton single-stage atomic bomb—a type of weapon that has been in existence since the 1950s—exploded 300 miles above the central United States could cause so much damage to our electric and electronic infrastructure that it would all but destroy the nation’s economy in an instant. Even a 100-kiloton bomb, if exploded at the right altitude in the right location, could cause the electrical grid to collapse completely through a chain reaction of systemic failure. The type of nuclear weapon we are talking about here is quite primitive, relatively speaking, and all the world’s nuclear powers, including Russia, China, North Korea, and Pakistan already possess or are capable of manufacturing simple weapons that would fall within the 100-500 kiloton range.

A sudden and unexpected nuclear attack, which could be carried out with surprising ease through a missile launch off the coast of the United States, would devastate power generation facilities, their communications and control systems, and power distribution equipment everywhere. The large transformers that support the power grid would be destroyed en masse, and because neither these transformers nor the parts that would be needed to repair them are manufactured in the U.S., replacing them in a short period of time would be all but impossible. While some of the vital information contained on computer hard drives would be salvageable, the cost of recovering it would be prohibitive, especially given the dire situation we would be facing in the wake of such a catastrophic occurrence. A large percentage of our automobiles, which now rely on complex electronic micro-circuitry to function, would stop working, and those living in colder climates would be left completely without heat—and with no place else to go to find it.

Stepping back and looking at the big picture, it is clear that we have now become so dependent on microelectronics and digital technology to assist us in meeting all of our basic needs that the collapse of society and the social order in the wake of a nuclear EMP attack would be inevitable—not to mention incredibly destructive and painful.

Solar Storms and EMPs

While many nations would be capable of unleashing a devastating EMP against their enemies through nuclear attack, at least there is some hope that sanity will prevail and this kind of event can be avoided. But unfortunately, EMP by nuclear attack is not the only threat we are facing. Nature is also capable of producing a powerful EMP, and the reason we use the word “unfortunately” here is because this type of pulse is not just a possibility, but an inevitability.

Solar storms associated with cyclical spikes in sunspot activity frequently result in an emission of a huge cloud of charged particles  from the surface of the sun, and when these clouds strike the earth’s magnetic field the result, just as with a nuclear explosion,  is the creation of an electric current that if large enough can cause serious destructive effects. The disturbing thing here is that once every 500 years on average the sun produces a solar storm so violent that the geomagnetic effects it causes would be strong enough to wipe out the electric grid in whatever part of the earth it should happen to strike. The only reason we have been protected from such an outcome so far is that alternating current was only discovered by Tesla a little over 100 years ago.

The last of these solar superstorms occurred in 1859, and while there was no electrical grid at the time, early telegraph systems had already been installed and operators reported extensive malfunctions and disruption in services. The primary effect of the gigantic charged particle emission associated with the 1859 geomagnetic storm was visual (as spectacular aurora borealis displays), and while usually confined to northern climes were seen all over the globe. But if this storm had taken place in the present time things would have been quite different—solar scientists agree that if this storm had happened in 2011, the result would have been a total breakdown in at least a part of our power grid.

There is one significant difference between the EMPs produced by the sun and those created by nuclear weapons blasts. Nuclear explosions actually cause three different types of electromagnetic pulses, each of which has different characteristics, while solar storms produce just one of these three varieties. The first type of electromagnetic pulse that follows immediately after a high-altitude nuclear detonation, usually referred to as E1, is a very rapid and high density pulse that is generated by the explosive force of the initial burst of charged particles, which are thrown out at a super high velocity and eventually collide and interact with the earth’s magnetic field. It is this process that produces the first massive electric current, and it is this powerful EMP that would be responsible for frying the micro-circuitry that we find inside of computers and other types of electronic devices and systems. The second burst of energy after a nuclear explosion, E2, is much less powerful than E1 and tends to only cause localized damage. Because solar storms do not produce E1 pulses in particular, such an event would not have the same effect on electronic devices and systems that an EMP generated by a nuclear attack would.

E3 is the type of pulse that nuclear and solar sources each produce. The sheer force of the charged particle collisions that precede E1 and E2 actually knocks the entire magnetic field of our planet out of its normal position, like a pool ball being struck by a cue ball. It then quickly snaps back into place again, but this oscillation causes the release of a long wavelength electric current that has a lifespan of up to several minutes. After either a solar storm or a nuclear attack, it is this kind of EMP that would overwhelm and ultimately destroy the electrical grid over a wide geographical area.

While there is no disputing the destructive impact the largest solar superstorm would have on the power grid, and consequently on society and the economy, it turns out that even a smaller storm could have profoundly negative effects. A few years ago, a study commissioned from the scientific research firm Metatech by multiple federal government agencies calculated the effects of a once in 100 year type of superstorm on the electrical grid, should the EMP generated by such a storm hit the earth’s atmosphere over North America. The study showed that a storm this size could cause the failure of enough large transformers to lead to a total or near total breakdown of the U.S. power grid, if its EMP impacted the magnetic field over the northern part of tour country. For your information, the last one-in-100 year solar storm occurred in 1921, which means that we are less than a decade away from the arrival of the next one, assuming the normal historical pattern holds.

Heeding the Warning

There are precautions that can be taken to protect both the power grid and electronic devices against electromagnetic pulses. In fact, just recently a company called Emprimus developed a new powerful shielding system that could be used to protect the largest transformers from damage caused by sudden surges of power, even those that would follow an EMP. Generally speaking, the knowledge of how to protect the grid from EMP-related damage exists, as do the technical means to make it happen; but not surprisingly, neither government nor the large utility companies has done much of anything to implement such protections, which of course cost money and do not offer any immediate return on investment. Estimates are that a severe solar geomagnetic event could cause up to $2 trillion dollars of damage, and that it could take from four to ten years for the country to recover completely (assuming that it could do so at all). It has also been estimated that installing the necessary equipment to protect against a solar EMP-related calamity would cost the average electricity consumer in the U.S. an extra 20 cents per year. And yet, nothing is done.

Electronic devices would require some kind of protective box or sleeve made from highly conductive metals like copper or aluminum in order to survive the vicious blast of a nuclear-based E1 current. The best way to protect computers or other kinds of precious electronics would be through the use of a Faraday cage, which offers full shielding from stray electric currents. Because of the effects that an EMP would have on television, radio, and the Internet, the best way to keep in contact with the outside world following a catastrophe of this sort would be with a shortwave radio, but this too would need to be kept inside a protective enclosure beforehand to be saved from the destructive effects of an E1 pulse.

The Price of Dependency

We have become so dependent on electricity and electronics for our very survival that society would no longer be able to withstand any disaster that took it off-line and off-the-grid. Those who have already unplugged and are living a self-sufficient lifestyle could be adequately prepared for the effects of a solar-based EMP, as long as they were relying on alternative energy to provide all their power needs. Off-the-gridders who want to be prepared for all contingencies, however, would be wise to begin investigating the protective technologies that currently exist to help shield electronic devices and home wiring systems from the effects of E1 pulses, which would present a threat to everyone if a nuclear attack should ever occur.

We do not know exactly when and where it will come; or if it will come because of something that happens on the surface of the sun, or because of actions taken by rogue nations and reckless leaders. But the one thing we know for sure is that an electromagnetic pulse is coming, and if we are caught unaware and unprepared, in the end we will have no one to blame but ourselves.

©2011 Off the Grid News

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