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What you NEED to know about EMPs

When it comes to possible serious SHTF (Sh*t Hit The Fan) or TEOTWAWKI (The End Of The World As We Know It) events, the one that seems to be most “popular” with preppers is a EMP (Electro Magnetic Pulse) attack. Many popular “prepper fiction” books, such as One Second After, have been written based upon an EMP attack on America. (It’s a good read.) There are plenty of articles and books out there telling you how to prepare for them. So I’m not going to try to rehash them here.

Instead, I thought I’d take a look at what EMPs are, what we know (and don’t know) about them, how difficult it would be to recover from one, and how much of a threat they pose to us.

What is an EMP?

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 types of EMPs, called pulses, which we will cover in a just a second. There are three things that we know cause EMPs: a bolt of lightning, a nuclear explosion (or EMP type weapon), and solar storms or CMEs.

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 35 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.

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.

As I mentioned earlier, there are three types of EMP “surges” or pulses. E1, E2, and E3. I won’t go into a lot of detail on these types of pulses here, but it breaks down like this, according to the International Electrotechnical Commission (IEC):

  1. 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 weapon.
  2. An E2 is a bit slower than an E1. A bolt of lightning has the characteristics of an E2. Because of this, E2s 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.
  3. 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.)

Basically, it is the E1 pulse that will wipe out many electronic devices etc, while the E3 pulse would take down the power grid. But let’s take a closer look at E1 pulses and at some of the myths/unknowns that are springing up about them.

Effects from EMP’s E1 pulse that still are not fully known

The true effects of an E1 pulse is not fully known to the general public. I know many preppers think that newer cars, planes, etc, would no longer function. That computers, TVs, cell phones, etc would cease to work. And in many cases they would no longer function. But to what full extent is not known…at least not to folks like you and me.

At issue is that there have not been any nuclear EMP tests in over 55 years. The last nuclear EMP test was in 1962, being the Soviet test 184. A LOT has changed since then. 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. Much of that data, and the resulting computer simulations and THEORIES are highly classified. The data hasn’t been released to the general public.

Cars

Take, for example, automobiles. This is something I see so many preppers put so much time and effort into…having a BOV (Bug Out Vehicle) that will survive an EMP. Unfortunately, the data we currently have available on automobiles and EMPs is not very well known…the best we can do is take an educated guess. Why just a guess? Because there are simply too many variables and unknowns to know with certainty how an EMP E1 pulse will affect vehicles.

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? Or was it running? Was it in a garage? Was that garage metal or was it concrete? All of these questions could play a factor. And those questions are just scratching the surface!

As mentioned before, 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 has 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.

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.

For those of you with a 1960’s or 1970’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 to 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. For that matter, we don’t fully know how much current vehicles might be effected! Regardless, if a large EMP were to hit the US, gasoline would quickly become a thing of the past. Fuel refineries and distribution would come to a complete halt. No gasoline = no running vehicles.

Airplanes

We are not sure if airplanes would be able to stay in the air after an E1 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.)

Cell phones

Due to the small size of electronics like cell phones, there is much scientific debate was to whether an E1 pulse would destroy them. Many cell phones could possibly be unaffected E1 pulse, depending upon factors such as its location from the pulse, etc. However, an EMP would most certainly take down the power grid and telecommunications. So even if your cell phone survives, you won’t be making any calls or surfing the internet with it.

Keep in mind that CMEs will NOT directly affect these items. They won’t stop cars from running or destroy small electronics. But CMEs WILL take down the power grid!

Recovery from an EMP

Depending upon the size of the area affected by an EMP (or CME), recovery could take YEARS! This is because of the complex nature of our electrical grid.

The US power grid has about 2100 electrical transformers, with about 370 (rough estimate) of those as high voltage (HV) transformers. Until about about two or three years ago, no company in the US made these transformers. Today there are just two. Building just one could take weeks. (Assuming they even have power.) Replacing one could easily take a month or more. HV transformers would take even longer.

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 upon 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 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.

And yet another problem:

The instantaneous shutdown of the power grid would occur primarily because of the widespread use of solid-state SCADAs (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 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 from an E3 pulse. 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. The death toll from this, as you can imagine, would be catastrophic.

Threats of an EMP

A full blown EMP attack on the United States would be devastating. The ability to mass produce and distribute food and clean water would no longer be possible. The same goes for things like medical supplies and fuel. According to the EMP Commission, up to 90% of the population in the US would die within the first 12 to 24 months should the US be hit with a large enough EMP attack. This would be due to things like the lack of clean water (and the ensuing problems from), starvation, illness, etc.

This would be a TEOTWAWKI event!

However, there are so many factors that go into creating an EMP large enough to wipe out a large part of the country. It would require a nuclear detonation on the scale of AT LEAST a few megatons. It would also require a rocket that is large enough to carry that size payload. (Several tons). The rocket would also need to be highly accurate enough to get this payload to just the right spot.

The Earth’s ionosphere changes and fluctuates all the time. So the point of aim of the rocket and subsequent detonation would have to calculate things like local magnetic field strength, the geographic latitude of the explosion, etc. If the rocket is too low, the EMP would not have near the effect. Too high and you won’t hit the ionosphere to cause an EMP.

Currently, there are 9 countries that have EMP capabilities: the US, Russia, China, England, France, Pakistan, India, North Korea, and Israel. (Although Israel maintains deliberate ambiguity on their nuclear weapons, it is STRONGLY believed that they do maintain a nuclear arsenal of some capacity.) These 9 countries possess nuclear weapons and are therefore capable of some form of an EMP attack.

And yet to launch such an attack would automatically ensure a response that would wipe the attacking country off of the face of the planet. So a potential adversary like China or Russia would still face a M.A.D (Mutually Assured Destruction) scenario. In addition, while some countries like North Korea have nuclear capabilities, they do not have warheads in the megaton scale needed to trigger an EMP that could hit the majority of the US. Nor do they have the technology or capability needed for an intercontinental ballistic missile needed to reach the US mainland. The missiles being tested by North Korea have nowhere near this capability. (Unfortunately, that could change in the next few years.)

In all probability, a rogue nation or terrorist group being able to attack the US with a nuclear EMP is highly unlikely. I’m not saying that it could not happen, just that the likelihood is VERY remote…at least for the next couple of years.

Other Possibilities

I would be far more concerned with a cyber attack targeting and crippling our infrastructure and/or power grid. These types of attacks have happened before, and America is as ill-prepared for these types of attacks as they are an EMP attack.

Cyberattacks are something that rogue nations and terrorists groups could have current access to. We witnessed this back in 2014, when North Korea hacked the company Sony because of the release of the film “The Interview.”

If the Earth were Neo in July of 2012…

CMEs are also a much more likely scenario. They have happened before, like the 1859 Carrington event or the 1989 CME that hit Quebec Canada. They will happen again. It’s simply a matter of when.

In July of 2012, a HUGE CME missed the Earth by about 9 days. (On a galactic scale, this near miss was “by a whisker”!) Scientists believe that had the CME hit the Earth, recovery could have taken up to a decade! The costs of recovery would have been AT LEAST 20 times that of the cost of Hurricane Katrina!

Down below I have a video going into some detail about CMEs and the near miss of 2012.

Direct physical dangers of an EMP/CME

Because neurons in the body carry their electric signals chemically and not in electrical currents like an appliance, an EMP or CME will NOT directly hurt you except for these very specific, very rare circumstances.

An E1 pulse could potentially affect people with pacemakers. That’s about it for an E1 pulse. As for a CME/E3 pulse, you could be adversely effected if you are:

  •  in outer space
  • standing EXTREMELY close to a power transformer or handling power grid lines at the moment it hits
  • at higher altitudes (like airplanes or standing on the top of Mt. Everest) you could experience an increase of exposure to the Suns ray’s…and that could lead to a sun burn

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Final Thoughts

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As I mentioned above, the likelihood of an EMP attack is pretty remote. But other “EMP-like” events such as a CME or cyber attacks are a more realistic possibility. Taking steps to be prepared for them is a wise decision.

Preparing for an EMP/CME could take an entire article in and of itself, though really if you are becoming self-sufficient and preparing for serious SHTF events, you are already heading in the right direction. EMP Attacks and Solar Storms (see pic to left} is a great book by Dr. Arthur T Bradley that talks specifically about preparing for a EMP/CME event. I own the book and can certainly recommend it.

I also mentioned the book One Second After by William R. Forstchen. It is a fictional account of an EMP attack on the United States. I have read it and really enjoyed.

Stay safe out there!

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