Those of us who frequent this web site, the prepper community, prepare for a host of potential crises that may befall our nation. Some are more likely than others, but most share a common background when it comes to being prepared for them. The event of an EMP strike, however, requires some very specific knowledge and safeguards. This is a serious enough issue that a study was commissioned by congress several years ago, which found that the threat was real and that we were woefully unprepared. This essay will provide a brief description of the event itself with some supporting history, discuss the likelihood of such an event occurring, and finally go over the potential impact of an EMP strike with recommendations for preparations.
What is an EMP?
EMP stands for Electro Magnetic Pulse, a powerful burst of electromagnetic radiation that interacts with the Earth’s atmosphere and creates a wave of electrons that travel outward at the speed of light. This “pulse” lasts only milliseconds, but the magnetic field that it produces creates a powerful electric current in conductive material through the Faraday principle. There are actually three components to an EMP, but only the first, called the E1 wave, is considered a threat. (The E2 mimics disruption by lightning and is comparatively easy to shield against, and the E3 phase is similar to a solar flare but would typically not reach the ground in a high altitude burst.)
This type of energy occurs naturally in the form of solar flares, but can also be man-made in the form of a nuclear burst. While a solar event is possible, and strong examples have occurred in the past, it is typically much weaker than a weapon-based pulse, which will be the focus of this article. EMP energy travels in line-of-sight, so ground bursts actually have much more localized effects. The most damaging type of strike for EMP production occurs at altitudes of 40-400km above the surface of the Earth, where line of sight extends for thousands of square miles. At altitudes such as these there is no blast damage, fallout, or even dangerous radiation. Certainly these are the immediate and disastrous effects of a detonation near the ground, along with the now universally known mushroom cloud. Why, then, with this kind of damage potential, would someone choose to exploit the EMP effects of a nuclear blast rather than the direct destruction? Read on…
EMP- The early years:
EMP was discovered by accident to be the byproduct of a nuclear explosion. In early tests, recording instruments located miles from the blast were destroyed by energy that traveled through cables and power lines, and in some significant early tests there was a demonstrable “practical application” component for EMP production and use. Many people are familiar with the two historical examples of nuclear tests that resulted in measurable damage from an EMP. The first is the 1962 American hydrogen bomb known as Starfish Prime, detonated 400km above the Pacific Ocean, and estimated at 1.4 megatons in yield. The effects of the EMP component couldn’t be accurately measured since many of the instruments maxed out their readings, but the effects were felt 900 miles away in Hawaii. 300 streetlights were knocked out along with the phone exchange and many alarm systems. It also crippled 1/3 of the satellites then in orbit, including some early communications models. If this doesn’t sound severe, remember several key things about this test:
The second test of note was a Soviet air burst in a series known as test 184. It was “only” a 300 kiloton burst, but it took place over sparsely populated Kazakhstan. The EMP from this blast caused a massive voltage surge in an underground power line, started a fire in the power station and burned up several generators that were not even connected to the grid. (Presumably due to the lengthy copper winding present in generators that would mimic a long power cable as far as current induction.)
Bear in mind that neither of these tests were tailored to generate EMP, and note the difference in the size of the warheads. As further research revealed, the size of the yield is not proportional to the EMP energy released. Smaller warheads are in some cases more lethal in this regard than the big ones, and weapons have since been engineered to maximize EMP production.
So, what’s the point?
The intent of the history above is to demonstrate that the EMP generated by a nuclear device is not just theory, and that it acts as a force multiplier. During the cold war we had thousands of nukes designed to literally destroy an enemy’s ability to wage war. If they had been employed, we could have leveled nations and left nothing but a smoking ruin. Now, with the SALT treaties and efforts to limit nuclear proliferation, only a select few nations have nuclear weapons and with few exceptions, none have more than a handful. Compared to the still-impressive might of the American nuclear arsenal, small players such as North Korea, Iran, or even well funded terrorist cells might only be able build, buy or steal a small number of weapons. Two or three would probably be the most they could field. (Make no mistake, there are weapons available; by most accounts there are over 100 missing Soviet weapons, many of them the small “suitcase” variety of tactical nukes.) With ground bursts they could clearly decimate our largest cities, kill hundreds of thousands and cause trillions of dollars in damage. But, if they were to employ even small nuclear weapons in a high altitude burst, three bombs could literally cover most of North America with an EMP burst. With a design intent similar to the neutron bomb, there would be little to no physical damage done by the actual nuclear blast. In fact, from a high enough altitude there wouldn’t even be a sound, just a bright flash if you happened to be looking in the right direction. The damage they are capable of makes ground burst weapons and dirty bombs seem like an almost welcome alternative.
Okay, it sounds bad, but it’s not like this would ever happen…
The reality is that during the cold war, no one fired off a weapon because it would have been immediately apparent who was responsible (through missile launch tracking), and the retribution that America and her allies would have delivered was too awful to consider. We knew who the bad guys were, but more importantly they knew that we knew and it kept everyone honest. Even if they had destroyed Washington and all of our land based missiles, we would have had enough warning to alert our airborne SAC bombers and the Navy’s ballistic missile subs, which would have delivered more than enough counterstrike to make the whole thing an exercise in futility. The old policy of mutually assured destruction really did have merit and it kept an uneasy peace, but the world today is completely different. We now face an enemy who is difficult to put a face on, impossible to identify, and hates us for no other reason that the fact that we are a nation of free infidels. Muslim terrorists are unlike anyone else we have fought, and our nuclear deterrent is from their point of view no deterrent at all:
It goes without saying that most of the world’s Muslims have no interest in this, but those that do are sometimes well funded through oil-rich state sponsors. As mentioned above, there are many unaccounted for weapons from the old Soviet Bloc. Several countries were left with nuclear weapons when the Bloc broke up, including Armenia, Kazakhstan, Belarus and Ukraine. Many of them are poorly inventoried and protected, meaning that if they were stolen there is some doubt that the theft would even be noticed or reported. There is also a strong possibility that they could be sold by cash-poor nations or even individuals to unscrupulous customers. State run nuclear programs are also not above suspicion; China, Pakistan and North Korea all have weapons that could find their way into the wrong hands. In the event of a ground burst detonation, it would take some time to analyze the residue and try to determine the origin of the bomb. In the event of an air burst EMP strike we may never be able to determine who was responsible. As we will shortly see, this type of attack has far-reaching consequences that would be far more disastrous than even a detonation in one of our largest cities.
The delivery method of such an attack is not nearly as complicated as you might think. Ballistic missiles are expensive, complex and highly technical, as is evidenced by the failures of North Korea to build and launch one in the past few years. The delivery system for an EMP strike does not need to be nearly so precise. In fact, it might be the simplest part of the entire thing; certainly much less so that building or acquiring a nuclear weapon. As we will see when we begin discussing the effects of the pulse, the EMP is not a surgical strike. In fact, it could conceivably be hundreds of miles off course when detonated and still cause massive levels of damage. If multiple weapons were used to provide overlap, accuracy becomes even less important. Here are some of the potential methods for lofting a weapon to the appropriate altitude for a successful strike. For maximum results a high altitude of 40-400km is ideal, but even a burst at lower altitude will cause damage for hundreds of square miles. If an attack were to include the Eastern seaboard of the US, or the Pacific coast, tens of millions of people would be affected.
If the methods above seem a little odd, remember that we are dealing with a “simple” nuclear device. It does not require a complex targeting system, a military aircraft, or any type of specialized delivery system. Iranian Shahab-3 missiles, purchased from North Korea, and others in development might be candidates. Also, North Korea just last month put their first satellite into space and Iran has similar ambitions. While these two options are reserved for nations with substantial funding, balloon delivery and chartered jet are within the range of virtually any group. This may seem farfetched, but the weapons and the delivery systems already exist, and there are plenty of groups who would be happy to employ them. This is not science fiction, and is well within the realm of possibility.
So what happens when it goes off?
The impact of an EMP strike on modern society is open to a great deal of conjecture. The last tests, mentioned previously, were in 1962 and the technology of today is vastly different. Broken down simply, an EMP has the potential to affect the following:
There are many subsets of the four categories above, which will be examined below, and it is important to remember that they are all interrelated. For example: Your power has gone down due to an EMP strike and you need replacement parts to get it up and running. The problem is that you need power to manufacture replacement components, a method for conveying what exactly you need, and the transportation to bring the components to your plant. As a more local example, with no communication you can’t call and report a fire, the water pressure at the hydrant isn’t maintained because the pumping station has no power, and the fire trucks may not be functional anyway. A blow to any of the four will adversely affect the other two.
The E1 component of an EMP is a powerful magnetic wave, and it creates a massive voltage spike in metal components. The energy is measured in volts per foot, so longer the metal, the more power is generated. This means that long high-tension transmission lines could generate huge amounts of power, which would blow transformers and cause severe damage to power generation plants. Let’s break down each of the above three broad categories and see how they would impact life in these United States.
Right now when the power goes out it’s annoying, and we sit and fume for the few hours it takes to replace a downed line or transformer knowing that American Idol is coming on. An EMP has the potential to knock out virtually all of the power plants and transformers within line of sight from the blast. (Remember, from an altitude of 40-400km, or up to 250 miles, “line of sight” only ends at the curvature of the earth. An airliner only flied at 6-7 miles high, so imagine the vast area that line of sight covers from that vantage point). There is evidence to suggest that the E1 pulse, which travels at or near the speed of light, would not be stopped by most surge protectors, meaning that much of the standard lighting protection equipment would offer no shielding. Imagine the casualties in the immediate aftermath. Hospital life support systems would shut down; even those with underground generators that might avoid destruction only have a fuel supply sufficient for a few days. During the colder months people may freeze to death without heat in as little as a few days. Food rapidly spoils. Gas stations can’t pump gas even if the vehicles are operational. All of the automatic monitoring and management of utilities, gas and oil pipelines, infrastructure down to the traffic lights. Telephone exchanges and standard radios are useless, as is anything that you plug into a wall. What could be worse than having all the power out in an instant… and not being able to find out what happened. No internet, no cell service, no phones. The water treatment plant is shut down and your toilets may back up. Depending on where you live, you may immediately lose water pressure when the pumps go down. As mentioned, there is no firefighting capability and fires which would have been easily contained now rage out of control. Instead of one townhouse with a small fire, the entire row burns to the ground, or the entire apartment building, high-rise, etc.
Many of us don’t appreciate our modern communication network, which is heavily satellite based. While an EMP wouldn’t take out satellites beyond the curvature of the Earth, those within line of sight are at risk. Also knocked down would be cell towers, relay stations, computers and servers, etc. There is some debate over whether or not small transistor devices such as two way radios would survive, but even they would provide a very limited range for communication. Some military hardware is hardened against EMP, but only a small percentage of it. With no comm systems intact you cannot call for help, check on your family, organize relief efforts, or even find out how extensive the damage is. The pony express may make a sudden resurgence in popularity. Satellite damage will also preclude the use of GPS systems and national defense, and with the damage to the power grid and transportation systems it will not be easily repaired.
The effect of an EMP on our national transportation system is up for some debate; it could range from severe impact to negligible damage and there is no easy way to test the theories. Since this is a forum for preparedness and survival, we will examine a worst case scenario. Aircraft are one of the biggest unknowns in an EMP; they are designed to absorb lightning damage but as mentioned above, the E1 pulse is faster than lightning and may “leap over” the standard safeguards. If this is the case, then aircraft would literally fall from the sky. Modern jets do not glide well at all, and most require computers for operation. The loss of life would be heavy, not just from passengers being killed but from the aircraft on approach and departure crashing in populated areas and the fires that would result. Remember the comment above about lack of firefighting ability? Even a single airliner going down could burn massive areas of a city. Trains would likely cease to function as well, since most of the controls are computerized and in some cases they are powered by electricity from an external source. Trains carrying hazardous waste that are unable to stop in time or divert to side tracks could be catastrophic. Cars and trucks are the biggest question mark in this equation. While most cars produced since the late 1980’s are computer controlled, the electronics are fairly robust. It is possible that they may experience a brief problem or not function as well, but many may keep driving even if in a limited capacity. Older models and carbureted vehicles would probably fare much better. Generally the simpler the ignition system, the less likely the vehicle would be incapacitated by an EMP. Many motorcycles, ATVs, riding mowers, etc would likely continue to function. The good news is that even in modern cars the computers are simple and may retain some functionality. Vehicles parked underground in concrete parking structures may be shielded from a pulse and continue to function. In the final section, we will mention a few steps that might keep your car running.
Virtually everything electronic today has some form of microprocessor control. Obviously if the power is down then this is a moot point, but what about the large number of battery powered devices that rely on these controls? The short answer is that no one is sure what will happen. Think for a moment about the devices that you may be relying on as part of your preparations that could cease to function:
So what are we supposed to do?
With all of the above in mind, how do you prepare for an event that creates an EMP? There is not much that you can do to preserve the integrity of your local power grid and communications systems, but you can prepare some obvious backups. The problem then is how do you shield your power supply, communications, transportation and microprocessors from the pulse when it happens? What are the first steps you should take to stay ahead of the curve and secure your family? We will break down your areas of concentration into several categories and dig a little deeper into each one. The good news, if there is any, is that an EMP is an instant event and you don’t have to worry about overreacting or convincing your family that there is a problem. In fact, you will have several critical hours, (maybe even days), where the rest of the neighborhood/town/city is trying to figure out what the hell just happened. (That said, there may be a small benefit to waiting for a brief time before repairing things. Earlier we talked about the potential for several weapons to be employed and an overlap of affected areas; if another weapon is detonated 15 minutes after the first and you have just fixed your car or taken your secured items out, it will require another fix or potentially ruin your sensitive items.) Remember, there are no phones, no TV, no internet and most of the population in classic fashion will be sitting on the front porch cursing at the government and wondering when someone is going to come out and fix this for them. In this case more than most, forewarned is forearmed, and reacting just a little quicker than the population at large can make the difference between life and death. The primary focuses are going to be the same that we talked above previously; power, communication, transportation, and some concern for microprocessors, with the addition of these:
Let’s go through the list and see what we can do to mitigate the effects of an EMP event both before and immediately afterward.
If you have a bike, you have EMP proof transportation. Unfortunately you won’t have an advantage over everyone else with a bike. If you have access to a motorcycle, ATV, or older carbureted truck, it will probably keep on running or at the most require a new ignition box. If you have a new vehicle, try the following before abandoning it: First, examine the fuse box and replace any that may have been blown. (It is not a bad idea anyway to carry extra fuses and relays with you. For EMP protection, wrap them in a paper towel and then in foil.) Before you replace them, disconnect the power cable from the battery and leave it off while you work with the fuses. Most automotive computers have a “reset” function where removing the power supply for a few minutes will cause a re-boot when you energize it again. If the computer or key sensors have been destroyed by the pulse this will not help, but most systems are also designed with the ability to operate to a limited degree without full capability. This is why bad sensors may cause a dash light to illuminate, gas mileage to decline or the emissions test to fail but won’t actually cause the car to stop running. Once the fuses and relays have been replaced connect the battery and try to start the vehicle. If it runs, great! If not, grab your GHOB and anything useful in the vehicle and start walking home. As a side note, security will rapidly become a problem so if it is legal for your to carry a weapon in your car, this is a compelling reason to do so. It may be a long walk home.
This is the time to fill all of the bathtubs and every other container that you own with water. The generators at the pumping stations and treatment plant may or may not work; you may only get whatever water is currently in the pipes and can be drained by gravity. Don’t trust the quality of it either, treat and filter like you would water from any suspect source. For filtration, a gravity-fed unit like a Berkey is preferable to something requiring a lot of manual labor or electricity. Make sure you have this prior to the event, since you won’t be placing any online orders for the time being. Take your water very seriously; simple infections can be deadly with no medical care, and many people will drink from the faucet out of habit not realizing that the treatment plant many not be functioning.
We all know that grocery stores only have a few days supply of food on the shelves, so with the power out and transportation crippled it won’t last long. If you are prepared, you can capitalize on the slow reaction of the rest of the population to fill in any gaps in your supplies. Take whatever transportation you have and get to the grocery store, now. I’m talking about minutes after it happens. Bring your credit cards and cash, and if possible go to a smaller store rather than a big chain. Even though the power is out, smaller stores often still have manual credit card devices that create an imprint of the card. I am not suggesting that you defraud anyone, and when the power comes back on (eventually) you will absolutely be responsible for any charges. It certainly beats the hell out of starving to death though, so stock up on canned goods, bottled water, first aid supplies and non-perishables. If the store doesn’t have a manual credit card machine use whatever cash you have on hand, but you probably won’t be bartering with gold and silver at this point. No one will be all that worried at first and assume it is just a large power outage, so when you try to pay in old dimes don’t expect them to go for it. Go to as many stores as possible and stock up; with manual machines in use you won’t hit any credit limit. Crank up your old Jeep, find a trailer, and go shopping before the barbarian hordes arrive. When you get home, use up all of your refrigerated items quickly. Cook your refrigerated meat over charcoal to save your propane for heating and boiling water later. Thaw your frozen meat and salt and dry it, and plant your garden now. Don’t wait; your supplies won’t last forever. If you live in an area with game and fish, start shooting deer and spend time fishing, preserving the meat by drying and salting. Once reality sets in, there won’t be a deer to be found.
Virtually everything now is controlled by some sort of circuit board or microprocessor, which may be at some risk from EMP damage. Protecting them is easy; it just requires some forethought on your part. The best way is to place them in a Faraday cage, which channels the electric current around a metal enclosure and shields whatever is inside as long as it is not touching the metal. The best example is a microwave oven. It is designed to contain radio waves, and you can usually see the metal mesh in the door. A gun safe also works, as long as there is no metal contacting the objects inside. Any metal enclosure will work, even mesh as long as the holes are small. You can build them yourself use existing metal cabinets, etc. Store anything in it that you want to survive an EMP pulse. Medical monitors, LED flashlights and weapon lights, holographic and laser sights, two way radios, small AM/FM radios, etc. Remember that GPS will be useless if satellites are down and so will cell phones since the towers will be knocked out. If you have a laptop with critical documents on it try to keep printed copies on hand since you probably won’t be able to access them later. (You might even consider printing out articles like this from this web site and keeping them in a binder, along with your food storage details and supply lists.) A steel storage building may also provide some protection, so if your ATV, old car, generator, etc are inside they may fare well and not require any repair. Home standby generators are generally located inside a steel enclosure, but are connected through a transfer switch to the home; there is no clear evidence one way or the other to suggest whether or not they would survive a strike.
It is safe to assume that the days following an EMP strike will be filled with examples of society at its worst. People on life support or even those that use pacemakers will be first wave of the dead, along with those killed in fires and accidents. A progression of disease, injury, starvation, dehydration and predation will kill many more. It will begin with simple looting, robbery and rape as criminals realize that no one can call for help and the police are overwhelmed and can’t respond. As the days pass and they realize that there is no food, expect gangs to form and scour the area for resources. Expect authorities to attempt to confiscate fuel, weapons, and food; resist if possible and with deadly force if needed. Prescription medication will be unavailable, painkillers will be stolen almost immediately and refrigerated drugs like insulin will spoil. Suicides will increase exponentially as will violence as hundreds of thousands on anti-depressants and anti-psychotics run out of their meds. Prisons will likely be emptied of all but the worst offenders since the guards will leave and food will quickly run out. Lack of basic necessities makes for desperate people, and desperate people are capable of anything. It will start in the cities, where there are not enough resources to support even a fraction of the population once the transportation system is crippled. High rise buildings with no power cannot pump water to the upper floors, creating an immediate crisis. From the inner cities it will spread, as the inhabitants flee looking for resources. They will swarm over the suburbs and into the rural areas, mistakenly believing that they can “live off of the land” or that the countries rural areas have food to spare. Many people have no appreciation for the process by which food gets to the table, and the fact is that without modern irrigation, fertilization and harvesting only a small percentage of the grain and livestock will actually be turned into food.
A bug-out shelter in Wyoming is a great idea, but not if you can’t get there, so the odds are that you will have to secure your home. This is not the place to discuss the ideal types of weapons to use. What is more important is that you are armed, stocked with plenty of ammunition and spare parts, and most importantly have the training and will to use what you have. If you have stockpiled food, have a generator running, and are driving a functional vehicle, you will certainly be a target. Your best defense is to look innocuous; keep to yourself, don’t flaunt what you have, and if possible try to surround yourself with like-minded people so that you can support each other. Run your generator only at limited intervals and try to muffle the exhaust as much as possible. There are plenty of resources on fortifying your home; do your research now. Even plywood sheets over the windows can provide a degree of protection and on most houses can be cut ahead of time and kept on hand to prevent storm damage anyway. To survive an EMP you will need to have a one year plan as a minimum, and you really can’t have enough food, fuel and medical supplies. Remember that you will attract friends and family in the area, and take on additional dependents at your own peril. The food that will feed your family of four for a year will feed eight for six months and twelve for only four months.
This is just theory, but no one can deny that the possibility exists for an EMP strike and that it is in fact more likely that many other types of disasters. They key to surviving will be to plan ahead, rapidly identify it when it happens, and then work the plan. Remember, there is a North Korean satellite in orbit right now and the Iranians have recently practiced launching ballistic missiles from ships. It may not be as far-fetched as you think.