Do a quick Google search for EMPs and you will find a ton of information. Unfortunately, much of it is simply incorrect. In order to provide you with the most accurate information possible, we brought in an EMP subject matter expert to discuss some common EMP misconceptions and give you the true facts about EMP.
Fiction: The Threat from EMP is Fictional, Hypothetical or Disputable
Almost everybody is afraid of getting cut by a knife on some level. We’ve been cut at some point and remember the pain. To most of us, there is nothing conceptual about the threat of getting cut.
Unlike being cut by a knife, most folks have not been directly affected by an Electromagnetic Pulse (EMP). People don’t necessarily assign EMP the same danger importance as a knife because it’s not a concrete threat to them.
Mankind has yet to suffer a severe EMP since technology has made us vulnerable to the threat. This brings to mind Taleb’s “Turkey” Problem: Imagine a group of turkeys being raised by a butcher who has fed them for the past several hundred days. Emergency management turkey is concerned that the butcher could possibly be a threat, so he enlists a team of analyst turkeys to study the possibility.
With every passing day, the analyst turkeys predict with “increased statistical confidence” that the trend of the butcher feeding them and never harming them will continue. The prediction is, of course, correct… right up until just before Thanksgiving, when the butcher slaughters the turkeys.
According to Nassim Nicholas Taleb, his “Turkey Problem” builds on Bertrand Russell’s adaptation (which I imagine must be of an earlier metaphor and can be found in his excellent book Antifragile: Things That Gain From Disorder.)
X-class solar flares occur on average only once every 200-500 years and we’ve only had an electrical grid for about the last 100 years. There is little concrete evidence of harm yet, but “mistaking absence of evidence (of harm) for evidence of absence” (of threat) is what Taleb refers to as “the mother of all harmful mistakes.” His definition of a “turkey” is someone that is both unaware of a threat and harmed by it.
I have yet to hear a credible scientific argument that EMP does not pose a threat to humanity. The basic physics of EMP is not the subject of much debate. The folks who argue that EMP is not a threat are mainly energy industry lobbyists, a few scientists paid by the energy industry to produce junk science or people who are misinformed, uninformed, or who refuse to believe it because they find the truth inconvenient.
It’s soothing and calming to turkeys to hear that the butcher will continue to care for them. The truth is that EMP is one of a small handful of threats that could cause truly catastrophic loss of life on a scale that mankind has yet to experience.
Fiction: An EMP Will Harm Human Beings as It Passes Through Them
EMP will not likely harm you directly. You may not even have any idea that an EMP has taken place until you notice that that the power is out or some similar evidence.
How an EMP can kill is by frying vulnerable microelectronics. It will overload them with more voltage than they can handle and cause physical damage. This means that the microelectronics, internet, electricity, and all the systems most people depend on for necessities like warmth, safe water, food, transportation, medical care, etc., would go down.
Without these services, people will die.
Since the United States of America is the most automated country on the planet, it is also the most vulnerable to EMP. It won’t kill people by electrocuting them. Instead it will kill people by shutting off pumps to mines which will pollute the water table.
It will shut down water treatment plants causing widespread disease.
An EMP will kill by paralyzing banks and transportation which in turn will prevent food and medicine from getting to where they are needed.
It will affect food production because farm equipment needs fossil fuels to produce enough to feed the nation.
It will kill by putting people in competition for resources which will lead to violence.
An EMP will prevent people from being able to sufficiently heat their homes in winter causing death from exposure.
An EMP may cause radiological disasters by preventing nuclear power plants from operating the pumps that keep them operational.
Possibly one of the worst, and least talked about, ways that EMP could kill is by triggering a nuclear war. In 1995, after the supposed end of the Cold War, Russia failed to inform its radar techs of the launch of a Norwegian sounding rocket which was misidentified as a Trident missile launched from a US submarine in the Barents Sea.
Both the US and Russia know that a nuclear first strike would likely be preceded by a single missile used for an HEMP (High-Altitude Nuclear EMP) which would blind the country’s radars. It’s the closest we have come to nuclear war and most people don’t even know it. It would have taken 10 minutes for such a missile to reach Moscow and it took 8 of those minutes to determine that it wasn’t headed there.
The Russian premier had his nuclear briefcase open and had opened the launch codes. If an HEMP attack was carried out on a nuclear power, what would that country’s leader do? There would be no way to know what country it came from, certainly not in the few minutes the nation’s leader would have to decide whether to launch against the imagined aggressor.
After the strike, the radar would be down with potentially hundreds of nuclear warheads inbound and they would have no idea.
All they could do is launch… or don’t launch.
Fiction: Scientists Know Everything There is to Know About EMP
The basic physics of EMPs caused by solar weather and/or NEMP (Nuclear Electromagnetic Pulse) is relatively well understood but most work on the subject was classified until the 2004 EMP commission. It wasn’t available to the public until the EMP Commission’s final report in 2008. There are still things we don’t know yet on the public domain side since a lot of military testing is still classified or secret compartmented.
It is entirely possible that there are effects that we cannot anticipate. There are limitations on experimentation imposed by the High-Altitude Nuclear Test Ban signed in the early 60’s. However, the greater risk is that most US voters and policymakers still don’t understood that EMP is a threat.
Military rocket scientists who built the Terminal High-Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) non-nuclear EMP weapon system weren’t able to shield their own video cameras that documented the tests of the weapon they had created.
Since military scientists aren’t able to shield equipment against their own weapons, it would be forgivable for engineers working with only the data available in the public domain to have issues. Even the best scientists in the employ of the military-industrial complex don’t have the greatest real-world track record on this subject.
NASA is constantly improving its understanding of high-energy electrons in the upper-atmosphere and the Compton Effect. We re-learned some basics about lightning just a few years ago, so it’s certainly possible that anyone’s attempt to shield electronics against a nuclear HEMP caused by an ERW (Enhanced Radiation Weapon) could come up short.
The public has been tipped off that such weapons exist but the exact intensity of EM field strength remains unknown. If you hear someone laying down the law and claiming to know everything there is to know about HEMP, that should trip your BS-meter.
Fiction: Nuclear HEMP Could Only Be Caused by an “H-Bomb” so Only Russia or China Could Carry Out an EMP Attack On the USA
This idea that it would need to be big is a two-part fiction based on falsehoods. The first being that it takes a large thermonuclear weapon to cause an HEMP or, in other words, the bigger the bomb, the bigger the HEMP.
The second falsehood being that it would take a powerful nation with an Intercontinental Ballistic Missile (ICBM) as a delivery vehicle to get the weapon high enough to nuke most of the lower 48 states.
The large city destroying multi-megaton thermonuclear weapons would not yield as intense an EMP as even a fission weapon and much less than a neutron bomb or Enhanced Radiation Weapon. The reason is that most thermonuclear weapons use a tiny fission reaction and typically some combination of high explosives and/or thick bomb casing to initiate a much larger fusion reaction.
The tiny fission reaction would ionize the atmosphere right before the larger fusion reaction preventing Compton Scattering or stripping of high energy electrons from molecules in the upper atmosphere. This is what makes a nuclear detonation high in the atmosphere 1000x more powerful than one near the ground.
The thick bomb casing would also mean less of the reaction expressed as gamma rays escaping, which are what cause the Compton Scattering. A smaller fission weapon of 200 kilotons to 800 kilotons (which happens to be the size of weapons North Korea has been testing) sans thick bomb casing would yield a more intense EMP.
I have heard a great deal of speculation regarding the task of getting a bomb high enough to cause an EMP. You may have heard that “miniaturization” of the warhead to fit on an ICBM or it having the range to reach the USA or developing an alternative re-entry vehicle would have obstacles. Miniaturization was not a major obstacle to the USA even before we had computers. An HEMP attack wouldn’t require the re-entry vehicle to be as sophisticated or robust as a low-level detonation.
As for range, both Iran and North Korea have been practicing launching missiles off modified container vessels. According to Dr. Peter Pry, North Korea could also use their satellite launch vehicle to deliver a nuclear weapon.
In either of these scenarios, we have no static missile defense aimed for an attack coming from the south or a ship in international waters in the Gulf of Mexico. North Korea also has satellites flying over the US daily with enough payload for the size of weapon necessary.
Some analysts naively opine that North Korea would not dare break the ban on weapons in space. I fail to see why Kim Jong Un would place any more importance on that ban than any other treaty, ban, or resolution he has ignored.
Lastly, it should be noted that the first HEMP triggered in a US nuclear test was carried to altitude by a balloon in the Hardtack Yucca nuclear test. Even a decidedly low-tech attack such as a nuclear artillery shell or “backpack nuke” carried to altitude by a balloon could trigger an EMP large enough to paralyze a key city.
Fiction: Commercial Passenger Vehicles Are Safe from HEMP
I hear this fiction more that I care to. The belief is that as long as your car is not connected to the electrical grid in some way, it will not be harmed by a geomagnetic EMP resulting from solar weather. Although it may be vulnerable to HEMP from a nuclear detonation high in the atmosphere.
This fiction is typically based on erroneous analysis of early tests performed on automobiles available in the public domain. It also sometimes stems from the belief that the metal bodies of automobiles will shield vulnerable components via the skin effect.
The EMP tests on automobiles that are cited have many problems with their methodology. The EM field strength was incrementally ramped up to a maximum of 50 thousand volts per meter, and if any anomalies were encountered, the test was stopped.
They needed to avoid costly damage to the vehicles on loan for the testing because they had no funds to repair. That is not how an EMP happens.
Field strength is not incrementally ramped up. It spikes and is over in an instant.
The other problem is that the maximum field strength was based on data from the 1962 Starfish Prime High-Altitude Nuclear Test which was not designed to maximize EMP. A modern HEMP could yield considerably higher field strength through any number of changes in weapon design.
As to the vehicle body shielding vulnerable components via the skin effect, a proper Faraday cage requires that the skin completely cover the shielded envelope. The bottom side of a car does not have body panels to provide a shield. This makes it at best a partial Faraday cage, and at worst, an EMP antenna.
A Faraday cage also requires that the shielded envelope be insulated from the skin by a non-conductive layer or sufficient air space. There is typically a conductive path for any sensitive microelectronics from the vehicle’s body since it’s connected to the frame, which is grounded to the engine block, which is connected to the negative battery terminal, and so on.
Factors such as polarization or orientation, whether vehicle is wet or dry, strength of the EM field and many others also come into play. Two cosmetically identical vehicles could be parked side by side and one could be damaged while the other may not.
The newer a vehicle is, the more sensitive its microelectronics are. Plus, the advanced electronics are more vulnerable to high voltage produced by HEMP.
Fiction: Commercial Aircraft Are Safe from HEMP
According to Dr. Peter Pry, there are approximately half a million people airborne aboard commercial passenger aircraft at any given moment. If even a small percentage of those flights crashed due to EMP damage to microelectronics in aircraft and air traffic control towers or their communications systems, tens of thousands of lives would be lost.
In the event of an ERW (Enhanced Radiation Weapon) or SuperEMP weapon, they could all be lost. Even many US military aircraft are not hardened against EMP and the models that are may not be sufficiently hardened to withstand an ERW.
Fiction: Nuclear Reactors Are Safe from EMP
This fiction is typically based on the belief that US nuclear reactors have EMP-hardened unattended shutdown systems. This comes from a misinterpretation of a NRC study prompted by the Fukushima disaster or some combination of the two.
If all US nuclear reactors had EMP-hardened unattended auto-down systems, that would be wonderful. I can see how it would soothe the turkeys, but they don’t. If they did, they would be shielded to x dB against a predetermined EM field strength of X thousand volts per meter. Since we have been engaged in a black project ERW arms race for 50+ years, the shielding number would become a moving target.
The NRC study concluded that US nuclear reactors would be made safe if they increased their emergency generator fuel supplies to 72 hours. What they failed to examine is the fact that an EMP could disable the backup generator and cut the power plants off from help for an undetermined amount of time but likely longer than 72 hours.
Admittedly, I am not a nuclear power plant engineer. However, my understanding is that even newer plants with passive auto-shutdowns depend on generators to run pumps that circulate water through the reactors and cooling ponds. Otherwise heat can build up and you end up with essentially what happened at Fukushima, only multiplied by the number of plants so affected. There are more than one hundred nuclear plants in the USA.
Fiction: No Micro Electronics Would Survive an HEMP
At the opposite fictional extreme from the belief that EMP is not a real threat, is the fiction that an HEMP will destroy any and all microelectronics. The characteristics that make microelectronics vulnerable are:
- Long Conductor Lengths – Elements of EMP are induced into long conductors. Very long conductors will carry higher voltages. In terms of the E3 component of EMP, a power line that runs for thousands of kilometers will end up carrying thousands of extra volts even if it picks up only a few volts per kilometer. HEMP from a nuclear weapon detonated at altitude can affect electronics with much shorter conductor lengths, like a transistor radio.However, microelectronics with very short conductor lengths, like your wristwatch or a microSD card, are more likely to escape unscathed. But if your microSD card is in your computer, which is connected to the power grid, it could be damaged. The wiring in your home and the grid could act like an EMP antenna to induce high voltage into the memory card. Disconnecting electronics from the grid tends to make them less vulnerable to EMP.
- Lack of EM Shielding Makes Electronics More Vulnerable – Some microelectronic devices, like a handheld amateur radio, are designed with a lot of EM shielding. Otherwise your radio would fry when you keyed the transmit button. Devices that incorporate a lot of EM shielding are more likely to survive an EMP. Shielding electronics inside a Faraday cage make electronics less vulnerable to EMP too.
- Low Operating Voltage – The newer a chip is the smaller its circuitry or in other words, more transistors per square inch. The more miniaturized an integrated circuit is the lower voltages it needs to run which is wonderful, because it is more efficient. What is not wonderful is that this also tends to make it more vulnerable to overvoltage.That’s why microelectronics come in static bags, because it could be damaged just by you touching it and imparting a little shock via electrostatic discharge. This is a big part of why you may have heard that older cars and electronics tend to be less vulnerable to EMP.
- Polarization (Orientation) Also Impacts the Vulnerability of Microelectronics to EMP – In either geomagnetic or HEMP, very long conductors such as railroad tracks, power lines, telephone line, and pipelines run along the surface of the Earth. This means that they run parallel to the Earth’s magnetic field so they are preset at optimal orientation to conduct as much EMP as possible.If you are old enough to have adjusted the orientation of an antenna to pick up a radio or TV signal, it became clearer because of polarization of the antenna. This is important to know because it means that slight differences in orientation may make the difference between an article being damaged by EMP or not. That means that even though one of your radios is dead, you should still try all the others. The same goes for cars and everything else.
This is a lot of information to take in, and it is certainly very technical. The big takeaways you need to keep in mind are:
- EMPs are a real and dangerous threat
- You need to take steps to protect your key electronic items
- You need a plan for living without power for an extended period of time should an EMP event happen.
About the Expert:
Cache Valley Prepper is the CEO of Survival Sensei, LLC, writer, author, survival instructor, consultant, SME and Director of Survival Brain Trust where he pioneered the Modular Survival Kit. He is one of the lucky few who work in the field of survival full time. A descendant of pioneers, Cache was raised in the tradition of self-reliance and grew up working archaeological digs, hunting and backpacking the desert Southwest, shooting competitively and earning the rank of Eagle in the Scouting program.
Cache’s survival mentors include a physician in the US Nuclear Program, a Delta Force Lt Col, leading primitive skills instructors, top competitive shooting & dynamic entry instructors and he counts himself fortunate to have been mentored in business by Stephen R. Covey.
You can catch up with Cache teaching EMP survival at Survival Expos, teaching SERE to ex-pats and vagabonds in South America, writing online or getting in some dirt time with the primitive skills crowd in a wilderness near you. While he is sure it is obvious to you, his editors point out that he writes under the pen name, Cache Valley Prepper, to protect his privacy.