In early 2021, the U.S. Air Force base in Texas took steps to guard against an electromagnetic pulse (EMP) attack.
If you’re like most people, you’re probably thinking, what’s an EMP attack?
And how big of a threat is it to me and my family?
An EMP attack is a burst of electromagnetic energy.
It can either occur naturally or be generated deliberately using nuclear weapons.
It’s up for debate how much of a threat EMPs pose.
While some argue that these types of weapons could cause widespread disruption to electricity-dependent societies, others aren’t worried about it as much.
Read more to understand how a potential EMP attack could affect you in the future.
1. What is an EMP attack?
An EMP attack is a burst of electromagnetic energy.
As noted above, it can either occur naturally, or it can be generated using nuclear weapons.
Defense analysts have said that a single nuclear weapon could be used to collapse the entire North American power grid.
As everything depends on electricity, this would devastate telecommunications, transportation, and even water.
2. What is an electromagnetic pulse?
An electromagnetic pulse (EMP) is a short burst of electromagnetic energy.
It’s also called a transient electromagnetic disturbance.
The pulse’s origin may be naturally occurring, or it may be human-made.
It can occur as a radiated, electric, or magnetic field or a conducted electric current (depending on the source).
3. What is a nuclear electromagnetic pulse?
A nuclear electromagnetic pulse (EMP or NEMP) is a burst of electromagnetic radiation created by a high-altitude nuclear explosion.
Its gamma rays excite the electrons in the air, resulting in rapidly varying electric and magnetic fields that may couple with electrical and electronic devices or systems to produce damaging current and high voltage surges.
For it to be a nuclear electromagnetic event, a couple of factors must be present.
The most important of these factors is the altitude of detonation.
4. What are the scenarios in which an EMP attack will occur?
EMP attacks can sound really scary when they are described, yet they’re only likely to happen in a handful of scenarios.
We’ll describe those below, so you can assess the threat for each kind of event.
A powerful solar event: At some point, an inevitable powerful solar event will occur and result in everything from tens of millions without power for weeks to a total long-term collapse
Countries with advanced militaries and nuclear-tipped ballistic missiles: This occurrence is of low probability most of the time (depending on geological conditions).
The impacts range from large scale regional disruptions of critical infrastructure to total long-term collapse
Rogue states and intermediate-range nuclear missiles: These events are low probability with limited geographic impact
Terrorists and ground-based nukes: These events are extremely low probability and limited geographic impact
Anyone with a dedicated EMP weapon (i.e., a microwave bomb): This scenario is essentially zero probability and limited geographic impact
5. Why are EMP attacks so dangerous?
An EMP attack releases huge waves of electromagnetic energy.
This can act as a giant moving magnet, and the charge can cause electrons in a nearby wire to move, which induces a current.
The EMP brings a huge burst of energy and can cause power surges to any electronic equipment in range.
6. What are the three different types of EMP pulses?
The three different types of EMP pulses include:
E1: A high-frequency blast of radiation emitted directly by the explosion.
This type of pulse is largely independent of the size of the nuke, so a 1 kiloton weapon does about as much damage as a 1 megaton version.
E2: This pulse follows the E1 pulse and has characteristics similar to a lightning strike.
The same things that guard against lightning strikes (grounding, surge protectors, and circuit breakers) guard against E2 as well.
We generally ignore this pulse in EMP protection.
E3: The fireball from the blast pushes on the earth’s magnetic field.
This causes it to fluctuate and forms a low-frequency EMP in the affected area.
The bigger the nuke, the more intense and widespread the E3 pulse will be.
The sun has particles and energy that can crash into the upper atmosphere during a powerful space weather event.
This can warp the magnetic field in the same way as an E3 pulse of a very large nuke but on a planet-wide scale.
That said, the sun cannot cause high-frequency pulses similar to a nuke’s E1 pulse (at least not at the Earth’s surface).
7. What’s the difference between naturally occurring and deliberately occurring EMPs?
EMP attacks can occur both naturally and deliberately.
Naturally, an EMP attack will occur when the sun occasionally spits out massive streams of plasma.
When these streams come our way, the Earth’s natural magnetic field will deflect them.
If enough plasma is spit out by the sun at once, then the impact can cause the magnetic field to wobble, and this creates a powerful EMP attack.
The last naturally occurring EMP attack was in 1859 in the so-called Carrington Event.
At this time, electronics were still rare.
However, the attack knocked out a lot of the new telegraph network.
Deliberate EMP attacks occur when a nuclear weapon is detonated high in the atmosphere.
The gamma radiation is released and can strip electrons from air molecules and accelerate them at close to the speed of light.
These charge-carrying electrons would be corralled by Earth’s magnetic field.
As these electrons are zipped around, they would generate a powerful, fluctuating electric current, which would generate a massive EMP.
Ultimately, this explosion could distort Earth’s magnetic field and cause a slower pulse, which is like what happens with a naturally occurring EMP.
8. What effects will an EMP attack have on technology?
The way an EMP attack affects technology depends on the pulse’s frequency (or the speed at which the Earth’s magnetic field fluctuates).
Additionally, the size of the wires or other conductors that make up the technology the pulse encounters also comes into play.
Let’s look at how it affects the power grid and computers and electronics specifically.
With the power grid, even very-low-frequency pulses can cause the electrical current to flow in the miles-long elevated transmission lines that carry electrical power across the country.
Those pulses can also penetrate the ground and create currents in buried pipes.
These currents are called geomagnetically induced currents (GICs).
Their strength is directly related to the electrical properties of the Earth beneath the lines or above the pipes because different types of soil and rock can be either electricity conductors or insulators.
For computers and electronics, low-frequency EMP attacks don’t create currents in the small wires found inside modern computer systems.
Instead, you’d need a high-frequency EMP for that.
9. Will cars still run after an EMP?
Yes, cars will still run after an EMP attack.
A study was conducted by the United States EMP Commission.
They found out that 1 out of 50 vehicles is likely to be rendered inoperable.
The study did not extend to the effect of an EMP attack on hybrid and electric vehicles.
10. Are solar EMP attacks or nuclear EMP attacks a greater threat?
Solar EMP attacks, also called space-weather EMP attacks, are considered a much more significant threat than nuclear EMPs.
These “space weather events” occur when the sun periodically spits out jets of high-energy particles that bombard the Earth’s upper atmosphere with radiation.
Here are the reasons that you should be more worried about solar EMP attacks than nuclear EMPs.
A massive solar storm is more likely to happen than a major nuclear war or nuclear-based terrorist attack.
A major space weather event is inevitable (although the timing is unpredictable).
If this occurs, we’ll probably only have 20 minutes of advanced notice if any at all.
The modern electrical grid wasn’t (and still isn’t) designed to handle the full range of EMP that the sun can throw at the earth.
We have very little hard data about what will actually happen to the grid in some of the worst-case scenarios.
As a result, we have to rely on sophisticated models and theories.
A big enough space weather event would have global effects and possibly could bring down most or all power grids in all countries.
This means there would be nowhere to evacuate to and no help on the way.
11. What are the two famous space weather events that experts look to for information on EMP attacks?
The Carrington Event: Mentioned above, this was a major geomagnetic storm in 1859.
It was so powerful that it caused northern auroras to light up the night sky over most of North America.
This was extreme enough that it caused people in the Rockies to think that morning had come early.
The telegraph wires across Europe and North America carried a geomagnetically induced current so powerful that many operators couldn’t touch their equipment without getting shocked.
The March 1989 geomagnetic storm: This event was far weaker than the Carrington Event.
However, it was still an X-15 class storm that triggered auroras as far south as Florida and Texas.
It knocked out the power grid in Quebec for 9 hours and caused some physical damage to large power transformers.
12. What should you do in the case of an EMP attack?
Unfortunately, nobody can predict the magnitude of a solar storm and the damage it will produce.
However, there are a few things you can do to prepare in the event of an EMP attack.
If you’re worried about a doomsday scenario, then you should prep in the typical ways that you would for a natural disaster.
Make sure that you stock a lot of canned foods and foods that have a long shelf life.
These will be helpful to you and your family if you need to live off-grid for a while.
Additionally, you should make sure that you have battery-powered flashlights and a large supply of batteries.
You’ll also want to have a battery-powered radio, so you can stay up to date with news about the situation.
Keep in mind that your HVAC system may not work, and you probably won’t have running water.
For this reason, you’ll have to have plenty of warm blankets and water bottles.
Next, you’ll need to have hand tools stored so you can perform basic tasks.
For example, maybe you’ll have all those cans, but it won’t do you any good if you can’t open them.
Cutlery cookware, camping stoves, etc. will all be good to have on hand.
These are basic survival tools that you can use and will increase your chances of survival.
Finally, make sure that you prepare your car for an EMP attack.
As noted above, your car is still likely to work following this type of event.
That said, the biggest threat to your car’s functioning is a lack of fuel or spare parts.
To prepare for potential disaster, stock up on the following so you’re prepared for the worst-case scenario.
Spare fuel – treated with Stabil fuel stabilizer to extend its shelf life
Various required filters (air filter, oil filter, fuel filter)
Oil change supplies
Any other on-board computers
These are regular maintenance items that are essential to keeping your car functioning properly.
13. How long do the effects of an EMP attack last?
An EMP propagates outward at the speed of light and then dissipates almost immediately.
This means that the EMP attack is only momentarily.
What you really have to look out for, though, is the fact that you now have to replace electronic components.
For modern equipment, this means replacing entire circuit boards or entire units.
This can take quite a while and would likely plunge society into chaos in the meantime.
Remember, the chances of an EMP attack are low, but not zero.
It’s a great idea to have some food storage and supplies on hand just in case.
Many of these supplies would be helpful to you in a natural disaster, so you’re covered either way.
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Disclaimer: we are not lawyers, accountants or financial advisors and the information in this article is for informational purposes only. This article is based on our own research and experience and we do our best to keep it accurate and up-to-date, but it may contain errors. Please be sure to consult a legal or financial professional before making any investment decisions.