Suddenly the sky is lit up like a fiery sunset as far as your eye can see. The electricity pops off, your car stalls, your phone suddenly is no longer working. In fact, every electrical circuit in every electrical device is suddenly fried out. Within a minute, transformers are exploding across the country. You’re stranded, perhaps far from home, with no means to call for help or to traverse the miles back to your family while smoke and fire is visible all around you. Planes are, literally, falling out of the sky. What happened? An alien attack? It was an electromagnetic pulse, and it’s not just the stuff of fiction novels. It’s more realistic than an all out nuclear war or even a solar flare strong enough to do the same damage, and it is becoming more likely by the day. North Korea is the most likely bad actor, and they have already threatened us with just such an attack. Will you survive while millions more Americans die?
What is a High Altitude Electromagnetic Pulse?
A nuclear EMP or electromagnetic pulse is the electric shockwave triggered by a nuclear blast. It is an intense burst of electromagnetic radiation. It quite literally fries every electronic circuit in its range. This destroys most every device, as very few systems are shielded from such a pulse. While a nuclear weapon detonated on land would have more devastating effects from the blast and an EMP would be the least of people’s worries, a very high-altitude EMP called a HEMP above the Earth’s atmosphere would create an EMP that would stretch from horizon to horizon. People on the ground would not feel a thing unless they have functional electronics in them like a pacemaker. If you are on the ground beneath such a blast you would see a fantastic light show similar to a great fire rolling across the heavens.
There are three distinct waves of energy from a HEMP and each will overload and burnout circuitry: E one a short duration pulse, E two an intermediate pulse similar to a massive lightning storm, and E three which is similar to a severe geomagnetic disturbance. Those three waves from even a single high altitude detonation are sufficient to burn out every electronic component from horizon to horizon and send surges through systems even further than the visible horizon.
An E one blast lasts only ten billionths of a second but has a peak amplitude of fifty kilovolts per meter. That is powerful enough to directly damage electronic components directly or by coupling to the attached wires or cables. Within a billionth of a second, the electrical intensity on the Earth’s surface becomes so hot that microchips fry, powerlines overload, and the electric grid completely collapses. The E two waveform is similar to lightning, and we know how lightning can bring down electricity power grids. The E three waves, because there are different waves during this phase based upon the blast effects. It causes a low frequency, quasi-DC current in the power grid that is similar to a severe geomagnetic disturbance event. It will last four or five minutes, can cause voltage collapse in systems and additional hot spot heating in transformers.
These are not short term blackouts either. With every circuit and relay in the electrical grid down and needing to be replaced, new components would need to be manufactured and installed at every point in the power grid. With no manufacturing going on, the repair would take months, if not years to complete. Once a high-altitude EMP goes off, everything goes dark. Cars, planes, trains, subways suddenly stop. Electricity, water, natural gas all stop flowing, and nuclear power plants could meltdown if operators cannot manually scram them. With no electricity there is no refrigeration. Medicines and foods would expire within days. Farming stops. Food supplies stop. Commerce stops. Phones stop. Internet stops. All long range communication stops. All satellites above the earth in the same hemisphere instantly cease to operate.
The Starfish Prime test by the US conducted in the sixties was a mere ten degrees above the horizon of Hawaii. Even at that very narrow azimuth and at a distance of nearly one thousand miles away and with a low yield nuclear device, over three hundred street lights in Hawaii burned out. That experiment in the sixties was at a time when far fewer electronic devices were in utilization. Imagine the devastating effects of a similar blast but directly over the United States. The explosive yield of devices is exponentially larger today, over sixty years later, resulting in a far more intense EMP.
An intercontinental ballistic missile, ICBM, does not have to be very accurate. The rocket just has to go up and roughly in the right direction to become an orbital threat. It does not even need a complex guidance system. Any timed detonation at a height anywhere between thirty and five-hundred kilometers above the earth’s surface is all that would be required. If the midwest, at the center of the United States was the target and the missile fell far short and was detonated over the Pacific ocean, for instance, it would still have an EMP event sufficient enough to wipe out the coastal states and the coastal regions of Canada and Mexico. If the missile far overshot its intended target of the heartland of the United States, the event would be sufficient enough to wipe out the entire east coast. Essentially, anything in the line of sight of the blast will cease to function, and the line of sight at five-hundred kilometers above the earth is pretty extensive. It is a circle with a diameter of three-thousand-two-hundred and thirty-one miles. That is forty percent of the Earth’s surface, and easily contains the United States from West Quoddy Head, Maine to Cape Flattery, Washington–the eastern and western most points of the United States.
While some components can be hardened against such an attack, and under the Reagan administration some military systems were hardened off, that work was not completed. No comprehensive emergency, hardened off system exists just like no comprehensive missile defense shield exists. All systems would suffer such catastrophic failures that the entire system would fail in a cascading collapse. Even if your cellphone were stored in a protective casing, when you turned it on you would have no cell towers, no satellites to relay any information, it wouldn’t even be able to sync its internal clock.
Why is North Korea Now a Threat?
For decades, national security and intelligence officials have warned that the United States was vulnerable to electromagnetic pulse (EMP) attacks that could cripple the nation’s power grid. Tensions between the U.S. and North Korea are ongoing, despite how friendly leaders might appear from time-to-time. North Korea continues to test its nuclear capability and has repeatedly threatened the U.S. with an EMP attack. In fact, twenty-seventeen news agencies in North Korea explicitly warned that North Korea could hit the U.S. with an EMP attack. North Korea’s nuclear efforts are much more aggressive than Iran’s at this point, though some experts indicate that Iran is an equally dangerous EMP attack threat.
While North Korea is China by proxy, and China has no real vested interest at this point in completely destroying the United States economy, Kim Jong-un has at times bucked against China’s rule or tried to demonstrate their independence. Xi Jinping and the chinese government are not fully capable of reigning in the rogue and unbridled North Korean leader.
On February sixth of twenty-sixteen, North Korea launched a satellite into orbit. The hurdles they faced to put a nuclear warhead in orbit were weight and flight time. But this year, in a parade in October, North Korea unveiled its largest-ever intercontinental ballistic missile. The size of the new missile indicated that it might fly farther and carry a more powerful nuclear warhead. Is that missile real and functional? We don’t know, but it does demonstrate a step forward in their nuclear delivery systems. Just one nuclear warhead detonated at high altitude over the United States would bring the country to a full stop, and Kim Jung-un has repeatedly expressed that he would like to do this.
A Non-Electrical Timetable of Destruction
So, what really happens after an EMP? How bad could it actually be? Well, within seconds, everything containing electronic circuitry would instantly fizzle out. From insulin pumps to pacemakers, to life support systems, all would fail in a single instance. Medicines which need to be refrigerated would begin to deteriorate and lose efficacy. Foods which require refrigeration would begin the process of turning after just four hours. Millions and millions of Americans would be stranded miles from home, especially if the attack occurs during the day when that simple commute to work just became a multi-day walking journey.
Our municipal water systems that depend on pumping stations and purification processes would cease to work in less than a day. Obtaining fresh drinking water will be a challenge within the first few days. Stores will be looted for food and water and batteries which will likely survive the blast. If you happen to be on a plane when the EMP strikes, your plane will stop working. If you’re driving in your car, it will roll to a stop. Even if you have an old time car that has no electronics in it, you couldn’t pump gas into it.
It is estimated that in the first few hours after an EMP strikes and in the aftermath millions upon millions of Americans will die. The ensuing chaos and clamour for resources to survive will lead to the deaths of millions more. Fire and police services will not be available. You won’t be able to get any money from your bank or even make a purchase in a store with whatever cash you have. Most of the country will not even know what happened, since internet and broadcast news will be down. Even the Emergency Broadcasting Network will not work as any EMP would couple to broadcast antennas and pass through transmitter tuned circuits. In just seconds, the world will go dark and silent. In just days, wide scale panic and uncontrollable chaos will be the norm. The casualties will never be truly known, but experts estimate that up to ninety percent of Americans would perish.
America would be able to retaliate before a detonation occurred, maybe even shoot down an incoming missile; but it only takes one missile to get through, and the United States missile defense shield doesn’t exist at this point. The american military would be able to retaliate with forces deployed at other locations around the world safe from the line of sight of the detonation, but with all communications down, this would be difficult to orchestrate and would be too little too late.
Is There Anything You Can Do?
With that level of destruction, we have to ask ourselves if there really is anything we can do, individually, to harden our lives against the possibility of an EMP? The answer is that we can do a little. You could build your own Faraday cage to protect some of your devices, but remember that your ability to recharge those devices or connect those devices to anything, including satellites will likely not exist anymore. Still, having a small solar recharging unit, rechargeable batteries, an old laptop, external hard drive, and a basic radio sealed in Faraday cage bags. It would certainly provide you a little bit of an edge in your survivability and ability to recover. Some solar panels and any hardened off against attack and stored when the attack occurs will likely survive an EMP attack and will provide you some basic electricity through an outage which could last for months. The solar power inverter, however, will not survive an EMP, so one would need to be stored if your unit isn’t self contained. We always recommend solar motion lights around your home, and they are affordable enough for one or two to be stored away in the same manner. Light at night will greatly increase your chances of survival.
The main thing that will benefit you the most, however, is learning now how to function off grid. Take a weekend and unplug. Don’t eat or drink anything you haven’t directly acquired from nature or obtained from your prepping supplies. Assume that you have no power, no water, no means of transportation other than maybe a bicycle and try to live for a few hours that way or through the weekend. Figure out what your dependency weak points are, and begin to develop a plan around them.
On the smaller side, make sure your prepping supplies have a manual can opener, a crank flashlight, a means to cook food and purify water like the Kelly Kettle or a solar oven, survival manuals and maps. If you live in a city that is near one of America’s fifty-eight nuclear power plants that have ninety-six reactors that would have to be scummed and shut down manually if possible, you will want to have an escape route planned. If all of the reactors aren’t successfully shutdown and even one meltdown occurs, the radioactive fallout will kill thousands in the short term and millions in the long term. Know where the likely safest places may be on the map, and from time to time, go walk a stretch of that route, noting any freshwater sources or shelter along the way. Create a family emergency plan and don’t just leave it on paper or in your head. Take the time to travel and review routes and locations.
Eventually, after an EMP, areas of the country will come back online, not all at once and not at one hundred percent; but equipment brought in from other parts of the world will be functioning. It would require a global contribution to the rebuilding efforts. Your survivability will be a direct result of your supplies, your fitness, your knowledge, and your skills. The majority of Americans are far too reliant on technology and the never ceasing flow of energy, and they will not survive. When the power stops for a week, month or year, will you have what it takes to survive? What’s your survival plan?
As always, stay safe out there.