Living in an electronic dead zone way out in the high plains desert of Utah and Nevada teaches you how to deal with no cell signals and spotty internet. Trek through the hills and you will find survivalists and prepper communities. These are people that both live without total interconnectivity and don’t care.
Living semi off-grid provides some interesting insight into the real, but exaggerated effects of an EMP threat. A sudden disconnect of electronics will range from catastrophic to totally unnoticed. How much an attack of this type matters depends on area and lifestyle.
Cyber threats are real. Interconnected grids of information keep modern conveniences running and ensure that utilities function. If you fear an EMP attack but don’t abide by simple data security, you’re putting the horse before the cart.
This is a topic with a lot of fantasy and fearmongering mixed into the very real elements. Read on to learn the plausible from the impractical and what steps are being taken to deal with an electromagnetic pulse attack.
EMP Threat Origins
The dangers of EMP, at least the large-scale dangers, were discovered in the wake of Starfish Prime. This was the name of a nuclear device detonated by the US in 1962.
The device was loaded into a missile and fire from a small island southwest of the Hawaiian islands. It traveled 660 miles in an arc and was detonated in low orbit 240 miles above the launch point.
The blast was registered as a 1.4 megaton payload. the initial blast lasted a second. The resulting energy, in the form of gamma and X-rays, lasted a lot longer. Several months longer.
The original blast created a visible aurora that could be seen for thousands of miles. A result of the interference of the electrons released from the blast coming into contact with magnetic fields in the atmosphere.
This energy excited electrons in the atmosphere, causing a glow.
The electrons weren’t contained in the atmosphere, a wave of them was released at the time of the explosion and hit Hawaii. This electromagnetic pulse overloaded lights and telephones across the islands. Lights hundreds of miles away exploded from the sudden surge in power.
The reaction was expected, but the size was not. The longevity of the released electrons was also unexpected. This reprint of the original report goes into details about the absorption figures. It also looks at measurements of the resulting energy.
The damage wasn’t contained to surface electronics. Electrons released by the blast bombarded satellites causing outages and permanent damage. Six satellites failed in the next year from the damage.
A few slagged satellites and lights and phones popping is impressive. To put this in perspective, remember that the 1.4 megaton Starfish Prime explosion was nearly 100 times larger than the Hiroshima bomb.
However, every living thing across the Hawaiian archipelago could have been wiped out by that same blast.
While the Starfish Prime test showed scientists the power of an EMP weapon and the effects it could have, it isn’t a practical use.
Since the 1960s, the effects of EMP are better understood and more ways of creating them with different yields have been explored.
The power and range of an EMP showed far-reaching implications. An EMP attack could be made hundreds of miles offshore and still be effective at hitting targets.
The damage had an instantaneous and a long-term component. Much of modern society relies on a consistent and constant flow of electricity and monitoring by computers.
The following systems feature the most vulnerabilities to an EMP attack.
Power grids hit by an EMP surge overload, damaging vital components. Transformers, repeaters, and storage batteries are the most vulnerable. Frying these systems means a costly, and slow, replacement of physical hardware.
In the US, many of these physical components exist in and around buildings and residential areas. Overloads resulting in shock or fire could directly harm people or quickly spread.
Disruption of machinery and safeguards in power plants also carries risks. Boilers that burn too hot would need repairs in coal and oil power plants. In solar plants, vital transistors that convert photovoltaic energy slag and melt.
Nuclear plants need immediate shut down to prevent problems. Chiefly the cooling systems and fission reactions need constant monitoring.
Water filtration systems for municipalities use carefully gated and calibrated systems to function. Different types of electromagnetic and radiometric scanners are used to detect impurities.
Powered systems are used to heat water to kill microbes. Concentrations of fluoride, chlorine, and other chemicals all get monitored by sophisticated programs.
An EMP attack on America could leave billions of gallons of water undrinkable or suspect overnight.
Hospitals have emergency power systems to keep machinery running in ICUs and surgical theaters.
A sudden loss of power means injury or worse for anyone on an assisted living device. Patients going through processes such as dialysis could be poisoned by their own bodies.
Delicate machines such as PET, CAT, and MRI scanners require expensive and lengthy recalibration to fix. Power surges that blow out these machines would cost time and money to fix.
Face it, today’s world exists in a perpetual update and reaffirmation state. Loss of media sites, especially social media, would cause immediate panic.
The inability to address and explain issues to the general populace is only one problem. Authorities would face chaos without infrastructure. They rely on the system of telephones, computers, and satellites currently available.
Any efforts to fix the problems caused would be hindered. Lack of communication also leaves a nation vulnerable to further attacks.
Early warning systems for natural disasters could be offline. This leaves coastal areas vulnerable to hurricanes and tsunamis. Tornado zones would lose vital early detection systems. Even if these systems were still working, the information couldn’t be spread.
Speaking of early detection systems, EMP warning systems exist. These systems consist of various radar and satellite systems that watch for missiles. Outside of that, sensors that detect abundant electrons exist.
The US, and other countries, also haven’t been sitting on their hands since the 1960s. The same Cold War conditions that prompted the discovery of the problem pushed engineers to find solutions.
The systems in Hawaii that burned out were mostly copper or copper/tin wiring. New systems and most computers have EMP hardening.
The materials used today have a larger tolerance for electron saturation without burning out. Failsafes and discharge capacitors can remove overloads.
You probably have a surge protector plugged into your wall right now. This, as well as the grounding wires, work to remove excess charge from systems.
Military spec devices such as field radios and flight avionics are designed not to fail to EMP attacks.
Vital grid systems such as power and water systems have standards of protections as laid out by the EMP Commission and Army Core of Engineers.
Since the initial Starfish Prime test, Faraday Cages were discovered and implemented.
The technology of electron disruption and shielding is well-established. So well-established, you can purchase a consumer grade Faraday EMP Protection bag to protect your own data.
Storage systems for data centers rely on Faraday Cages to keep information from being pulled out of cloud servers. A core component of cybersecurity relies on businesses having these in place. Both to protect information from being taken and destroyed.
Power grids, in particular, have redundancies built in now.
You’ve seen this during storms or physical damage to power lines. Even if a power surge disrupts power to an area, it often doesn’t affect the entire city. Sections of grids can be brought offline without affecting adjacent ones.
Communications networks no longer keep information centralized. Look at any given cellular tower and you will see more equipment than is needed to carry the traffic. The intention is to allow the systems to maintain function event with 1/3rd down.
Data for financial transactions and databases of companies require backups.
An EMP threat to nations is real. Devices exist to launch and to thwart such attacks, just like any other attack.
It is foolhardy to think that of all the different weapons in the global arsenal, this one doesn’t have counters. Biological weapons are banned by international law because they are hard to stop. EMPs simply suffer from effective armor.
It takes serious resources and engineering to build a device capable of putting out an EMP. One that will do even short term damage is harder still. As Starfish Prime demonstrated, a device capable of causing a largescale EMP issue can cause other damage.
That other damage is far more direct and can be launched in the exact same way.
The best defense against an EMP attack is to stay informed to the dangers and the leanings of world powers. Keep a careful eye on politics and you will know which way the wind is blowing.