Will an electromagnetic pulse (EMP) big enough to knock out all power in the US ever come? Most definitely.
Will it actually put us in total-nation blackout? It depends on who you ask.
There are a million doomsday theories out there—now more than ever, with the Internet—and many of them need to be taken with a grain of salt.
There is one scenario, though, that’s had a bad rap in times past, but that's very much worth taking seriously: the threat posed by electromagnetic pulses (EMPs).
Once the domain of hardcore preppers, EMPs have gotten a lot more mainstream attention over the last decade or two. If you take emergency preparedness seriously, this is a rising issue you need to know about.
In this article we’ll give a rational, realistic overview of:
- What EMPs are
- What the most likely source of a deadly EMP would be (hint: it’s not a nuclear weapon)
- The possible threat they pose to everyday Americans
- How seriously the experts say we should take that threat
What Is an EMP?
Bear with us for a minute as we get a little science-y—it won’t last long! Grasping these concepts will help to understand the true threat of EMPs and how to prepare for them.
An EMP is a pulse of energy caused by the interaction between charged particles.
An EMP is an “electromagnetic pulse” and comes from one of the four fundamental forces of nature: electromagnetism. In a nutshell, electromagnetism is the interaction between charged particles that create electricity (the flow of electric charges) and magnetism (the force that attracts objects or pushes them away).
With this in mind, an EMP is when a short, intense burst of one of these energies occurs. Imagine a quick electrical surge, and you get the picture.
How Do EMPs Affect Humans?
EMPs generally have little direct effect on the human body, though recent research is showing that certain types of EMP exposure might cause issues in the nervous system and the brain.
How Do EMPs Affect Electronics?
The big concern with EMPs is the way they impact electronics. The same way lightning hitting your house can fry your power sockets, an EMP pushes more energy into the wiring and chips of power stations and electronic devices than they were built to handle, doing irreparable damage like:
- Coupling. Causing different parts of electronics to couple (a metallic wire and optical fiber, for example) in ways they weren’t meant to.
- Short Circuits. Interrupting the intended path of an electric current and causing systemic shutdown.
- Serious Physical Damage. Overloading physical components like wires, causing them to overheat and fuse together.
How Could an EMP Affect Our Lives?
Three power grids run most energy in the United States
It’s well known (both to us and our enemies) that the US electric grid is highly vulnerable. There are only three grids that interconnect to run most all of America’s power: The Eastern Grid, the Western Grid, and the Texas (ERCOT) Grid. That’s a lot of eggs in very few baskets.
As far back as 2012, the National Research Council found that the current configuration, with its outdated infrastructure and operational protocol, makes our power grid a sitting duck to what’s called “cascading failures”—a domino-like collapse that could take out an entire power grid.
Here’s how that would happen: A massive EMP would overload a section of the grid. That section would collapse, and as a safety measure automatically shift the extra load to another section. That second section would then collapse and pass on the energy. In little time, most or all of the grid could be fried.
As Daniel Baker, physicist at the University of Colorado puts it, once these components are destroyed, “you can't exactly buy another at Sears."
The damage could take months or years to replace, leaving hundreds of millions of people (or even the entire country) in an indefinite blackout. It would be like living in the 1800s without any of the old-fashioned resources or know-how to survive.
Where Do EMPS Come From?
EMP sources include lightening, earthquakes, volcanoes, and nuclear detonation.
NATURAL SOURCES FROM THE EARTH
Having said that, not all EMPs are necessarily capable of the same levels of damage. The impact would vary depending on the source.
For example, the earth is regularly hit by EMPs from earthquakes, volcanoes, and lightning—with little to no backlash.
When it comes to massive, earth-shattering events, the two sources most experts worry about are nuclear and solar EMPs. Here’s what we could expect from each.
When you think of a nuclear bomb, you probably imagine a mushroom cloud, blast wave, and radiation.
One effect that’s gotten less attention until recently, though, is the EMP triggered by a nuclear detonation—a mix of gamma rays and air molecules that send electromagnetic radiation corkscrewing through the atmosphere.
Some experts estimate a nuclear EMP could shut down massive sections of the power grid for miles around the blast and trigger that “1800s-style” blackout.
One of the most vocal of these is Dr. Peter Pry, executive director of the EMP Task Force on National and Homeland Security. A few years ago, he testified before Congress that such a worst-case scenario could potentially wipe out 90% of the population through starvation, disease, and societal collapse.
Before we start running for our bunkers, though, groups like the Electric Power Research Institute (EPRI) are convinced that the damage from a nuclear EMP wouldn’t be nearly so apocalyptic. Simple mitigation measures should prevent most of the damage.
Others point out that even though China, Russia, North Korea, and Iran have reportedly been working on weaponizing EMPs, they would probably never use them. The same sense of “mutually assured destruction” that’s prevented nuclear war for generations would also prevent an all-out EMP attack.
As for the second source of massive EMPs…
The most concerning source of EMPs are massive coronal ejections from the sun.
Like clockwork, our amazing sun is on an 11-year cycle of fluctuating sunspot (cool areas) and solar flare (explosions of energy) activity—sometimes up, sometimes down. The peaks in activity are called “solar maximum” periods and the troughs are called “solar minimums.”
During solar maximums, the sun produces about three massive solar flares per day, called “Coronal Mass Ejections (CMEs). These events rarely do any harm here on earth, but, under the right conditions, a large enough mass ejection from the sun would create an EMP that wreaked total havoc on just about anything running on electricity.
For perspective, the last time this happened was in 1859, in a famous incident called the Carrington Event where a massive CME caused telegraph systems all over the North America and Europe to fail.
Nuclear Vs. Solar: Which Is a Bigger Threat?
So, which type of EMP event should concern you most? If you’re in a proper prepping state of mind, the answer is both. But all told, a solar EMP is the more threatening of the two, if for no other reason than pure inevitability.
The sophistication, expense, and will needed to pull off a nuclear EMP attack is borderline prohibitive. First you have to get a nuke. Then the nuke has to be carried or otherwise propelled about 20 miles into the upper atmosphere—three to four times higher than a commercial jet. At that point, it would have to be detonated, probably remotely, in the right location.
All in all, a tough job, and one that only a handful of sovereign nations could handle. Add to that the fact that such an act would likely usher in World War 3, and there are plenty of natural deterrents.
A solar EMP, on the other hand, is inevitable. It costs nothing and requires no special effort other than just waiting. The sun produces CMEs almost every day and at some point one of those ejections is going to be big enough to blast earth with a massive, destructive EMP. It’s not a matter of if, but when.
Why Are EMPs So Dangerous—Possible Scenarios
It doesn’t take a huge stretch of the imagination to see how an EMP could devastate a modern city. Airports, hospitals, banks, water, food—just about every aspect of our lives depends on electricity to operate. An EMP has the potential to take them all out at once, and to keep them out for weeks or months.
Here are a few of the most concerning scenarios a massive EMP could put us in. Keep in mind, these are worst-case scenarios. Things may never get this bad but it’s prudent to be prepared for the worst, either way.
After a massive power outage, stores would be cash-only
What is money? It used to be cash and coin, but now more than ever it’s a few little pixelated digits stored away in a bank’s computer server. And a long-term, EMP-triggered power outage would wipe those digits right out of existence—for a while anyway.
With power out during an EMP crisis, you wouldn’t be able to withdraw or transfer funds from your bank. Automatic payments would fail. You’d need cash on hand to live by for a while—especially considering that’s all most stores would be able to take.
Worse than the effects on your bank account would be the ways a long-term power outage would impact the transfer of money on a wider scale. Just an hour of downtime can cost a large enterprise a million dollars. What would weeks or months of downtime cost? What would that look like spread across large regions of the country?
An EMP could make it impossible to manage traffic flows
If your car was made in the last decade or two, your electric system is probably run by a computer. An EMP could shut that right down, along with your emissions and ignitions systems. Unless you had an older car, you wouldn’t even make it out of the driveway.
If you did get on the road you’d be facing a whole other set of problems, like, what happens when every stoplight in town goes out and doesn’t come back up? What about bridges and toll roads?
The ability for cities to manage the flow of traffic would disappear in an instant and could potentially cripple roads. On a larger scale, oil extraction and distribution lines would be disrupted and could even fail, meaning no gas at the pump.
And then there are the airlines. Imagine being in a plane the moment an EMP hit. Your jet wouldn’t just plummet out of the sky (thank heavens). But everything would suddenly go black. Your pilots would be in the dark with no instruments, lights, displays, or fly-by wires to guide them. Airports and traffic control systems, if they weren’t properly protected, could be paralyzed with thousands of planes in the sky. Over the long-term, flights could be grounded altogether until reliable power came back up.
And that’s not to mention rails and ships that account for over 20 percent of commodity transport in North America. Those would be hit hard, too.
Without transportation, the world would stop and communities would suddenly become very isolated and very small.
So many of our foods are imported from overseas. A long-term power outage could threaten the food chain.
It’s hard to overstate how much the American food chain is reliant on transportation. In a world where US shoppers buy apples grown in China and rice grown in India, dozens of things have to go right for a meal to end up on our plates. A world-wide solar EMP could cripple these fragile networks that make that possible.
Add to that the fact that refrigeration systems could also fail, causing billions of dollars of food to spoil. And without computers to manage inventory, retailers would have a hard time keeping food and water on shelves. Pharmacies may not be able to re-stock prescriptions. All of this amid rushes on grocery stores that would make COVID-19 runs look quaint.
Most gravity-fed municipal water systems do require electricity for continued long-term function.
Much of the US water supply is powered by gravity, but that doesn’t mean it doesn’t need electricity to run.
Many water systems rely on “supervisory control and data acquisition” systems (SCADA). These are automated control systems operated by computers that manage processes to keep water flowing. When these systems power off, the likelihood of contamination or all-out shutdown shoot up .
As an example, in 1999 the San Diego SCADA system was disrupted by an electromagnetic interference. This left critical valves stuck open and closed, and human technicians to rush to the locations and control operations manually until power was restored. If they hadn’t been able to get there in time, the entire system would have catastrophically failed, spilling thousands of gallons of sewage per minute into the water supply.
With so much interconnectedness between utilities, water system shutdowns aren’t the only threats to supplies when power goes out. For example, power outages at a chemical plan could spew toxic waste into water sources.
COMMUNICATIONS NETWORK FAILURE
Regardless what happens to the power grid, after a major EMP there would be no TV, radio, or phone service. The same energy damaging the grid would fry your devices in an instant. You wouldn’t be able to call an ambulance, doctor, or the police. You’d stop getting disaster-related information that could save your life. You wouldn’t know how friends and family in other cities or states were doing without traveling there.
Regardless what happened to the power grid, an EMP would fry your communications devices in an instant.
Maybe worst of all, if there were any way to communicate over distance, everyone in your community would be clamoring to get it. Any remaining communications lines would become backed up to the point of being useless.
REASONS FOR OPTIMISM
Of course, this is all just worst-case thinking, but it’s an important mental exercise if you want to be prepared. If you think the military and major government and business organizations haven’t run through these scenarios, think again.
There are plenty of reasons to be cautiously optimistic about EMP preparedness too, not the least of which is the fact that the president himself recently issued an executive order to coordinate a national response to them.
Will an EMP capable of destroying civilization ever come? Most definitely.
Will it actually destroy civilization? We won’t know for sure until it gets here.
Between now and then, all we can do is prepare for the worst so we can hope for the best.