What’s this EMP thing all about?

The world is nuts.  So I’ve started thinking more about this whole EMP thing all over again.  Disclaimer: I have no insider knowledge about any of this and this is merely my attempt at organizing my thoughts.  Do your own research and draw your own conclusions.

The science fiction writer Arthur C. Clarke once said “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.”  So let’s talk about magic.

I’ll start with my background.  I was a Missile Combat Crew Commander, in charge of Minuteman III ICBMs during my Air Force days.  Interesting job, but the work was awful (and Minot, ND was worse).  But I learned a whole bunch of nothing about EMPs during my Air Force stint… which only fueled my desire to learn about these magical creatures.  Thankfully, some of my friends DO know about these things – and since the NSA is reading this, I shouldn’t name any names.  But much of the information here came from people much smarter than myself, in addition to two government-funded studies that are now in the public domain.

Disclaimer #2: if you’re one of the lucky few that actually has insider knowledge of EMPs, congratulations: the NSA and the DOE have probably locked you in a room with no internet connection.  But if you escape that room sometime, let’s grab coffee.  Aside from a handful of government-sanctioned studies (below), all of the real answers about EMPs are highly classified.  So that leaves the rest of us internet half-wits to make educated guesses.  I one day aspire to be such an internet half-wit.

The first study was published by the Commission to Assess the Threat to the Unites States from Electromagnetic (EMP) Attack and was released in 2004, the same day as the 9/11 Commission report – which is why no one really heard of it.  Well, that and the name is WAY too long to be taken seriously.  The second study was its successor – the 2008 Critical National Infrastructures Report.

So what exactly is an electromagnetic pulse (EMP)?  According to the 2004 study, it’s this:

Briefly, a single nuclear weapon exploded at high altitude above the United States will interact with the Earth’s atmosphere, ionosphere, and magnetic field to produce an electromagnetic pulse (EMP) (also known as high-altitude EMP or HEMP) radiating down to the Earth and additionally create electrical currents in the Earth. EMP effects are both direct and indirect. The former are due to electromagnetic “shocking” of electronics and stressing of electrical systems, and the latter arise from the damage that “shocked”—upset, damaged, and destroyed—electronics controls then inflict on the systems in which they are embedded. The indirect effects can be even more severe than the direct effects.

Remember this thing from the movie Ocean’s Eleven?

The “pinch”

If you didn’t see the movie, bear with me on the physics for a moment.  Some devices, because of magic, can be capable of releasing magical energy which overloads electrical circuits, destroying the electrical equipment permanently.  In the movie, they called such a magical device “the pinch.”  This Hollywood creation only temporarily caused an electrical interruption, so maybe this was a bad example.  But at least you saw the potential – all electrical devices in the blast radius stopped working, while the people were unharmed.

So back to reality.  Back in the early years of nuclear weapons, the brightest nuclear physicists on Planet Earth really had no idea how some of these devices would actually behave.  They could theorize with the best of them… but theory only took you so far.  So we did some testing – a LOT of testing.  Seriously, there’d be a room full of DoD reps and nuclear physicists sitting around going “Hey, what would happen if you detonated a 5 kiloton device 200 feet below an aircraft carrier?”  “No idea – let’s go find out.”  And so they’d float a WWII aircraft carrier out in the Pacific somewhere and nuke it from below.  Then they’d make a bunch of notes, and then they’d be back in the same room again with more crazy questions.  I’m not kidding when I say they did this dozens, or hundreds, of different times.  And you thought government work was boring.  Great time to reference one of my favorite movies of all time (only 6.2 out of 10??).

During one of these tests, someone had the brilliant idea to send a nuke up to 400 kilometers over an island in the South Pacific and detonate it – the Starfish Prime test.  But during that test, something unexpected happened – they destroyed electronic circuits up to 1400 kilometers away from the detonation.  It blew out street lights, tripped circuit breakers, triggered burglar alarms, damaged a telecommunications relay facility, and all sorts of other fun stuff – from Australia to Hawaii.  So like every good test, the world’s most brilliant thinkers did the whole “hmm… maybe we should write that down.”  Not unlike this:


Gary Larson = Genius

The military implications of that were significant.  And here’s the interesting part: the Starfish Prime test occurred in 1962, when vacuum tubes were standard in many electronic devices.  Electronics have changed significantly since then – that test today would have MUCH different results.  If it runs on or contains an electrical circuit, the magic kills it.  Technical enough for you?

But not to be outdone, the Soviets heard rumors of this awesome new test we did and conducted some of their own over their own test site in South Central Asia (Soviet Test 184) – and they had similar results: surge arrestor burnount, spark-gap breakdown, blown fuses, and power supply breakdowns.  So now the secret was out – nuclear devices, if configured properly, can unleash powerful magic energy which blows electronic circuits.

Hypothetically, if I were going to invade another country, I’d be pretty interested in getting my hands on some of this magic technology.  Just sayin’.

Here’s something important: this magic energy only works in line-of-sight.  So if you detonate a nuclear device at ground level, the blast/heat/radiation effects are significant (just ask Sarah Connor’s nightmare) – but the EMP effects only extend out a short distance.  But, if you could get that device waaaaay up into the atmosphere, you could see massive EMP effects over a huge area.

Magic can be far-reaching

So here’s where this gets truly scary: because the potential damage from an EMP would be so massive, so hard to prevent, and so expensive to mitigate, the official U.S. plan for dealing with an EMP was “hope that it never happens.”

We could spend more time on the physics involved, but frankly, you’d need to talk to someone much smarter than me.  Trust me, it’s magic.  It’s like Phase 2 in this picture:

Now that we’re all clear on the science and the history, let’s move on to the fun stuff – how this affects us.  The scary part is that our enemies know two things:

  1. They know how EMPs work
  2. They know how dependent on electrical devices we are.  Hold on, I’m getting a call and a Facebook message.  Ok, I’m back.

In a world of nuclear proliferation, getting your hands on an EMP-capable device is assumed to be a LOT easier than we’d like it to be.  But the real catch probably would be getting that device up to 200 or 300 miles above the surface of the earth.  Rocket technology like that doesn’t grow on trees.  But when a country like Iran or North Korea test-fire a new rocket/missile, and then they blow it up halfway into it’s projected flight… and then the West calls the test a failure… maybe we’re missing the big picture.  Maybe the goal wasn’t to deliver something onto an earthly target – maybe the goal was purely to get some altitude.  Hmm.

It’s no secret that the Russians and the Chinese have been developing EMP weapons for years.  Speculation is that “Super-EMP” weapons likely already exist.  It is alleged by some in the intelligence community that the Russians have helped the North Koreans build such a weapon, potentially even Iran.  Side note: which side of the US/Syria conflict would Russia and Iran be on?  I forget.

According to one shady source, Al Qaeda is known to own 80 freighters.  This is significant because it’s feasible an EMP/nuclear device would be crudely launched from a freighter.  You don’t need a high-tech missile destroyer, only a semi-stable platform that could be parked a few miles off the U.S. coast.  Remember, accuracy of the missile itself is largely irrelevant.  At least one really smart fiction author thinks that’s how it’ll go down.

But it’s not just our phones that we’d lose: it’s everything.  Seriously.  Think about this:

  • The world runs on the internet.  The internet is controlled by electronic equipment.
  • Phone systems are controlled by electronic equipment… and most of it runs across the internet today anyway.
  • Walmart and grocery stores are re-stocked many times a week – up to three times a DAY in some cases – and they’re restocked by trucks that don’t run without electricity.
  • Televisions and radios are electronic devices, meaning you couldn’t just turn on the news to find out what’s going on.
  • Nearly every car now is extremely dependent on electrical parts.
  • How does water end up coming out of your faucet when you turn it on?  That’s right, electrical pumps.
  • All your guns are locked up in a $10,000 Liberty Safe… but it has an electronic lock.  Damn!
  • We have 6 months of food in cans in the basement… but only an electric can opener.  And now I just broke my crowbar trying to get in my safe.
  • The kids are screaming because the Xbox won’t turn on and my wife’s hair now is standing up 3-feet over hear head because the curler/flattener/whoknowswhatitis stopped working.  But at least I got half my face shaved before my electric razor died.

So the water is going to stop running in a couple hours (where’s the nearest outhouse??), the food in the fridge is going bad, the car won’t start, I can’t turn on the tv to get the stock report, the kids are screaming, I can’t get to the ATM to get more cash (not like it would work anyway), my stupid phone won’t turn on, the air conditioning is out, the dogs are hungry, my neighbors are fighting, I’m down to a 6-pack of Shiner Bock, and I’m going to miss the Rockies game tonight.  I’m screwed.

Quick aside: the power went out in our neighborhood the other day and the first thing I did was grab my cell phone… still on.  Not an EMP.  Turns out, my wife did exactly the same thing.  So I’ve corrupted at least one soul with knowledge of EMPs.  Victory is mine!!

An EMP event can vary significantly depending on a multitude of factors – altitude of the burst, yield of the device itself, angle of incidence, amplitude, atmospheric interference, magic, etc.  So there’s no way to say “these devices will be safe.”

But we can still probably make some general statements that most who have studied EMPs will agree with (I hope):

  • Most experts agree that the electrical grid will act like a giant antenna, in fact amplifying the effect of the EMP.
  • A majority of power relay and substations are likely to be toast.
  • Household items plugged into the grid are more likely susceptible to damage if they are plugged in during the EMP event.
  • Arcing between electronic devices, if if one is unplugged but nearby, is theoretically possible.
  • Even if a personal electronic device remained fully functional after the event, how many require power for operation?  i.e. if your cell phone turns on… what could you still do with it if the entire cellular network (and all cell networks) is gone?
  • So the electrical grid itself is down until massive substations and relay stations can be rebuilt with new parts.  Then you get into “hot starts” vs. “cold starts,” but I can tell your brain is already nearing capacity.
  • If there is any degree of advanced warning, some systems can be shutdown or taken completely offline, dramatically increasing the probability of their survival.  But keep in mind that the current electrical grid is already operating at or near max capacity.  There will have to be significant engineering and manufacturing work to get the grid back to even a portion of its operational capability today.
  • Many military systems will survive.  Woo hoo!  I’m not sure how that helps you and me exactly, but at least we can nuke them back.
  • Here’s some good news: according to some experts, it’s likely that many vehicles, even modern cars, will still be functional… maybe even some or most aircraft as well.  Woo hoo!  The EMP Commission tested 50 cars for EMP effect at 25kV/m and 10% of the cars stopped running (vs. 99% of cars that stopped working in One Second After); one or two had to have the computer chip replaced to start running again.  Granted, it’s a small sample size and the test was relatively low power… but I’ll take it.  Maybe William Forstchen missed the boat on this one.  Let’s hope.
  • More good news: according to at least one credible source, EMPs can NOT be used in conjunction with other EMP events to “magnify” the effect.  The physics gets complicated (magic), but atmospheric ionization and other factors mean that 2 or more simultaneous EMP events doesn’t make the effect any worse than one would.
  • Vacuum tubes are NOT EMP-proof.  Vacuum tube devices were destroyed in the 1962 test events.  However, they do tend to be many times more resistant to EMP effects than solid-state devices.
  • LED and CFL lights are highly susceptible to EMP effect.  I hate you, Al Gore.
  • Wait, most of my flashlights have LEDs inside.  Damn!
  • CD and DVD data (optical media) is NOT affected by EMP.  I’m not sure how you’d get the data off those things, but hey, it’s better than nothing.
  • Anything with an antenna is more susceptible to the EMP.  But your wrist watch, for example, because it has no real antenna, might be just fine.

So what can we do to protect ourselves again an EMP?  Enter English scientist Michael Faraday who invented something called a Faraday Cage (he’s a marketing wizard) in 1836.  A Faraday Cage or Faraday Shield is an enclosure formed by conducting material or by a mesh of such conducting material.  The enclosure blocks out external static and non-static electric fields.  The whole idea is to conduct the electricity or charged particles around the outside of the box/cage – not through it.

When it comes to EMPs, however, the catch is that the box has to be perfectly sealed with no gaps… which can be a difficult task.  But in theory, a Faraday Cage could protect electronic devices from some or most EMPs.  However, mesh size, perforations, and wires are all susceptible to imperfection and depending on the exact nature of the EMP, may not even be a perfect protector anyway.  The EMP blast is full spectrum – so some energy will likely get through.

Keep in mind that copper wiring (a great conductor) will likely act like an antenna – so any grounding wires could, in theory, do more harm than good.

A cheap alternative may be something like an “EMP bag” like this: http://techprotectbag.com/  I’ve heard for years that some old microwave ovens make great Faraday Cages, so some friends and I did a test – we put a cell phone into one of those old microwave ovens to see if we could call the phone… and it rang.  Radio waves aren’t exactly the same as EMP magic, but it’s a decent measuring stick.  So in our very limited test, the microwave oven thing was a failure.  BUT, we tried the same test with one of those TechProtect bags – and it worked!  Well, by “worked,” I mean that at least the phone didn’t ring when we called it.  So take that for whatever it’s worth.

Another popular theory is one of “nested Faraday cages,” in which you wrap an item in an insulator like cardboard, wax paper, bubble wrap, etc., completely, and then wrap that in a conductor like aluminum foil… then you make multiple layers of alternating insulator/conductor.  The theory is that each layer provides some level of EMP protection – so more layers are better than one.  Cool.

If you learn that you have been in an EMP attack, don’t make any premature assumptions about how bad it may have been.  It’s possible that the EMP may have just hit one part of the country, or it may have been with a relatively small weapon so that the power grid may be back up-and-running in a few weeks.  It also could be from a large weapon, or multiple weapons, that totally destroyed the infrastructure of the entire country.  There’s a wide range of possibilities for how an EMP attack could unfold.

We keep our handheld ham radios in those fancy EMP ziploc bags.  Will they still work after an EMP attack?  I hope to never find out.  I know people who keep a portable generator sealed in a metal trash can.  I’m still working on getting my own portable generator.  But if you have things that you could need post-EMP attack, maybe it’s worth trying to protect them.

Anyway, aside from wondering how Miley Cyrus could possibly top her last act and how this garden hose shrinks up to nearly nothing, this is one of those things I think about.  Not counting the standard “I’d like a beer and I’d like to see something naked,” of course.

If you’re interested in learning more (God help you), start here:

  1. http://www.empactamerica.org/
  2. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Electromagnetic_pulse
  3. http://www.futurescience.com/emp/EMP-myths.html
  4. http://www.futurescience.com/emp/emp-protection.html
  5. http://www.centerforsecuritypolicy.org/category/homeland-security/infrastructure-and-emp/

If you can’t sleep some night and you want to hear more about E1, E2, and E3, let me know.  Until then, I’d be interested to know what you think about all of this.

And congratulations – you just read 3,000 words about science.  This guy is proud of you now.

Carry on, Colorado!

9 comments on “What’s this EMP thing all about?

  1. Good stuff.
    Yet it ain’t EMP or solar surges I worry about, it’s the kid in his bedroom bored with TV and wondering what mischief he or she can get up to with his laptop that scares the poo out of me..

  2. Dean says:

    Good post.

    Most people don’t realize the fragile shell of civilization technology has created for the modern world.

    Some people liken EMP to a lightning strike, and suggest a surge protector for protection. Lightning pulse rise time is a few millionths of a second, lasting hundreds of milliseconds at lower frequencies than EMP. Lightning field strength is a few thousand volts per meter (highest at 50-100yds). EMP pulse rise time is a few billionths of a second, lasting less than a thousandth of a second in <100MHz frequency range (esp. 100kHz – 10MHz). Field strength can be 50,000 volts per meter. While 99% of HEMP energy is at frequencies below 100mHz, most HEMP occurs in the frequency ranges between 100kHz and 10mHz.

    For lightning, you want to ground equipment, but with EMP, that grounding becomes an antenna for receiving the pulse energy.

    SCADA is another huge vulnerability because of their prevalence in our high-tech, modern society. SCADA (Supervisory Control and Data Acquisition) systems collect data from various sensors in a factory, plant or other remote locations and transmit the data to a central system to then manage and control the systems for which the data was collected. Some examples of SCADA use include control of sensors, relays, pumps and conveyors in manufacturing and distribution systems, remote monitoring of systems in hazardous environments, facilities requiring precise climate control, mining plants, water and electrical utility installations, oil and gas refineries, pipelines, nuclear power plants and mass transit systems. According to the Critical National Infrastructure Report (http://www.empcommission.org/docs/A2473-EMP_Commission-7MB.pdf), released April 2008, general-purpose desktop computers and SCADA remote and master terminal units were the most susceptible to damage or upset of all items tested. The result of EMP interrupting these systems, even temporarily, would cause a catastrophic failure of the systems, and in the case of transportation systems, an immediate risk of a significant loss of life.

    EMP can cause two types of damage in electrical equipment, functional damage and operational upset. Functional damage is physical damage to the equipment which requires replacement or repair of components. Operational upset does not show any physical damage but interferes with the operation of the equipment by erasing data from a computer memory or by causing a computer device to send an erroneous signal to the piece of equipment it controls. Operational upset can occur at EMP energy levels that are 1% to 10% of those required to inflict functional damage.

    I attended a meeting where a representative from a power company was the guest speaker. He said that if a power generating system were destroyed, it would take about 18 months to get a replacement. If it takes 18 months to replace ONE system, How long would it take to replace the hundreds damaged by EMP.

    In testimony before the Committee on Armed Services of the U.S. House of Representatives on July 22, 2004, Nuclear Physicist, Dr. Lowell Wood, said that EMP would "move us back to the nineteenth century." When questioned that technology from the nineteenth century could not support our present population, he replied "Yes, I know. The population will shrink until it [can] be supported by the technology."

    Here are a couple of articles:

    While not directly tied to EMP, this article could add "Beat out Tech, Beat America" http://www.nypost.com/p/news/opinion/opedcolumnists/item_yRdfkWC5loJ784hSoFq7gO;jsessionid=D991671A4ADECEB36490466D61628FE9

  3. Ron says:

    With Syria’s Assad regime aligned with Russia and Iran, and the Rebels aligned with Al Quiada, and Russia sending war ships into the Mediterranean….. Jees Jeff, what could possibly go wrong?

    By the way, A while back I did try that cell phone test by putting the phone into one of those metal ammo cans. The phone didn’t ring. Our EMP guru didn’t think that work because there was too much of a gap. But I’m not so sure, they are meant to keep water out I believe.

    • Good point, Ron – I forgot about the ammo cans. Yeah the trick would be getting the seal – but if you’re worried about it, wrap the whole darn thing in aluminum foil (or wrap whatever you have in side in an insulator/conductor. 🙂

  4. Tim Pickles says:

    Check out the book, “The Pulse of Allah” by James Knight on Amazon or Barnes and Noble. It talks about the effects that this might have if we are attacked by a Middle Eastern coalition. It’s a scary book! http://www.amazon.com/The-Pulse-of-Allah-ebook/dp/B00AA29LEO/ref=zg_bsnr_157072011_10

  5. Our novel, Post Grid, is about life in the Arizona desert after an EMP. We assume widespread devastation because it make for a novel not filled with “this works but this doesn’t.” It has been an Amazon #1 Best seller for 5 consecutive months which tells us people are interested and afraid. For the non-believers in EMP damage, we find it interesting that the military has put so much time, effort and money into hardening its equipment. They have just announced that they have spent $700 million dollars to shield a bunker from attack http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-3068216/Pentagon-spend-2billion-shield-War-Games-mountain-bunker-EMP-attack-North-Korea-Iran.html.

  6. […] makes this passage from Jeff Meeks EMP blog all the more […]

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