Of all the different survival scenarios we prepare for, an EMP or its naturally occurring cousin, the CME is probably the scariest. That’s because of the extent of the damage such an event would cause, taking out the electrical grid and much of the electronics we all depend on every day.
Nevertheless, there’s a lot of confusion about just exactly what will go down, should we ever be hit by an EMP.
Part of this confusion comes from the commonly held belief that an EMP will destroy all electronics. In turn, this idea has been pushed a lot by post-apocalyptic fiction and writings by less informed writers in the prepping and survival community.
To be fair to those writers, finding the truth about EMP and its effects can be a bit difficult, with so much poor information around. In many cases, they’re only repeating what they’ve seen, from sources they thought they could trust.
Nevertheless, they’re helping to perpetuate a false narrative; and one that could cause people some serious problems.
We have known about EMP since the Manhattan Project in World War II. The scientists working on that project measured it as part of the testing of the first atomic bomb. But at that time, EMP was of little concern because the electronics of the day were too both too primitive and too robust to be affected by it. The first real proof we had of EMP causing damage to electronics was from the Starfish Prime test in 1962. Even then, scientists were surprised by the results.
However, Starfish Prime didn’t bring all electronics to a stop, even though it had a rather extensive impact. Part of that was due to the technical level of the electronics in that time. The one thing that was taken totally off-line was a microwave relay station; which actually makes sense, as it was probably the most sophisticated electronics within the potential effective cone of the blast. In electronics, sophisticated equals susceptible to EMP, as it has the largest impact on the most delicate solid state electronics, especially computer chips.
There has been little further testing of EMP by nuclear explosion, although there are facilities which regularly perform EMP testing. So, while actual test results are still limited, they are not unknown. That gives us some very real data we can and should use for our own planning. Based on that, let’s look at some commonly held misconceptions that could be causing us problems in our planning.
EMP Will Stop All Cars with Computers in Them
Probably one of the most persistent ideas about an EMP is that all cars will simply stop working. The general idea makes sense, since pretty much all cars since the 1970s have been built with computers in them. While those early computers were only used to control the engine’s burn efficiency, pretty much everything in today’s cars is controlled in some way by computers.
But cars are one of those things that were tested by the EMP Commission. They used a wide variety of automobiles, mostly belonging to people working as part of the commission. Of the over 50 vehicles tested, only three stalled and all of those restarted. With that being the case, why do so many preppers believe their cars will instantly stop running and it won’t be possible to restart them?
That’s not to say that our cars will necessarily be usable. While the cars might still work, we’re going to quickly run out of gasoline. What gasoline does exist will not be readily available, as it will either be in underground tanks at the gas stations or in the huge tanks at the refineries. So the key is going to be having a way to pump that gas, so that we can get it into our vehicles to use; at least until it runs out.
EMP Will Fry all Computers
There are two different ways that EMP will fry electronics; either by direct absorption of the E1 and E2 pulses or by the massive surge in our power lines caused by the E3 pulse.
For computers connected and in operation, both of these are serious risks. All the wires we have interconnecting our computers to their various peripherals will absorb the E1 and E2 pulses. Then, milliseconds later, a massive surge will come through the power cord from the E3 pulse, destroying whatever is left.
But most of us have computers sitting in the closet or basement that aren’t connected; older models that aren’t in use. Those will probably survive.
Not only will they not have the connecting wires that will allow any of those pulses to reach the circuitry inside, but the case itself makes a pretty good Faraday Cage. We’ll need to get some power running, so that we can use those computers, but they will still likely to be functional.
EMP Will Stop Our Cell Phones from Working
Surprisingly, cell phones will probably continue to work, although you won’t be able to call anyone on them. The problem will be the cell phone network, which has antennas. Those antennas will most likely absorb some of the EMP, frying the electronics that run the system.
But that doesn’t mean your phone won’t still be useful. We all have a number of off-line apps we use, which are installed on our phones. Those will probably still work, because the phones are small enough that they won’t absorb much in the way of EMP.
On the other hand, if the phone is connected for charging, that wire might just be enough of an antenna to absorb the EMP necessary to fry the phone.
EMP Will Stop All Electronic Communications
One of the things that is protected from EMP is our nation’s communications, especially the telephone system. The automated phone switchboards which are the heart of this system are required by FCC regulation to be in a building that is shielded from EMP.
They are also required to have backup generators with tanks of fuel. The question then becomes whether those backup generators will start, which will all depend on how much electronic controls they have.
Of course, even if they do get the generators to run, their fuel supply will eventually run out. But there should be communications for at least a few days, allowing families to check on each other and emergency plans to be made.
EMP Will Destroy All Electric and Electronic Devices
This is probably the biggest lie going. EMP will destroy any and all solid-state electronics, especially if they are connected to antennas, other cables or your home’s power. But that doesn’t mean that it will destroy everything. When the first atomic bombs were tested, it didn’t destroy a thing.
There are a couple of major factors to consider here. First, not all electronic or electrical devices contain solid-state electronics. If you have a low-cost washer and dryer that uses a dial control, it will probably continue working, if you can come up with the electricity to run them, because there are no solid state electronics to be damaged. On the other hand, the newer models with the touch-screen controls will definitely stop working, as those touch-screens are connected to solid-state electronics.
Pretty much anything electronic which was built before the 1970s will still work, especially appliances and tube-type radios. It’s the newer stuff that’s going to have problems.
Another thing to consider is the antenna affect that I mentioned earlier. Electronics which are not connected to anything else, especially small electronics, are likely to survive.
Another thing to remember is that there are warehouses scattered across this country which contain electronic devices, boxed up and waiting for deliver to retailers or to customers. Most of those warehouses are metal buildings, making them near-perfect Faraday Cages. All those electronics should survive, even if the computers which hold the inventory lists don’t.
EMP Will Cause Airplanes to Fall Out of the Sky
Airplanes are one of the few things manufactured today, which are tested for EMP resilience as part of their design process. While there is some glass area in the cockpit, which could theoretically give the EMP access to the plane’s electronics, that doesn’t mean that all the electronics on the plane would cease to work. Even if some systems, went down, all commercial airplanes have redundancies built in. Pilots would most likely be able to land their airplanes safely, even if they couldn’t take off again.
Lightning strikes on airplanes are actually much more common than people realize. But like an EMP, the electricity from the lightning just works its way across the surface of the airplane, and then continues on towards the ground. For it to damage the airplane, it the plane would have to be grounded. That only happens when the plane is on the ground and connected to power there.
That’s not to say that commercial airlines won’t have some serious problems to deal with. For one thing, the air traffic control system will likely be down, unless it is EMP shielded. I haven’t heard anything about it being shielded and there doesn’t seem to be anything online saying that it is.
There’s also a high probability that the radios they use, as well as navigational aids, such as ADFs and runway lights will be down. The pilots will have a challenge getting their planes on the ground safely, but they are all highly trained and should be able to get the job done.
EMP Will Bring Down All Utilities
Another area that is required by regulation to have generator backup is water treatment plants. So, while the electrical grid is the one thing most likely to be destroyed by the EMP, chances are that water and sewer will stay on for a few days, at least until they run out of power.
Natural gas produces their own electrical power from massive generators run by engines that burn natural gas. It’s questionable whether they will be operational after the EMP or not. I imagine some will and some won’t. Mostly, it will depend on whether the generators and controls are inside metal buildings or not.
It would seem to me that petroleum companies would prioritize getting whatever fuel they have to critical users, in the event of an EMP. But as of right now, I haven’t found any information stating that such plans are in place or how they would implement them. So, even if utilities do survive, expect that they won’t be lasting long.
EMP Will Destroy Solar Panels
One of the surprising things to survive EMP is also one of the most exposed; that’s solar panels. While solar panels will receive some damage from exposure to EMP, they will still retain 80 to 90 percent of their power production. Considering that solar panels are built with the assumption that they will never be operating at 100% efficiency, they should still produce enough power to be useful.
Even in a worst-case scenario, where the panels weren’t producing more than 12 volts at full sunlight, all that would have to be done to make those solar panels useful is to connect pairs of panels together in series, adding the voltage they produce. Normally, they are connected together in parallel, increasing the amount of current they produce. Making pairs in series and then connecting the pairs in parallel will cut the amount of current in half, but at least you’d have electricity.
Related: How to Build Your Own Solar Panels
A Faraday Cage Must be Solid, Uninterrupted Metal
There are a lot of false ideas about how to build Faraday Cages. To understand this correctly, we must understand how the case works. That is, it serves as a conductor for the EMP, attracting it like radio waves and allowing the EMP to flow across its surface. Once the EMP arrives at the other side, it will continue traveling on to ground.
Here’s the thing though; radio waves don’t need a solid metal surface to interrupt them. Take a look at a power pole with the wires strung on it. To radio waves, those three wires may as well be a solid wall. They can go over it and they can go under it; but they can’t go through it. So, making a Faraday Cage out of metal poultry cloth is just as effective as making it out of a galvanized trash can.
I’ve seen a few pictures lately online, showing a Faraday Cage made out of insulating foam for construction, with an aluminum skin on one side. The problem with those pictures, is that they made their cage with the aluminum skin on the inside, rather than on the outside. With it constructed that way, the metal conductor (the aluminum) can have direct contact with the electronic devices inside the cage. That negates their efforts; the devices inside must be insulated from the metal skin of the cage, in order for the Faraday Cage to do its job.
An EMP Will Render the Military Ineffective
There’s a lot of speculation about just what effect an EMP will have on the military and just how effective the military will be after such an attack. For obvious reasons, the military is very secretive about such information, not wanting it to get out.
Just let me say this; if there’s any part of the government which takes EMP seriously, it’s the military. Military aircraft designs are all tested for EMP resilience’ the same for many military vehicles and weapons systems. The Air Force has reopened Cheyenne Mountain, bringing the systems installed there up to date, because the facility is EMP proof.
On top of all that, our military forces are scattered around the globe. Even in a worst-case scenario, where the EMP took out a lot of our forces, we would still probably have one of the largest militaries in the world, just from the forces which are stationed overseas, outside of the area affected by the EMP.
A Nuclear Explosion Causing an EMP will be Invisible
While post-apocalyptic fiction always has the EMP take place with total invisibility, that’s not necessarily how things will go down if we are attacked by an EMP. A lot will depend on what time day the EMP takes place and what the cloud cover is like.
But assuming the attack is during low light, we should see something along the lines of the Northern Lights. While most people won’t recognize that for what it is, if it happens and the power goes out, it will most likely be an EMP.
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