We have seen swaths of Americans without power and basics services for weeks. We have seen the worst from desperate people in these situations.
What we have never witnessed is a nation of 300 million or even a quarter of the nation, 75 million people, falling victim to a compromised electrical grid. Even a partial grid down scenario would, to some degree, affect the flow of information, services and resources all over the nation.
The best source of EMP knowledge available is a report created by a committee of brilliant men and women. They are called the Commission to Assess the Threat to the United States from Electromagnetic Pulse (EMP) Attack.
“Because of the ubiquitous dependence of U.S. society on the electrical power system, its vulnerability to an EMP attack, coupled with the EMP’s particular damage mechanisms, creates the possibility of long-term, catastrophic consequences. The implicit invitation to take advantage of this vulnerability, when coupled with increasing proliferation of nuclear weapons and their delivery systems, is a serious concern. A single EMP attack may seriously degrade or shut down a large part of the electric power grid in the geographic area of EMP exposure effectively instantaneously. There is also a possibility of functional collapse of grids beyond the exposed area, as electrical effects propagate from one region to another.”
Excerpt from the Report of the Commission to Assess the Threat to the United States from Electromagnetic Pulse (EMP) Attack.
We live and operate in a fully connected and dependent system. We will observe the many consequences of an EMP attack on our highly-integrated systems.
Banking and Finance
According to the President’s National Security Telecommunications Advisory Committee (NSTAC):
“The financial services industry has evolved to a point where it would be impossible to operate without the efficiencies of information technology and networks.”
There are trades happening electronically faster than we can even fathom. The scary thing about all of this is that we have created a system that can only go forward. There is no standing still or going back. Banks would go into panic mode and they would be hard pressed to give out any cash money. Cash on hand is not the strong suit of most Americans.
Petroleum and Natural Gas
Though we are dealing with natural substances born of the earth the systems in place to refine, hold and transport this energy would be affected. Just as we discussed in the section on infrastructure valves, shutoffs and other components would be rendered inoperable. The flow of energy will come to a standstill in the face of an EMP.
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This powerful report describes telecommunications about as thoroughly as possible.
- The mix of equipment used to initiate and receive voice, data, and video messages (e.g., cell phones and personal computers).
- The associated media (e.g., fiber optics and copper) and equipment (e.g., multiplexers) that transport those messages.
- The equipment that routes the messages between destinations (e.g., Internet Protocol [IP]-based routers).
- The basic and enhanced services offered by communications carriers such as AT&T, Verizon Wireless, and Comcast.
- The supporting monitoring and management systems that identify, mitigate, and repair problems that can impact performance of services.
- The supporting administrative systems for functions such as billing.
This explanation helps you understand just how much of your own life would be effected. Now imagine a world that is inextricably tied by these services. The true effect of the EMP is not merely the loss of electricity but a punishing blow to these systems that all depend on one another.
Whether we are talking about railroad, trucking, maritime or air travel each will be drastically affected by an EMP. The very GPS and satellite information that drives these modes of transportation could be compromised not to mention our discussion on the energies they need to be fueled.
Of course, without these heavy freight transports food and textile resources would no longer move either. By now you are probably starting to understand just how connected and dependent these systems are.
Now the obvious challenge with water will be the machinery that skims and cleans it as well as the pumps that prevent backflow. I want to present a different concern to the ‘pool’ of issues.
The analysis of our water is done primarily by TOC (totally organic carbon) analyzers that measure pollutants and other disease causing pathogens. Without our ability to analyze the water we would have to create a common and consistent method of measuring water quality. This could result in hundreds of thousands of sick people if not done correctly.
Related: 5 Water Storage Myths
Food processing—cleaning, sorting, packaging, and canning of all kinds of agricultural and meat products—is typically an automated operation, performed on assembly lines by electrically powered machinery.
Like so many of the systems we have created our food system has worked us into a corner. We would have to build new machines and employ hundreds of thousands of people to do the cleaning, sorting, packaging and preserving of all the food required to feed our nation.
That said we are in luck in that most of it grows in the nation. Many countries struggle to feed themselves on domestic product. Still, much of our farming is based on gas powered equipment as well. So, we would be stifled there as well.
Refrigerators and freezers would stop working immediately after an EMP strike and the food will spoil in a matter of days.
Whether we measure the effectiveness of emergency services by their access to energy, emergency supplies or ability to communicate it’s clear that these services will be insufficient. We have very real deficiencies in our emergency systems in today’s fast paced world. An EMP would place the burden of emergency services on local resources only. In areas like Manhattan there simply wouldn’t be enough to go around.
A high altitude EMP could damage satellites directly. There is some debate on this topic. What is not up for debate is that ground communications to those satellites will be disrupted. That is crucial because most satellites operate unhindered after the initial programming. The ping back of information from the satellite is often what counts. On the ground there would be no way to receive that information or communicate additional programming to those satellites above.
Keeping The Citizenry Informed: Effects On People
According to the Commission:
The human consequences of such a scenario include the social and psychological reactions to a sudden loss of stability in the modern infrastructure over a large area of the country. Loss of connectivity between the government and its populace would only exacerbate the consequences of such a scenario.
Failure of the vast array of systems mentioned would cause wide spread panic and it will be imperative that the public is communicated with. One of the greatest villains to arise following an EMP could be the vacuum of information to the public.
When you read stories about the world being thrust back to the 1800’s an EMP can truly have that effect. However, this is not an apt scenario. Instead we would have to figure out how to run a country like it were the 1800’s while living in the shell of a 21st century world. The hurdles may be far too high to get over.
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