This post is part of our Common Sense Preparedness series, where our goal is to help you be prepared for whatever life throws at you. EMP or Electro Magnetic Pulse has been in the news lately with the posturing of North Korea and active solar flares. This post discusses different types of EMPs, what damage they may cause and actions, if any, that you can take to prevent problems or deal with them if/when they occur.
What is an EMP (Electro Magnetic Pulse)?
An EMP or Electro Magnetic Pulse is a wave of electromagnetic radiation. An EMP will not directly hurt people, but an EMP interacts with power lines, metal and electronics and causes power spikes, or in more severe cases, failure. (A large EMP could knock out power or kill electronics.) An EMP can be caused by many things but the two most likely reasons for an EMP are a nuclear explosion or solar flare.
What could an EMP damage?
An EMP could damage:
- TVs, radios and other broadcast equipment
- Power grid transformers and substations
- Telephones (land lines) and mobile phones
- Vehicle and aircraft control systems
- Computers and all internet connected devices
- Pretty much anything electronic or powered by electricity
What is the difference between Solar and Nuclear EMP?
A nuclear EMP is a more energetic and shorter burst. A solar flare EMP is also known as a Coronal Mass Ejection or Geomagnetic storm. They can vary widely in intensity from simply causing bright “northern lights” to destroying some or all of the power grid. Solar flares can last much longer than nuclear EMPs.
Nuclear EMP Summary (High Altitude EMP)
With the proliferation of nuclear weapons, the likelihood of a nuclear EMP increases. A nuclear EMP requires a nuclear weapon delivered by a rocket, high flying aircraft or ICBM. The nuke is detonated high in the air. Worst case, the nuke is detonated in the upper atmosphere, approx 20 miles up. A large nuclear EMP like this would be very serious. A nation state or rogue state is the most likely cause of an atmospheric EMP.
The nuclear explosion itself would create little to no physical destruction, but it would create a widespread EMP and some limited fallout. That EMP would destroy or at least damage the electrical grid. It would also destroy electronics within the pulse area. Nearly all vehicle with electronic systems would fail when exposed to the EMP.
Basically, a large scale nuclear EMP damages or destroys all non-shielded electronic devices (cell phones, refrigerators, generators, inverters, TVs, radios, cars, etc) within a 500 to thousand-mile radius in a few seconds.
Note: In tests of nuclear weapons, the EMP doesn't expand in simple circles. The earth's magnetosphere deflects the blast, causing the waves to spread more strongly away from the poles. The pulse is concentrated more strongly in a semi-circular band, as shown in the image above.
How long would it take to recover from Nuclear EMP?
The time to recover from an nuclear EMP could be days, weeks or months depending on the scope, location, size and type of explosion, and altitude of the attack and the scope of damage to the electrical grid and technology infrastructure nationally.
A nuclear electromagnetic pulse would very likely destroy a massive number of electronic devices within the range of the EMP blast. The biggest fear is multiple atmospheric nuclear bursts. Multiple bursts would likely destroy the entire power grid. A total power grid failure would require years of recovery work.
Could a surface nuclear blast cause an EMP?
A terrorist group would have trouble successfully setting off a high altitude air burst and would likely use a ship and float in a nuke to a major port city. The lower altitude greatly restricts the range of the EMP damage, but increases local physical damage and radiation. This means that a surface burst EMP is serious, but unlikely and localized. A dirty bomb would tend to be devastating locally, but would not result in a widespread EMP. See also “Nuclear Radiation Exposure – Dealing with Radiation Risks“.
Nuclear EMP Details
The amount of energy created in a nuclear EMP is difficult to calculate, but we can estimate based on historical tests. A 1.44 megaton bomb test called “Starfish Prime” was detonated in 1962, about 400 kilometres (250 mi) in the mid-pacific ocean. The detonation caused electrical damage 900 miles away in Hawaii. If the same 1.4 megaton nuke was detonated off the US, it is estimated it would have created a 22 to 30 kV/m pulse at the core of its blast. A modern hydrogen bomb is 50 megatons, so the amount of EMP from one of these would be 40x more than what occurred in 1962.
Aircraft may be impacted, but the metal fuselage would function partially as a Faraday cage, so aircraft would not necessarily susceptible. The electronics in a car or truck would likely survive .25 kV/m EMP blast (especially if it’s not running), but higher than .25kV/m would damage or destroy the electronics.
The distance from the detonation will determine the amount of damage to electronics, but ultimately the area in the blast would very likely see total electrical grid failure. A functional vehicle would not necessarily do you any good if the gas stations can't pump.
Solar Flare Summary
Scientists would detect a coronal mass ejection (CME) and have time to issue a warning. It takes about 5 days for a CME to reach earth. The CME would create a geomagnetic storm or EMP on earth. It is effectively a MASSIVE extended duration EMP caused by the sun.
A large event would destroy some or all of the high voltage backbone transformers. These transformers are critical to the U.S. electric grid. Even if only a few hundred of the larger transformers were destroyed it could disable the entire interconnected system for weeks or even months. Small electronics would be unlikely to be damaged in the way a nuclear EMP would cause damage.
How long would it take to recover from Solar EMP?
The recovery time for an EMP could be days to weeks for a small EMP or months to years for a large EMP. The effects of an EMP vary widely depending on the scope, weather, grounding, location, intensity and length of the burst. The largest risk is damage to the electrical grid and technology infrastructure. A major EMP would likely result in damage to our power grid and communications equipment. It would not kill people directly but the resulting loss of power and communications would be horrible.
Solar Flare Details
A solar flare or Coronal Mass Ejection (CME) created by the sun through normal activity results in electromagnetic radiation that travels through space. That solar CME wave results in an EMP if it hits our atmosphere. Small solar flares hit earth regularly, but medium ones are rare and huge ones are extremely rare. A big solar flare could occur any time and they are highly unpredictable and extremely rare.
The largest recorded CME was the 1859 Carrington event. It lasted multiple days and impacted the entire planet. It caused telegraph wires to burst into flames, starting fires along their runs. Telegraph machines scorched paper printouts, gave operators electric shocks, and transmitted gibberish. Telegraphs continued working for hours even after being unplugged from the batteries that powered them. For two days, the light show and electromagnetic storm continued, then faded. A repeat of this event would be devastating to our modern global electronics dependent environment, impacting part or all of the entire planet.
More recent events: In 1979 there was a small solar flare that caused Toronto to be without power for an entire day. There was also a smaller flare that knocked out power in the entire province of Quebec in 1989. The odds of these events are hard to predict, but the likelihood is as high as 1 in 8 for the next 10 years.
Can you protect devices from an EMP?
Somewhat. You can shield or protect devices by:
- Building a Faraday Cage using a conductive metal container that is grounded.
- Grounding a “shell” around them and isolating them from the electromagnetic radiation/power spikes
- Using industrial grade ground fault isolation.
Again you need to decide are you preparing for a short term (weeks), long term (months) or global event. Here are some other basic protection options:
- Foil wrap: A simple Faraday cage can be made by COMPLETELY covering an object with aluminum foil. Wrap your radio with cloth or other insulation, then wrap that with a double layer of aluminum foil (to ensure no gaps). Ensure that this shell is well grounded.
- Garbage Can or other metal container: A large fairly cheap Faraday cage can be a steel garbage can with a couple of grounding rods. The steel of the garbage can interacts with the EMP and creates a voltage/current spike that is then grounded, protecting whatever is inside the garbage can. A Faraday Cage can be used to store radios, electronics and other susceptible electronic devices.
- Metal Roof: A house with a extremely well grounded metal roof could protect from an EMP, depending on the power of the pulse, because it could effectively “shield” the house by interacting with EMP and then re-directing the resulting voltage/current spike to the heavy ground wires (like lightning). A multi-day solar flare would create ongoing voltage/current. A nuclear explosion would create a spike more like a lightning strike, independently hitting everything within line of sight. A metal roof alone doesn't fix the problem, because power line spikes could negate any benefits a metal roof would provide.
- Purpose made containers:
How to Prepare for an EMP
The best course of action for most people is to focus on events such as a 72 hour power outage, or a one to two week outage. Short duration trouble is more likely than long term problems, and easier to prep for. It is possible that a global event could occur through a major meteor storm, gamma burst, major volcanic activity or any number of other catastrophes, but less likely.
Preparing for a Small EMP
Prepare as you would for a hurricane or other natural disaster. Have at least 72 hours of supplies, depending on your location and how likely you are to see a return to normalcy. Stockpile food and water, fuel, prescriptions, general medical supplies, personal hygiene items – the basics you need to survive. Plan for cooking, shelter, self defense, heating, cooling, handling medical emergencies, and garbage disposal.
- 20 Things I Wish I Had Before the Flash Flood Emergency
- When the Power Grid Fails – 10 Things You Need to Prepare
- Storage and Shelf Life of Over the Counter Medication
There's a lot of overlap between different types of emergency preparedness.
Preparing for a Large EMP
This is harder. The time to recover from a large EMP would depend on location, and could be weeks, to many months or in a worst case scenario, years. There would also be chaos as supplies dwindle, and the military would likely be called in to maintain order. (We've all seen how quickly grocery stores empty during emergencies, and supply lines would be cut.) You would likely need 4 months to over a year of supplies. Effectively, you would need to be prepared to live without power, i.e. living offgrid, for a few months to a year or more.
If you are preparing for a nuclear EMP, the recovery time would be quicker. For a big solar EMP or multiple nuclear bursts, think “no power for a long time”. With a global, multi-day major solar flare CME/ EMP, it would be many months or even years before we would recover.
Basically, you would need to prepare to live an 1800s lifestyle – wood stove, handtools, no power. Have tools and equipment necessary to garden, hunt, prepare food without electricity or gasoline. Stockpile books, tools, medicine, and learn a LOT of skills.
The other option is to store a completely protected and isolated power generation system, solar, bio diesel equipment, gasification, wind etc. and know how to put it together after the event. If you are planning on keeping modern conveniences you will need to a full electrical power generation system protected from the EMP. A Faraday Cage around solar panels, bio diesel equipment and/or a wind generator are your best bet, since you won’t be able to get gasoline or natural gas. Box up everything electrical in Faraday Cages.
Practical things you can do that would help in small and large emergencies…
Consider joining regional and national emergency communications, such as your local ARES/RACES program. (ARES = Amateur Radio Emergency Service. RACES = Radio Amateur Civil Emergency Service.) Get a shortwave radio and EMP protect it. More information here: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Amateur_Radio_Emergency_Service
Get First Aid and medical training, and you can use those skills for a storm, EMP or car accident. See Red Cross training programs, YMCA or YWCA, or check out your local vo-tech schools. Participate with your local EMTs. Volunteer to assist in local preparedness exercises. Buy or build a First Aid Kit that would serve you, your family and if you have the funds, your community.
If you don’t have basic carpentry skills, consider learning those skills. Get supplies and tools necessary to repair/improve or worse case create shelter. Get camping gear, a tent inside a cold house will stay warmer than the house alone or the tent outside. See “Winter Storm Survival – Keeping You and Your Home Warm When the Power Goes Out” for more information on sheltering in place.
Stockpile at least 3 days of the foods you regularly eat. Once you have 3 days, build up to 3 weeks, and so on. (See “Top 10 Real Foods to Store Without Electricity“.) Storage food is useful for a snow storm, tornado, short power outage or even simply feeding your family while you hunt for a new job. Don't forget a way to cook your food, too. See “Emergency Cooking – 10 Ways to Have a Hot Meal When the Power Goes Out” for more information.
For those who have livestock or pets, don't forget about their needs, too.
Store at least a week of water, or have a guaranteed way to get water without electricity. Get a bathtub water bladder and fill it IMMEDIATELY after any power event (or before if you have warning, such as a snowstorm or Solar EMP). Purchase a Berkey water filter or other water gravity fed filtration system. The higher end filters are good for an EMP or any other natural disaster. You must have one gallon of potable (drinkable) water person per day. Get LifeStraw personal water filters to carry instead of water. See”Emergency Water Storage and Filtration – What You Need to Know Before Emergencies Hit“. Again, if you have livestock or pets, plan for their needs, too. Hand pumps and large scale water storage will be essential for large numbers of animals or large animals.
BASIC TOOLS & SUPPLIES
Get a good basic tool kit (hammer, knife, screwdriver, etc.). Ensure you have tarps, duct tape and fire extinguishers. Consider other items like a bike pump and a crank cellphone charger/flashlight/radio. Think about what would you need if the power was out for days or weeks? Think about people powered options for making basic repairs.
Consider firearms. Emergency services such as the police will likely be overwhelmed and difficult to reach. If you obtain a firearm, get proper training to use and maintain it. If you don't feel confident with a firearm or they are prohibited in your area, consider other options such as pepper spray, but be aware that those causing trouble will likely be armed.
Establish good relations with neighbors before emergency situations hit, so you know someone has your back. (And you have theirs.)
It is possible a household generator would still function after a small EMP, so having the generator and some extra gas could allow you to have limited power while the grid is repaired. This would be useful in storms also. A solar USB charger can keep devices that survived the blast running without grid electricity.
Be prepared for toilets to stop functioning. You can use waste bags that fit into a conventional toilet, or a dedicated emergency toilet. See “DIY Portable Toilet, Plus Tips to Get Rid of Smells” for detailed emergency loo tips. Consider a gravity fed solar shower, and make sure you have a clean source of water for hand washing. Solar ovens can do double duty, cooking food and sterilizing water.
What You Need to Do – For EMPs and Other Large Disruptions
The basics are still the best – BE PREPARED.
- Have water storage and water filtration available.
- Stockpile the foods you eat regularly and rotate your stock.
- Determine your most basic shelter and clothing needs (clean underwear and socks are priorities)
- Learn necessary skills, such as first aid training, to take care of yourself, your family, and your community.
Many of us have seen first hand how emergencies bring out the best and worst in people. Having the tools and skills you need to get things done is never a bad investment.
This post was written by August Neverman IV. August is the Chief Information Officer and Information Security Officer of Brown County. He's served on several emergency preparedness teams during his tenure at a local hospital, as well as undergoing emergency response training during his time with the Air National Guard.