Can an EMP Attack Really Happen? Here’s What We Know
As the geopolitics of the world have grown increasingly “crazy” in the last few years, you’ve probably heard of an electromagnetic pulse (EMP) attack, but you might not know what it is or why it’s something you should be worried about.
An EMP attack involves an explosion that sends damaging waves of electromagnetic radiation into the surrounding area and can disable all manner of electrical devices nearby, including power grids, cell phone systems and even pacemakers. Though we haven’t had an EMP attack in the U.S., such an event has happened before in other parts of the world and could happen again.
What is an EMP?
An electromagnetic pulse, or EMP, is a burst of electromagnetic energy caused by the very sudden movement of electrical charges. Electromagnetic pulses are created by nuclear explosions and solar flares. The electromagnetic pulse causes radio waves to be scattered and can interfere with electronic devices such as cell phones and computers. A large-scale event like this could potentially destroy the power grid, leaving people without electricity for weeks or even months. When they lose their power supply, they’ll also lose access to water and food distribution.
Hospitals would close down due to not being able to refrigerate vaccines or other necessary items; patients would have no access to life-saving equipment; emergency services wouldn’t be able to respond quickly enough in some cases; food spoilage rates would skyrocket, so more people would die from starvation than from injuries sustained during the attack itself.
Let’s look at the types of EMP.
Natural EMP attack vs. Man-made EMP attack
A natural EMP attack would be a solar flare or geomagnetic storm, while a man-made attack would be caused by nuclear detonation. Both would produce devastating results and would immediately change the way you live.
In the case of a natural EMP caused (most likely) by a solar flare, a large burst of electromagnetic radiation is ejected into space. If this radiation ejection or an accompanying coronal mass ejection occurs on the Earth-facing side of the sun, it could interfere with the protective layer around the Earth, known as magnetosphere. If these ejections are strong enough to penetrate the magnetosphere, the radiation could interfere or completely fry a wide range of electronic equipment. This happened in 1859 and was known as the Carrington event.
If we look at man-made EMP attacks, one of the most probable causes of such an event is the manual detonation of a nuclear bomb in the atmosphere or just above a populated area. This type of attack could cause widespread power outages and destroy the electronics that our modern society depends on.
Both a surface blast and air blast could cause an EMP. According to Chemical Security Emergency Response Technology Baton Rouge, Louisiana, A nuclear weapon detonated between 40 and 400 kilometers can generate an EMP that could affect up to 70% of the U.S. electric power grid, depending upon intensity.
Are these concerns real or not?
One of the most talked about threats to modern society is the potential for a devastating electromagnetic pulse (EMP) attack. It’s all too easy to imagine a terrorist group or malevolent government detonating a nuclear bomb high in the atmosphere, thereby frying power grids and knocking out computers, cellphones, and other electronics on the ground. The consequences would be devastating: planes would crash, emergency services couldn’t respond quickly enough to help those in need, and food and water supplies would run out.
But is it really possible that such a scenario could come true? There are several reasons why we shouldn’t be too scared yet.
First off, this kind of attack has never been tried before so we don’t know how feasible it is or what the best way to execute it would be.
Secondly, the majority of countries have sufficient warning systems in place to give them time to react.
Thirdly, even if there was no warning system present, international law dictates that no country can attack another without warning beforehand.
Fourthly and finally, although this type of attack is certainly possible and plausible given everything else going on today with terrorism and warfare, it isn’t at the top of any list as one of our biggest worries. So while we should remain vigilant against future threats like this one at all times, it’s important not to let fear get the better of us either.
How would we know if an attack happened?
An EMP attack is a threat that has been around for decades, but it has never happened. Even though there have been no confirmed attacks, it remains a concern. One of the reasons that the EMP threat has been so heavily debated is because while there are many ways to carry out an attack, each would be very hard to detect. But just because we can’t pinpoint who or what might be behind this type of attack doesn’t mean we should dismiss its potential consequences as merely science fiction.
The truth is that no one knows what will happen if such an attack were to take place. It could create widespread damage and mass blackouts, but the good news is that it may not be quite as catastrophic as some fear.
Researchers suggest the following precautions:
- Ensure back-up power sources for key facilities like hospitals and water treatment plants
- Install lightning rods on high voltage transmission towers to make them less vulnerable
- Establish emergency warning systems in all major cities across America
- Understand how to use and build more renewable energy options
There’s also a possibility that an attack won’t happen at all, with the sky falling rhetoric being overblown by those who profit from these fears.
Nuclear scientists and experts point out that a nuclear warhead detonated at high altitude wouldn’t produce the effects depicted in movies. Some researchers claim that even if an attack did happen, people wouldn’t die by simply touching things around them. It’s important to keep perspective when contemplating this type of event. Fear isn’t going to keep us safe.
Humans can and will survive a nuclear event!
How bad could this really be for us?
An electromagnetic pulse (EMP) attack is a high-intensity burst of electromagnetic waves that can disrupt electronics, including computers, power grids, and other infrastructure. The most likely culprit for such an attack is a solar storm. Solar storms happen when the sun becomes active and sends bursts of charged particles in all directions. These bursts can produce intense magnetic fields that can harm satellites and power grids on Earth. The Carrington event (discussed above) in 1859 even produced aurora borealis as far south as Cuba!
Nowadays we have many more satellites orbiting Earth at various heights as well as much more sophisticated technology on the ground. In addition to our ever increasing dependence on electricity, there are many vulnerable nuclear plants and equipment that would be affected by this type of event.
A study from the Oak Ridge National Laboratory found that it would take just one major geomagnetic disturbance or coronal mass ejection – like those known to accompany large solar flares – to cause $2 trillion worth of damages globally to everything from buildings to water pipelines. There’s also been talk about how global cyber warfare could be initiated by targeting electrical grids with cyberattacks.
Some scientists say an EMP attack could have a devastating effect on society similar to what happened after Hurricane Katrina struck New Orleans or after Hurricane Sandy hit New York City in 2012.
People who need to pay attention
An electromagnetic pulse (EMP) attack could happen at any moment, but how can you protect yourself from one if it does happen? The best way to protect yourself is to prepare for the worst.
Pacemakers, respirators, and life support systems that rely on advanced electronics are all vulnerable tp EMP attack. However, there are many variables at play with EMP, so having a pacemaker does not sentence you to immediate death.
If you’re not prepared, then things like electronics and vehicles that use a lot of power could be rendered useless by an EMP attack. A radio tower or satellite dish could also get damaged or destroyed in the event of an attack. There are many different types of equipment that need power to function, so it would take some time before most people were back on their feet after an EMP event.
Some preparations include storing food in case you can’t go grocery shopping for a while and keeping your phone charged up just in case you lose contact with others during the event. You should also make sure all family members know what to do in the event of an emergency. Stocking up on batteries and flashlights can come in handy as well. You’ll want a medical kit too because hospitals may not be able to stay open due to lack of electricity if there was an attack. You can learn some more basics about how to prepare for EMP attack, here.
How do we stop it from happening in the future?
Well, removing the chance of EMP attack, either man-made or natural, is impossible. The sun will continue to burn and man will continue to war with one another.
To prevent a future EMP attack, the best thing that can be done is to make sure that our infrastructure and electric grid are prepared for such events. To do this, it will require Americans (or any nation of the world) to work together by taking small steps to prepare themselves and society for the possibility of an attack. The following are some simple things people can do:
- Prepare emergency supplies like batteries, food and water
- Build a community with family members, friends or neighbors so that you have someone to turn to in times of need
- Educate yourself about what you would need to know in order to cope with such an event; and
- Reach out to government officials about your concerns.
If we plan now and take action today, we could help to save many lives in the future.