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Many people in the developed world have overlooked the very real threat that an electromagnetic pulse attack (EMP attack) poses to modern societies.
Unfortunately, it is not only ordinary people who are overlooking the threat posed by an EMP attack; it appears that many governments in the developed world have done little to prepare for an EMP attack, despite warnings from security experts that we should prepare for this possibility. An EMP attack could have far more dire consequences than a nuclear bomb attack.
What Is an Electromagnetic Pulse? An Explanation
An EMP pulse is a surge of electromagnetic radiation that can be created by high energy explosions and EMP generating devices. An EMP can be caused by a nuclear explosion or a non-nuclear electromagnetic pulse device. An EMP can also be caused naturally by magnetic pulses from the sun, which are known as geomagnetic storms.
An EMP causes an intense electromagnetic field to spread out from the origin of the EMP. The intense electromagnetic field rapidly induces very high voltages in electrical conductors as it spreads, which can cause extensive damage to an electrical grid and to electronic devices by causing damaging current and voltage surges to pass through and overload them, rendering them inoperable.
Immediate Effects of an EMP Attack
The effects of an EMP attack would be highly dependent upon the type of device used to generate the EMP and where the device was detonated. Non-nuclear electromagnetic pulse devices are much weaker than nuclear weapons, and therefore pose a much smaller threat than nuclear weapons.
The worst case scenario for an EMP attack would be a nuclear weapon detonated approximately 300 miles above the Earth's surface in the our planet's exosphere. An explosion at this height could spread an EMP over thousands of miles of the Earth’s surface beneath the explosion.
If centered over North America, the EMP could affect the entire continental United States and large parts of Mexico and Canada (see graphic).
The exact effects of a high altitude explosion that causes an EMP are hard to predict, since many factors can affect the strength of an EMP and its effects on the Earth’s surface.
These factors include: the energy yield and altitude of the detonation, the gamma ray output of the detonation, interactions between the EMP and the Earth's magnetic field, and electromagnetic shielding of electric and electronic devices on the Earth’s surface.
An EMP attack would destroy unprotected electric and electronic infrastructure that modern societies in the developed world have grown to rely upon to run many functions in their economies and societies.
Computers and any devices with embedded electronics in them, including automobiles and phones, could be destroyed and stop working. The electrical grid that modern societies depend upon to run vital infrastructure would collapse.
In essence, modern societies in the developed world could be plunged back into the pre-electricity era of the 19th century, with little hope for quick recovery since the damage to electric and electronic infrastructure from an EMP attack would likely be so extensive.
Aftermath an EMP Attack
Unlike a typical electricity blackout that occurs from time to time in the developed world, the unprotected electric infrastructure would be so damaged, and the damage so widespread, that restoration of electrical service would be a very long process in many areas.
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Even if power could be restored to critical infrastructure via emergency generators, the unprotected embedded electronic devices that are used to run critical infrastructure, such as pumps for water purification plants, would not work and render the critical infrastructure useless.
The consequences of an EMP attack blackout would be much deeper than the inconveniences associated with losing electricity and electronic devices. The very existence of modern society could be put at risk, and personal security would be a major concern, as the widespread power and electronic device failures continued for years afterwards.
Many unprotected electric or electronic device that citizens of developed world societies have come to rely upon and take for granted would be rendered useless. Water purification and delivery to the home through underground pipes would cease to exist. Modern sanitation, such as indoor plumbing for waste water, discharge would no longer be available.
Hospitals would lose the electricity and the modern electronic medical devices that they rely upon to heal people and save lives. Food production would be reduced considerably, and transportation of food products would be very limited.
Modern life was we know it would be over for a number of years, until new electric infrastructure and electronic devices could be built. In the meantime, citizens of developed world societies would struggle to find the food and clean water that they need to survive and the heating products they need to keep their homes warm during the wintertime.
Medical services would take a huge step backwards. Many millions could potentially die from starvation and disease before any sort of sustained recovery took hold.
What Can Be Done To Protect Against an EMP Attack
The picture painted of an EMP attack on developed world societies is a very disturbing and grim one. Modern life as we know it would literally be over and many people would likely die before any semblance of modern methods of providing food, clean water, and medical care could be restored.
But there is hope if we act to mitigate the effects of an EMP attack. If electric systems and electronic devices are properly shielded against an EMP attack, the consequences of such an attack would be greatly diminished.
Additional measures could be taken to prepare for recovery from such an attack, such as storing electrical and electronic equipment in shielded buildings for use after an attack in areas that sustain damage, and drawing up plans for rebuilding critical infrastructure after an EMP attack.
There has been some movement in the U.S. Congress to prepare the United States for an EMP attack. Other developed world countries would be wise to start acting to protect themselves from an EMP attack.
The United States has taken measures to protect its bulk-power system and electric infrastructure critical to the defense and well-being of the United States against natural and EMP attacks that pose threats to the power grid.
These measures include implementing the most important research and development projects needed to address critical infrastructure that would be impacted by a natural EMP burst or an EMP attack. They also include hardening the electrical grid against an EMP burst or attack, and planning for and prioritizing actions needed to bring the electrical grid back from an EMP burst.
Since either a natural EMP from a geomagnetic storm or a man-made EMP from a nuclear bomb have the potential to wipe out the electrical infrastructure of modern developed world societies with dire consequences, this venerability needs to be addressed on a national security basis.
The cost of protecting electric systems and electronic devices from an EMP is not terribly great in the grand scheme of things, when put in the context of how much is spent on “national defense” each year to address other less pressing security threats, some of which are quite dubious in nature.
For those interested in learning more about the potential consequences of an EMP attack, a novel by historian William R. Forstchen called One Second After, which is based on research done by Mr. Forstchen regarding the aftermath of an EMP attack, is a sobering vision of what developed world societies may face if such a catastrophe occurred.
Share your thoughts about the threat posed by an electromagnetic pulse attack in the comments section below.
EMP Attack Interview With Bill Forstchens, Author of One Second After
This content reflects the personal opinions of the author. It is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and should not be substituted for impartial fact or advice in legal, political, or personal matters.
© 2011 John Coviello