William R. Forstchen Ph.D.
Author of “One Second After”
WHAT IS AN EMP?
EMP is shorthand for Electro Magnetic Pulse. It is a rather unusual and frightening by-product when a nuclear bomb is detonated above the earth’s atmosphere. We all know that our atmosphere and the magnetic field which surrounds our planet is a thin layer which not only keeps us alive, but also protects us from dangerous radiation from the sun. On a fairly regular basis there are huge solar storms on the sun’s surface which emit powerful jets of deadly radiation. If not for the protective layer of our atmosphere and magnetic field, those storms would fry us. At times though, the storm is so power that enough disruptive energy reaches the earth’s surface that it drowns out radio waves and even shorts electrical power grids. . .this happened several years back in Canada.
View the detonation of a nuclear bomb, two hundred miles straight up as the same thing, but infinitely more powerful since it is so close by.
As the bomb explodes it emits a powerful wave of gamma rays. As this energy release hits the upper atmosphere it creates a electrical disturbance know as the Compton Effect. The intensity is magnified. View it as a small pebble rolling down a slope, hitting a larger one, setting that in motion, until finally you have an avalanche.
At the speed of light this disturbance races to the earth surface. It is not something you can see or hear, in the same way you don’t feel the electrical disturbance in the atmosphere during20a large solar storm.
For all electrical systems though, it is deadly.
WHAT HAPPENS WHEN THIS “PULSE” HITS THE SURFACE?
Those who might remember ham radio operators, or even the old CB radios of the 1970s can recall that if you ran out a wire as an antenna you could send and receive a better signal. The wire not only transmitted the very faint power of a few watts of electricity from your radio, it could receive even fainted signals in return. As the Pulse strikes the earths surface, with a power that could range up to hundreds of amps per square yard, it will not affect you directly, at most you’ll feel a slight tingling, the s ame as when lightning is about to strike close by, and nearly all the energy will just be absorbed into the ground and dissipate. The bad news, however, is wherever it strikes wires, metal surfaces, antennas, power lines it will now travel along those metal surfaces (in the same way a lightning bolt will always follow the metal of a lightning rod, or the power line into your house.) The longer the wire, the more energy is absorbed, a high tension wire miles long will absorb tens of thousands of amps, and here is where the destruction begins as it slams into any delicate electronic circuits, meaning computer chips, relays, etc. In that instant, they are overloaded by the massive energy surge, short circuit, and fry. Your house via electric, phone and cable wires is connected, like all the rest of us into the power and communications grids. This energy surge will destroy all delicate electronics in your home, even as it destroys all the major components all the way back to the power company’s generators and the phone company’s main relays. In far less than a milli second the entire power grid of the United States, and all that it supports will be destroyed.
WOULDN”T CIRCUIT BREAKERS AND SURGE PROTECTORS STOP IT?
This is where the effect of EMP starts to get complex. All electricity travels, of course, at the speed of light. The circuit breakers that are built into our electrical system or the ones you buy to plug your own computer in to, are designed to “read’ the flow of current. If it suddenly exceeds a certain level, the breaker snaps and takes you off line, thus protecting everything beyond it. More than a few of us have found out that when you buy a cheap surge protector for ten or twenty bucks sure it will snap off, but the surge has already passed through and fried your expensive plasma television or new computer. Unlike a lightning strike, or other power surge, an EMP surge is “front loaded.” Meaning it doesn’t do a build up for a couple of mirco-seconds, allowing enough time for the circuit breaker to “read” that trouble is on the way and shut down. It comes instead like a wall of energy, without any advance wave building up as a warning. It therefore slams through nearly all commercial and even military surge protectors already in place, and is past the “safety barrier” and into the delicate electronics before the system has time to react.
WHAT ABOUT CARS?
Here is more bad news regarding EMP. =2 0If you own a 1965 Volkswagen bug or Mustange you’re ok. . .there are no solid state electronics under the hood, it still has an old fashion carburetor, the radio still might even have tubes rather than transistors. However, even that is in question. In 1962 both we and the Soviets detonated nuclear weapons in space (saber rattling during the Cuban Missile Crisis) and it is reported that a number of cars. . .their ignition systems a thousand miles away from the detonation were fried because of EMP. (Check out a few of the more “tech head” links on this site for detailed explanations). From about 1980 on, cars increasingly went solid state and by the 1990s were getting ever more complex computers installed. Consider a visit to the mechanic today. He runs a wire in under the hood, plugs it into his computer and within seconds has a full diagnostic, types in what his computer is suppose to do, the problem is solved and you are handed a rather large bill. Great modern conveniences from airbag sensors, to fuel injectors and all of it more and more dependent on computers. At the instant the “Pulse” strikes, the body of your car and the radio antenna will feed the overload into your vehicle’s computer and short it out.
Some police departments are even now experimenting with using a specially designed bumper on their car for high speed chases. If they can brush up against the car they are pursuing the officer just hits a button, and through his bumper a high energy surge will be released, flooding into the car being pursued and shorting out its computer system. Result. . .whether you are being chased by the police with this new device, or an EMP burst has been fired off. . .your car will essentially be a useless hunk of metal that will slowly roll to a stop.
In that instant, most of America will be on foot again.
This is a terrifying aspect of an attack that no government report has publicly discussed along with the potential casualty rate in the first seconds after an attack. Commercial airliners today are all computer driven. In fact, from lift off to landing, a pilot no longer even needs to be in the cockpit, a computer can do all of it if need be. When the pilot pulls back on the “stick” it is no longer connect by wires stretching all the way back to the tail and the elevator assembly. Instead, his motion is read by a computer which sends a signal to an electrical servo-motor in the tail, which then moves the tail. In short, the entire plane is computer driven. It is estimated that at any given moment during regular business hours, somewhere between three to four thousand commercial airliners are crisscrossing the skies. (There is a fascinating site you can find via Goggle that shows typical air traffic around the world during a twenty four hour period. From dawn til way after dusk, the entire USA is one glowing blob of commercial flights crisscrossing our sky). All of them would be doomed, the pilots sitting impotent, staring at blank computer screens, pulling on controls that no longer respond as the plane finally noses over and heads in.
Somewhere between 250,000 to 500,000 people will die in the first few minutes. . .more than all our battle casualties across four years of World War II.
EMP Attack On US Would Be ‘Catastrophic,’ Congress Told: China and Russia have the Technology
An Electromagnetic Pulse (EMP) attack on the United States, whether manmade or naturally occurring, could result in the deaths of nine out of ten Americans through starvation, disease and the collapse of modern society, warned Dr. Vincent Peter Pry, a member of the congressional EMP Commission and executive director of the Task Force on National and Homeland Security.
“A natural EMP catastrophe or nuclear EMP attack could blackout the national electric grid for months or years and collapse all the other critical infrastructures -- communications, transportation, banking and finance, food and water -- necessary to sustain modern society and the lives of 310 million Americans,” Pry this week told the House Committee on Homeland Security Committee’s Subcommittee on Cybersecurity, Infrastructure Protection and Security Technologies.
The subcommittee herd testimony from a variety of experts during a hearing to examine the potentially catastrophic impact of an EMP attack on America’s largely unsecured electrical grid and critical infrastructure.
An electromagnetic pulse is a high-intensity burst of electromagnetic energy that is capable of severely damaging or destroying the electronic systems that make modern society possible. Natural occurrences, like a solar storm, as well as manmade events like a nuclear attack, can generate EMP. Either way, the results could be devastating.
“Some would say it’s low probability, but the damage that could be caused in the event of an EMP attack, both by the sun, a solar event, or a man-made attack, would be catastrophic,” said Rep. Michael McCaul (R-Texas).
In 1859, a geomagnetic storm known as the “Carrington Event” resulted in fires in telegraph stations and burnt out the just-laid transatlantic cable. Since electronic systems were not a critical component of society at the time, the event was not disastrous. Scientists estimate that the same event today would devastate essential infrastructure. They predict that we are long overdue for another geomagnetic storm, and the next one -- the first in the modern era -- would be catastrophic.
“NASA and the National Academy of Sciences (NAS) published a blue-ribbon study independently confirming the warning of the EMP Commission about the threat posed by a great geomagnetic storm,” said Pry, a former CIA intelligence officer. “The EMP Commission and the NASA-NAS reports, and several subsequent independent studies, conclude that if a great geomagnetic storm like the 1859 Carrington Event happened today, millions could die.”
Subcommittee Vice Chairman Scott Perry (R-Penn.) said China and Russia already have the technology to launch an EMP attack, and that Iran and North Korea may also be developing EMP weapon technology.