What is Electromagnetic Pulse (EMP)?

In 1989, astronomers watched as an explosion occurred on the sun. Minutes later, the magnetic energy from the explosion turned into a huge cloud of gas. The energy from the cloud rushed out towards the earth, spelling lights out for all of Quebec as seven million people were left without power for 9+ hours. As NASA reminds us, the problem didn’t just affect Canada. Across the US, there were more than 200 power grid disruptions at the same moment that the Quebec blackout occurred and some satellites in space tumbled out of control for hours. All this damage was due to electromagnetic pulse, or EMP.

It is not just a matter of if another EMP event will occur, but when.

The Quebec blackout isn’t a lone EMP event. The event was just a fraction of the intensity of the 1859 Carrington Super Flare which took out telecommunication systems around the globe. We also know of solar events which occurred in 1882, 1921, 1938, 2000 and 2003.

And those are just the naturally-occurring EMP events. EMP also occurs from a nuclear explosion or an EMP weapon. In the Star Fish Prime tests in 1962, the US launched a 1.4 megaton nuclear missile about 900 miles southwest of Hawaii. As Discovery Magazine describes:

“When the bomb detonated, those electrons underwent incredible acceleration. When that happens they create a brief but extremely powerful magnetic field. This is called an electromagnetic pulse, or EMP. The strength of the pulse was so huge that it affected the flow of electricity on the Earth hundreds of kilometers away! In Hawaii it blew out hundreds of streetlights, and caused widespread telephone outages. Other effects included electrical surges on airplanes and radio blackouts.”

We still don't know the full effects of the EMP  from the Star Fish Prime tests, partially because much of the information is still classified, and also because scientists didn’t predict that the blast would cause so much widespread damage so they didn’t monitor adequately. Plus, there is the problem that the EMP was so intense that “it drove much of the instrumentation off scale.”

Bear in mind that the Star Fish Prime test was 900 miles from Hawaii and still caused that much damage.  We can only guess what would have happened to locations closer to Ground Zero.

The Soviets also launched their own EMP nuclear tests in the 1960s (see here for details). In the aftermath, there were consequences including a massive fire in an electrical plant, telephone lines were knocked out, and over 600 miles of underground power lines were shut down. There are also reports that the EMP destroyed the cars by knocking out their internal operating systems – even though they didn’t have any electrical components.

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What Happens During an EMP Blast?

There are 3 categories of EMPs. The first is E1 and is short, intense, and would occur from a nuclear blast, EMP weapon, or (less frequently) from solar events. The second is E2 and is slow, easy to protect against, and occurs from lightening. The final category is E3, and it is slow, could last for minutes, and is caused by solar flares.

Each type of EMP blast is different and, unless you are a physicist, you probably won't understand the details.  Just know that, regardless of the type of pulse, EMPs are going to release a huge amount of electromagnetic energy. The Federation of American Scientists describes what would happen during a nuclear EMP blast:

“A high-altitude nuclear detonation produces an immediate flux of gamma rays from the nuclear reactions within the device. These photons in turn produce high energy free electrons by Compton scattering at altitudes between (roughly) 20 and 40 km. These electrons are then trapped in the Earth’s magnetic field, giving rise to an oscillating electric current. This current is asymmetric in general and gives rise to a rapidly rising radiated electromagnetic field called an electromagnetic pulse (EMP). Because the electrons are trapped essentially simultaneously, a very large electromagnetic source radiates coherently.”

In layman’s terms, you are going to have a very large surge of energy going through the earth and everything on and around it. This large surge of energy will fry electronics and take down the grid.   We can expect problems or complete failure with:

  • The electrical grid
  • GPS systems
  • Cell phones
  • Regular telephones
  • The internet
  • Cars and vehicles
  • Radios
  • Flashlights
  • And pretty much any electrical device

Should You Be Worried about EMP?

EMP is an incredibly hot topic with survivalists and preppers. Some, including Peter Vincent Pry of the EMP Task Force on National and Homeland Security, believe that an EMP attack would take out 90% of the US population and lights would be out for anywhere from 18 months to 10 years. Others say that, while EMP is real, the EMP threat is overrated and we shouldn’t worry so much.

The truth is that we don’t know how bad an EMP blast would be. There are simply too many variables to consider like the location of the blast, the intensity, the directionality… We’ve never experienced anything like this in modern times.   We don’t know whether a blast would just cause a temporary outage of our GPS systems, or would fry the entire grid and take us back to the 1800s. But, just in case, I wouldn’t count on having your phone or electronic gadgets when a disaster strikes!

Survivalism isn’t about being paranoid and assuming that the worst will happen. The survivalist mentality is about acknowledging that disasters can and may happen. Once you’ve accepted that there is a risk, you can take steps to prepare for it. Just acknowledging the risk is the first step towards preparation, as you will be calm and clearheaded while everyone else runs around in a panic in the aftermath of the disaster.

Here at Primal Survivor, I will be talking a lot about the steps my family and I are taking to be prepared for EMP and other potential disasters. For starters, I suggest you read:

You can also check out the Primal Survivor store for survival kits, and other cool gear.

Are you preparing for EMP? How? We’d love to hear from you in the comments section below or join the discussion on Facebook.


Jacob Hunter

I'm Jacob Hunter, founder of Primal Survivor.
I believe in empowering people with the knowledge to prepare and survive in the modern world.

More about Jacob here.

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