EMP Attack Myths and Reality

One of the most frustrating things about EMP information is the complete lack of references given for the claims authors make. There is no reason for this. Compared with many other doomsday scenarios, the EMP scenario has a fair amount of research. So, after reading several articles I took many of the common claims and attempted to find evidence. Below is what I have found.

  1. Major Sources of EMP
  2. 50,000 Volts Per Meter!
  3. Your Vehicle Will Likely Be Ok
  4. An EMP Attack Would Kill 90% of Americans Within a Year
  5. A Major Solar Storm Could Hit the US
  6. The Power Grid Would be Wiped Out
  7. The EMP Would Fry Every Exposed Electronic Device

Two Major Sources of EMP

There are only 2 plausible, large-scale, EMP sources. The High Altitude Electromagnetic Pulse (HEMP)  and the very large, Carrington-class solar storm.

The High-Altitude Electromagnetic Pulse (HEMP): Specifically, meant as a weapon. The HEMP is created when a nuclear device is detonated high up in the atmosphere. The chances of this happening are purely speculation. Most often people point to North Korea. Yes, this guy is crazy enough, but will he? We touch on that later.

Very Large “Carrington-class” Solar Storm: These are referred to as a “Carrington-class” event, named after the guy (or at least one of the guys) that managed to see the solar storm of 1859 through his telescope.

50,000 Volts Per Meter! (50kv/m)

This is the realistic peak of a EMP blast created from a nuclear device, notice the red “bean” shape to the right. This peak occurs in a relatively small area compared to the overall area of the EMP blast and occurs south of the detonation. Most of the blast area will max out at around 25kv/m. This is the teal or light blue area in the image to the right.

This peak and the shape of the area of coverage is a result of the atmosphere. Increasing the size of the nuke only increases the affected area, not the strength of the EMP blast.

Your Vehicle Will Likely Be Ok

This study shows that 36 out of 37 cars tested withstood a 50kv/m blast while running.

  • 8 of the cars tested while running did not exhibit any problems.
  • 25 of the cars tested while running exhibited “nuisance” malfunctions (e.g., blinking dashboard lights) and did not require driver intervention to correct.
  • 3 of the cars tested while running stalled at field strengths of 30kV/m or higher, requiring driver intervention to be restarted.

All of the cars were also tested while off. None of the cars experienced any effects when off.

“Based on these test results, we expect few automobile effects at EMP field levels below 25 kV/m. Approximately 10 percent or more of the automobiles exposed to higher field levels may experience serious EMP effects, including engine stall, that require driver intervention to correct.” – Commission to Assess the Threat of the US from EMP Attack – page 115

This makes sense. Much of your car’s electrical system is shielded from electromagnetic interference. If it wasn’t shielded, you would here buzzing in the radio or run the risk of frying your electronics from systems like the the coil packs in the ignition system.

In summary…

People, on average, only drive for 46 minutes a day. This pretty much means that only a percentage of cars are on at any given time, even during rush hours. On top of that, only 1 out of those 37 running cars would likely be damaged.

The vast majority of cars will be just fine during and after an EMP attack.

There are examples of people disabling cars with devices. Like the YouTube video below. However, they do not mention the strength of the EMP so we don’t know if it’s realistic, they do not attempt to reset the computer, and they do not let us know what was damaged. Since the windows still work it may have just been a single computer or all of the sensitive electronics.


If you are really concerned you can do a couple things. Buy an older car, like an early diesel VW Rabbit perhaps. Another option would be to purchase used computers, have them reprogrammed to your car, and store them in a Faraday cage.

Or…

The Faraday Garage?

Another idea, park in the garage. You can wrap your garage in aluminum siding, add foil faced plywood, add a layer (or a few) of radiant barrier, or do all three. Your garage door is likely already aluminum and you can get metal based entry doors. You will need to spend some time on the various gaps between metal panels and cover your windows. All in all though, you should be really close to having a whole garage sized Faraday cage.

OK, so I am partially joking here since your car being off outside is already pretty well protected. However, all of these items exist at your local big box hardware store and will not look out of place. Fare warning, you likely won’t be able to use your cell phone, radio, or WiFi in the garage any more.

An EMP Attack Would Kill 90% of US Citizens Within a Year

This “estimate” came straight out of a fictional book titled One Second After. The author, Forstchen, known for co-writing counterfactual historical novels mentioned Roscoe Bartlett, a former congressman now living off the grid, in the book’s acknowledgments. Bartlett later returned the favor by mentioning the book and the 90% guess from the work of fiction during various speeches including a congressional hearing (pg 9).

All the articles I found in my research that make this claim either lead back to Forstchen or they make no reference at all. Even this official government document (pg 5) on the House of Representatives website mentions the 90% and who do they reference? Roscoe Bartlett. So its up to you but I cannot find a single study, let alone a credible one, that makes this claim.

Could North Korea attempt an EMP attack? Sure.

Could North Korea pull off the kind of near perfect, multi-warhead, precision attack needed to blanket the US in a strong EMP field. By strong I mean the 50kv/m read shape in the graphic at the start of this article. I’m sorry, but people are giving North Korea way too much credit.

If they were at all successful it would very likely only effect a portion of the US. More importantly, North Korea would only get one chance. Once they launched a nuclear missile at the US, the US would return the favor in such a way to make sure North Korea never got a second chance.

North Korea knows they would not survive a retaliation. That combined with the extreme difficulty of pulling it off in the first place just does not give me much worry.

Now what about a solar flare?

A Major Solar Storm Could Hit the US

Since the earth has already been hit by one in 1859 its hard to deny it. Thankfully, this storm was huge but missed the power grid by over 20 years. The next Carrington-class event happened in 2012, passing through Earth’s orbit, but missed the Earth by 9 days.

There are smaller solar storms that can cause problems though. In 1921 and 1960 there were solar storms that disrupted radio transmissions. In 1989 there was an outage in Quebec that lasted 9-hours.

So the question is what are the chances one will hit us in our lifetime?

Some place the estimate of a Carrington-class event hitting the Earth in the next 10 years as high as 12%.


The Power Grid Would Be Wiped Out

Wiped out might be too strong of language however, the power grid would suffer severe damage. Huge portions of the US would loose power.

Think about what happens in major storms and hurricanes, even small hurricanes. There are dozens of examples where families were without power for weeks. After Hurricane Irma some people were without power for over a week and we knew it was coming days ahead of time. We knew it would hit Florida for over a week.

Though temporarily, the grid could be down for months, some feel years.

Since the whole network is connected the areas damaged by the EMP could cause blackouts in neighboring systems. Don’t confuse blackouts  with damage though. If you’re bored you can read all about blackouts. The point here is that a when a portion of the grid goes down it can cause a neighboring system to shut down, this neighboring system would likely be back up within hours.

The main argument here is how long the damaged portions of the grid will be down and who would get restored first.

An EMP Will Fry Every Exposed Electronic Device

Regarding any specific device, that is a difficult question to answer. There are several factors involved. However, generally speaking, it is very unlikely that every or even most exposed electronics will be fried. To be clear exposed means outside of a Faraday Cage or electromagnetic protection at the time of the EMP attack.

So let’s cover several of these factors so you can determine your level of concern.

  • Size of electronics. The smaller the electronic device the less area there is to absorb the EMP blast. Watches, cell phones, tablets, even laptops likely do not have enough area to be damaged.
  • Plugged in (or not) to the grid: Being plugged in greatly increases the chance for damage. This is because of all the wire spread across the US. So only leave things plugged in while charging. For instance I have gotten into the habit of charging devices for an hour or two while sitting at my desk not overnight while I sleep.
  • The peak power of an EMP only covers a fraction of the area of an EMP blast. So electronics outside the little red bean shape stand an even greater chance of survival.
  • Ruggedness of the electronics. Many types of electronics have EMP protection because there is a fair amount of Electromagnetic Interference in today’s world. Two-way radios, automotive electronics, radios, would all have irritating buzzing if they did not have some protection built-in.

For the most part small, self-contained systems, such as motor vehicles, hand-held radios, tablets, and laptops will not to be affected by EMPs. Even some larger unconnected systems such as gas generators and solar systems will likely be functional. Most of the effects on these systems is often a temporary blip rather than complete failure.

Again, the main concern is items directly connected to the grid at the time of the EMP. This is a direct result of the miles of wire absorbing the EMP and delivering it directly to your electronics.

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *