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Last Updated on October 3, 2023
Have you ever imagined what life would be like if everyone’s electronic devices suddenly stopped working? If entire continents lost all electricity, running water, and communication systems? Imagine a blackout, but worse. Even battery-powered electronics, devices and generators would instantly die.
The aftermath would be catastrophic, and could ultimately transform first world countries into third world countries.
If you’re thinking this could only ever happen in a sci-fi movie, you’re wrong. Electromagnetic Pulse (EMP) attacks have the ability to turn this nightmare into a reality.
What is an Electromagnetic Pulse (EMP) Attack?
An Electromagnetic Pulse, or EMP, is a massive burst of electromagnetic energy that can occur naturally, or deliberately. The electromagnetic waves that are released in an EMP act like a giant moving magnet, causing a changing magnetic field that moves electrons in a nearby wire, inducing a current. However, with such a huge burst of energy, an EMP can cause damaging power surges in any electronics within range.
Types of EMP Attacks, How EMP Attacks Work, and Effects of EMP Attacks
There are three main types of EMP attacks: Natural, Nuclear, and Non-Nuclear. While one comes from the sun, the others are man-made. Both, however, result in mass temporary and/or permanent disabling of electricity and electronics.
A natural EMP attack–commonly referred to as a geomagnetic storm–occurs when the sun ejects a massive stream of plasma. Most of the time when this happens, Earth’s magnetic field will deflect them. However, if enough plasma is spit out at once, the impact can cause the magnetic field to wobble and create an extremely powerful EMP attack.
The last time this happened was in 1859, in the so-called Carrington Event–the most intense geomagnetic storm in recorded history. While electronics were still rare then, the attack still knocked out the majority of the new telegraph network. It has been suggested that if a geomagnetic storm of this caliber were to happen today, there could be billions or even trillions of dollars in damage to satellites, radio communications and power grids. It would cause massive electrical blackouts that could take weeks–or even years–to repair.
Luckily, modern day civilization hasn’t experienced a storm like this since. However, we have come extremely close. Remember when everyone thought the world was going to end in 2012? Well, coincidentally enough, a geomagnetic storm in 2012 missed hitting Earth by a mere week, and instead hit a STEREO-A Spacecraft. NASA predicted that if this storm would have hit Earth, it would have taken over two years to finish picking up all the pieces, as the storm would have had a total economic impact cost exceeding 2 trillion dollars–20 times greater than the cost of hurricane Katrina.
Nuclear EMPs are generally created through, you guessed it–nuclear explosions. They are considered impressive weapons of war that are regarded in the same realm as nuclear attacks, and scarcely used due to their high level of destructiveness. A nuclear EMP attack occurs when a nuclear weapon is detonated high in the atmosphere. Once detonated, the gamma radiation from the nuclear weapon would release, and can strip electrons of air molecules and accelerate them at close to the speed of light.
As these charge-carrying electrons are being zipped around, they would be corralled by Earth’s magnetic field, and generate a fluctuating, powerful electric current, which, in turn, would generate a massive EMP.
Nuclear EMP’s were first noticed in the United States in the 1950’s when electronic equipment failed because of induced currents and voltages during some nuclear tests. In the 1960’s, during the height of the Cold War, the U.S Atomic Energy Commission and the Pentagon conducted ‘Operation Fishbowl’ – a series of 5 high-altitude nuclear tests to investigate EMPs as weapons of mass destruction. The purpose of these tests were to rocket the warheads to the edge of space and detonate them to determine whether thermonuclear fireballs could be used to destroy incoming nuclear warheads from the Soviet Union.
In 1962, the third test, dubbed ‘Starfish Prime,’ detonated a 1.4 megaton bomb over the Pacific Ocean about 900 miles west-southwest of Hawaii, and is known as the largest nuclear test conducted in outer space. The result? Immediate damage to electrical equipment over 800 miles away. In Hawaii, streetlights blew out, telephone services crashed, circuit breakers tripped, aircraft radios malfunctioned, burglar alarms sounded, etc.
In 2017, the Defense Technical Information Center noted that nuclear EMP attacks are part of the military doctrines, plans and exercises of China, North Korea, Iran, and Russia for a completely new way of warfare against military forces and civilian critical infrastructures by sabotage, cyber, and EMP. An attack of this caliber has yet to happen, but that doesn’t mean it won’t.
In today’s technologically dependent world, if a nuclear EMP attack were to take place, the results would be devastating, and entire continents could be at a complete loss of electricity, water, power, mobile device usage, and more.
Non-Nuclear EMP’s (NNEMPs) are much less powerful than nuclear EMPs, and their impact range from hundreds of meters to several kilometers. NNEMPs are much more targeted than Nuclear EMPs, and for this reason they are considered highly effective, non-life-threatening military weapons. An NNEMP attack can literally stop an enemy in their tracks, without harming or killing a human life. In a world where wiping out large numbers of civilians is generally frowned upon, this type of attack becomes more and more favorable.
In modern warfare, electronics are incorporated in almost every weapon more sophisticated than a rifle or a hand grenade, and in war-fighting situations NNEMPs can be extremely effective in knocking out any electronically based device/weapon.
Traditionally delivered to a target via NNEMP missiles and bombs mounted to drones or aircraft (referred to as e-bombs), they are able to disable communication networks, jam tanks, knock out naval ships, silence radar networks, trigger crippling power outages, and more.
In 2003, the U.S. used a “secret weapon” e-bomb to knock out Iraqi TV, which was part of their attempt to shut down Saddam Hussein’s propaganda network. Subsequently, Iraqi’s 24 hour broadcasting satellite TV network went offline on a day that saw intense action on the battlefield.
As more and more countries begin to develop and utilize these types of attacks, nations that are extremely dependent on technology will fall particularly vulnerable to these types of attacks.
What Types of Electronics Can Survive an EMP Event?
An EMP generally attacks solid-state electronics–electronics that function with an electronic circuit–rather than vacuum tubes. Unfortunately, most modern day electronics and technologies are solid-state. However, simple electronics without reliable state electronic controls may be more susceptible to survival.
Mobile devices such as cell phones, tablets, and laptops are just a few examples of solid-state electronics that will immediately become disabled during an EMP. If this were to happen, all important data and information being stored on these devices would be lost forever. This can especially be troubling for high profile individuals or associations such as large companies, CEO’s, governments, and militaries that consistently deal with highly confidential information.
Another example of something that functions under solid-state electronics would be our electric grids. During the event of an EMP, whether natural or man-made, entire electric grids have the potential to go offline. Electric grids are responsible for supporting critical infrastructure such as the supply and distribution of food, water, fuel, communications, financial transactions, transportation, and emergency and government services. According to Dr. William Graham, the Chairman of the EMP commission, an EMP attack would have “catastrophic and lethal consequences for our citizens and the economy,” if our electric grid was shut down. Even electronics typically used as backups when electricity does go out, such as generators and battery-powered devices, are considered solid-state and would be of no use after an EMP.
That being said, simple electronics that function with vacuum tubes rather than electronic circuits have a much better chance of survival. These types of electronics include solar panels, non-electric appliances, manual appliances, vintage electronics, some small, portable electronics, and alternative fuel vehicles.
Government Initiatives to Prepare for an EMP Attack
In 2015, there was a United States joint Congressional hearing held before the Subcommittee on National Security and the Subcommittee on the Interior to discuss the state of preparedness against the threat of an EMP event.
To look at this threat, Congress created two EMP commissions who last reported their findings in 2004 and 2008. Based on these recommendations, a bill has been introduced in every Congress since 2009 to strengthen the protection of the electrical grid to reduce the effects of an EMP. No bills have been passed into law.
That being said, the Department of Defense (DoD) did move the North American Aerospace Defense Command inside Cheyanne Mountain in Colorado because the mountain is EMP hardened. Although this will help protect the communication systems on the DoD, the American people will still fall vulnerable. However, state governments have begun taken preparedness steps in order to protect portions of their electrical grid throughout their respective states.
The National Space Weather Strategy released a draft executive order for comment in May 2015 by the White House Office of Science and Technology Council. During the hearing it was determined that the order released was, “necessary and clearly within the constitutional mandate to provide for the common defense, but it is an outline of goals, not what is needed. A strategy with priorities and a blueprint for how to reliably mitigate adverse solar weather is essential.”
More recently though, the U.S. government has begun taking the threat of EMPs much more seriously. In 2019, the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) released the Electromagnetic Pulse (EMP) Status Report as part of an update on efforts underway in support of Executive Order (E.O.) 13865 on Coordinating National Resilience to Electromagnetic Pulses, that establishes resilience and security standards for U.S. critical infrastructure as a national priority.
“EMP attacks are part of the emerging threats against our nation and demand a response,” said Ken Cuccinelli, who served as the Senior Official Performing the Duties of the Deputy Secretary of Homeland Security from 2019 to 2021. “That is why DHS is taking these contingencies very seriously, working diligently to mitigate our risks and equipping our state and local partners with the resources they need to do the same. We’ve made significant progress and look forward to the work ahead.”
Since the President’s signing of E.O. 13865 in 2019, the DHS, through the Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Agency (CISA), in coordination with the Science and Technology Directorate (S&T) and the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), have taken action to address EMP vulnerabilities to critical infrastructure. This action includes data analysis, vulnerability and risk assessments, government and industry engagement, and testing and pilot programs that will ultimately determine which critical infrastructures are at greatest risk of an EMP, and then developing and implementing best practices to reduce the risk.
CISA director Chris Krebs noted, “As the Nation’s risk advisor, one of CISA’s priorities is understanding and mitigating threats associated with EMPs. Over the past year, we have worked with interagency and industry partners to identify the footprint and effects of EMP threats across our National Critical Functions, and are developing sustainable, efficient, and cost-effective approaches to improving the Nation’s resilience to EMPs.”
Tips to Lower Your Risk of an EMP Attack
Electronics have inevitably become a part of our daily lives. The more comfortable we get with technology, the more we begin to rely on it, which can ultimately leave us extremely vulnerable if some sort of attack on electronics were to happen, such as an EMP.
As digital wellness becomes an important aspect of overall health, we urge everyone to become more mindful of their technology dependencies and usage. Moderating technology use when you can will be beneficial in more ways than one.
Ultimately the only way you can guarantee complete electronics safety from an EMP attack is by creating a Faraday cage around any electronic devices you want to keep safe.
Blocking EMF and EMP Attacks with Faraday Cages
A Faraday cage, invented by Michael Faraday, employs the use of electromagnetic induction with a metal cage. Faraday discovered that an incoming electric field is diverted by a conductor (the metal cage), since the electric field rearranges the electrons in the conductor to neutralize any charge within the conductor. The Faraday cage takes the electrical charge and redistributes it around the cage, rather than letting it penetrate through.
But not just any cage or any conductor will stop an EMP attack. Different metals possess different levels of conductivity, and can block only certain types of frequencies. RF radiation can pass right through steel and lead (even though lead can block X-ray frequencies). In addition, having holes or leaks in the conductor may allow wavelengths to pass through. The smaller the holes, the shorter the wavelength has to be to get through.
A good place to store your electronic devices is in a EMP-tested Faraday cage. In the military, a Faraday room is called a SCIF, or a Sensitive Compartmented Information Facility. You can create your own Faraday-style room with EMF-shielding Wallpaper. This prevents wireless EMF frequencies from leaving or entering the room, ensuring safety from EMP attacks.
Alternatively, for portable device safety, you can store your device in a small Faraday bag. A Faraday bag is a RF (radio-frequency) shielded bag, with 360-degree advanced military-grade electromagnetic frequency (EMF) shielding that stops any incoming or outgoing signals when the bag is completely closed.
Not only are these bags able to effectively protect electronics from EMP attacks, but they are also able to completely block all incoming and outgoing signals from your devices, and can be used to effectively prevent radio-based cyber attacks to your cellular devices. Make sure you get one that is EMP-tested and can block the highest range of radio frequencies. Ultra Armor™ by DefenderShield® is the only EMF shielding technology that can block from 0-90 GHz and is EMP-tested in Faraday bags to fully block EMP attacks.
As EMP attacks become less of a science-fiction movie and more of real part of our current digital world, it’s important to be aware of the damage an EMP attack can have and to know how to protect your devices and digital data from one.