EMP and Solar Flare – Threat Update

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What will happen when everything electronic stops working? Perhaps, for a very, very long time.

We receive more questions, and see more confusion on the threats posed by electromagnetic pulse (EMP and CME) than any other threat topic. Since the U.S. government recently released a declassified version of the latest report on this topic, we decided to provide that report along with this update to our article, “Preparing for Solar Storms and EMP Events.”

This government report, developed by top scientists and peerless experts who came together to study this issue, is a powerful companion to the articles available here on 36READY.com.

While it’s true that this government report was written for Congress not the public, and its focus is on the nation’s critical infrastructure, it is nevertheless valuable for us and our emergency preparations. It is an invaluable, authoritative resource which can help us prepare for these emergency situations. 

The government did redact this PDF to remove Classified details, but what remains is still essential reading for anyone who is interested in this often misunderstood threat. Click Here to download a PDF of the declassified EMP-Commission-Report.

The U.S. Congress, “Commission to Assess the Threat to the United States from Electromagnetic Pulse (EMP) Attack” has provided us with a valuable resource that we can use to improve our own disaster preparations.  It also effectively refutes uninformed naysayers, will sober us all, and for those who are willing to act on what we learn, it can help us develop our own action plan.

Before reading the government report, read this article. It was written to give you helpful background information. 

EMP vs. CME

A CME incident, aka/ Coronal Mass Ejection or Solar Flare, is a naturally occurring event caused by the sun. From the standpoint of a scientist, an EMP and CME are quite different. But from our practical vantage point, we can consider them together because the effects and protective measures are essentially the same.

Importantly, if we do what we can to prepare for these types of events, then we will also be ready to face many other, lesser dangers.  The earlier 36READY article, “Preparing for Solar Storms and EMP Events,” address the topic of our own preparations in more depth.

Unlike the U.S. Congress, most of us are not in a position to influence the hardening of the nation’s critical infrastructure. That is the topic of the congressional report. But if we are willing to learn more about this threat from the most authoritative sources available to the United States Government, then we, too, can be better informed.  As a result, our own preparations can be more real-world.

This article is a summary. It contains brief explanations of the threats we are facing, provides background details, and clarifications to help you better understand the government report and these threats. Hopefully, it will also help you filter-out the widespread inaccurate information that permeates the news media and Internet.

Only when we are armed with the facts can we make our own threat assessment. And only when we have reliable facts, can we make informed choices which will guide our preparations.

Key Points

1.  Experts Disagree on the severity of the event that is coming, and occasionally even on the likelihood that one of these electromagnetic events will happen and create a major problem. However, this naysayer group of scientists is quickly shrinking. Reports like the one produced by the EMP commission are waking people up.

2. Experts Agree that we will likely experience a significant EMP or CME event in our lifetime or during the lifetime of our children. Those who are most susceptible to this as a life-changing event are those who live in a developed technology-dependent countries such as the United States, UK, and Europe.

3.  Recent History of EMPs and CMEs. These are not never-before events. Both EMP pulse incidents and CME (solar flare) events have happened multiple times during the past two centuries. The problem rests in a new reality: Our technological advancements have made us vulnerable.

4. Credibility of Threat. It is universally agreed that since we extensively use computers and other devices which contain microcircuits, and that our society depends on technology to function, that this is a credible threat since both EMP and CME events have the capacity to fry electronics. Though the effects on the modern world are not well understood, either an EMP or CME (solar flare) event the same size as has happened in recent history, have the capacity to generate major life-threatening hardships for the people who live in a technology-dependent society.

5.  The Severity of Effect is Unknown. The widespread use of electronics in commerce, communication, transportation systems, vehicles, health care, and almost every other avenue of life, has dramatically amplified the effect that these incidents will have on society.

6. Technological advances have made us more vulnerable. Energy saving designs, and miniaturization, have introduced unintended very-negative consequences. Our modern electrical devices are far more susceptible to damage from an EMP or CME.

7. The threat of an EMP or CME is expanding. Since the public is largely unaware and not demanding action, little is being done to mitigate this threat. Except for some military vehicles and hardware, government services like the electric power grid and consumer products are not adequately hardened against this threat.

At the same time, new players are surfacing who have the ability and propensity to use an EMP weapon. They regard these as a form of cyber warfare; a morally acceptable form of battle. In addition, since these weapons do not directly harm people, animals or crops, the view is that their use can be easily justified.

8. The Power of an EMP or CME is Unimaginable. What most of us can’t wrap our minds around is the magnitude of the disastrous effect on electronics. And, the degree to which society has become dependent on technology.

A significant EMP or CME event is NOT similar to a power surge. In effect, it is more akin to a lightning strike that hits every unprotected electrical or electronic device.

Perhaps this example can help us better understand the scope, and the power, behind the EMP and CME threat…

A few years ago, lightning hit the radio antenna mounted on the house which belongs to one of our 36READY contributors. We had the opportunity to view the damage.  The lightning bolt didn’t just follow the wire attached to his ham radio antenna, it jumped through the air to adjacent metallic objects and fried his television, washer and dryer, air conditioning unit, etc. 

EMP / CME Protection: Faraday Cages

British scientist Michael Faraday, pioneered the study of electromagnetism.

These protective enclosures for electronics are generally cited as the solution, or a way to reduce the effects.

Threat-prone military installations and equipment, in addition to some sophisticated commercial equipment, are protected by an enclosure commonly referred to as a Faraday Cage.”  There are many different forms of these cages, but they are all made of highly conductive material such as copper mesh. This enclosure, or cage, is used to divert the energy away from the protected electronics, driving the electrical energy into the ground. This is how they work. Since it isn’t possible to stop the pulse, they redirect its electrical energy.

A friend who worked on building Faraday cages at a new National Security Agency (NSA) facility, couldn’t share details because the design was “Classified,” but we were able to gain some practical information from his experience. 

Here is how the government deals with it, followed by what we can do to protect ourselves.

The U.S. Government’s Faraday cages have wire mesh walls that are perhaps 6-feet thick. These are anchored by substantial, poured concrete footings and many grounding rods drilled into the earth. These “rooms” have an insulated floors, interior walls and ceilings to make sure nothing touches the cage.  Unfortunately, this level of protection would be impossible for most of us to afford even if the design wasn’t Classified.

Some less sensitive field equipment, such as the military’s diesel trucks, are more easily “hardened.” Still, their design, from the drawing board forward, take this threat into account in both design and construction. Unfortunately, most of us don’t have access to EMP-protected products.

Personal Protection: A Do-It-Yourself Solution

As individuals, we can take steps to help protect our personal electronics. However, most of the commercial products which claim to be “Faraday cages” or “Faraday shields,” are not worth the money. If you want to mitigate this threat, make your own Faraday Cage.

Oddly, an ordinary galvanized garbage can may be the best Faraday cage available to the general public.

So for us, our first step toward protection is to understand that we cannot expect to achieve full protection.  That fact acknowledged, some of our electronics might still survive if we take some simple steps for protecting emergency radios and other essential electronics. 

Unfortunately, these protective measures will likely only make a difference if we are on the outer ring of the electromagnetic pulse (EMP), but that does not mean that we shouldn’t proceed. Even these small protective measures can make a big difference. For more on creating your own do-it-yourself Faraday Cage, read, “Prepared, Ready to Roll,” Book 2-3, pages 489-494, by SIG Swanstrom.

If you wisely undertake these simple protective measures, keep in mind, too, that like an earthquake, an EMP or CME incident can be followed by aftershock pulses. These can happen minutes later, or as much as two days after the first pulse, so don’t be quick to remove your electronics from your Faraday cage.

Other EMP-like Viable Threats

An EMP nuclear attack isn’t the only electromagnetic-pulse threat we face.  In 1859, the pulse from a solar flare hit the United States. Known as the “Carrington Event,” this sun-created problem set electric and telegraph wires and poles on fire, along with a few telegraph stations.

Technically referred to as a Coronal Mass Ejection (CME), these solar-flare pulses have struck the earth thousands of times in the past, but they weren’t noticed because these high-energy pulses do not harm humans, animals, or plant life.  They only harm electrical devices, especially those which have micro circuitry such as computers, but any electricity-powered device can be damaged.

The Carrington Event is a vivid reminder that even a natural solar-caused event can cause big problems, especially today in our technology-dependent modern world.

Today, the effect would vary according to the magnitude of the EMP or CME, but even a naturally occurring event such as a CME incident has the capacity to cause a long-term grid-down “black sky” event.  The threat is not far-fetched.

This threat is easily verified by the historic record.  The only unknown is “when” and “how severe will it be?”

NASA thinks we’re long overdue for a major CME.  On January 4, 2002, the sun produced one of these events, but fortunately for us, the pulse missed the earth. Yet, this was such a sobering event that NASA failed to report it to the public until years later, because they thought this near-miss might cause public panic.

Man-made EMPs are an even greater threat.  These can be produced by both an “RF” radio-like device, as well as a nuclear weapons or nuclear-powered EMP devices.

A missile is not needed to deliver an EMP. A small nuclear device could be flown in an airplane or weather balloon, and the pulse would still be widespread. An attack such as this could fry every electrical device in an entire region such as the Washington, DC area, or California. This could collapse the power grid for the entire nation.

Effects on Humans & Animals

Since these weapons do not harm people, animals, or plant life, only electronics, they do not have the stigma of using a nuclear weapon. Recent government publications in Russia, China, and Iran, document their view that these weapons are morally acceptable and wholly reasonable for first-strike use.

Threat Analysis: Evaluating EMP Test Results

Actual nuclear tests, not computer models or lab tests, are the best learning tool for understanding the threat of a nuclear EMP. 

For us, it is the U.S. Government’s nuclear tests conducted in the 1950-60s which may be our best, and most practical resource.  These decades old scientific tests were real-world tests, not theoretical.

For example, the U.S. high altitude nuclear test which occurred on July 9, 1962, known by its code name “Starfish Prime,” is worth studying. This test was conducted over the Pacific Ocean, but the effects were more far reaching than the models which were prepared by the same scientists.

For the Starfish Prime experiment, a 1.4 megaton warhead was detonated at an altitude of 250 miles above the ocean. Despite the elevation and distance, the EMP pulse was experienced in Hawaii, and even New Zealand which was 1,300 miles distant from the explosion. Unintentionally, even though the blast occurred hundreds of miles away, electronic devices in both Hawaii and New Zealand were damaged due to this experiment.

Consider this, too.  During the Cold War, the USSR produced at least 250 “suitcase” bombs.  During that same era, the U.S. produced an unknown number of backpack nuclear bombs. The U.S. bombs weighed 50-60 pounds, and their size, weight, and yield are thought to be similar to their USSR counterparts. 

Today, all of the U.S. bombs are accounted for, but most of the USSR nuclear weapons are missing. 

Many knowledgeable people in Western intelligence agencies believe that more than 100 of these Soviet-era nuclear bombs were smuggled into Western countries, primarily U.S. cities, but also strategic targets in Europe. They are thought to be still in place, where they were hidden by the Soviets. (As a point of reference, these ‘suitcase’ nuclear bombs are thought to have about the same kiloton rating as the Starfish Prime device.)

Modern Susceptibility to Extensive Damage

On top of this solar flare, nuclear bomb and EMP history, we need to keep in mind that our modern electronics are far more susceptible to damage than the electronic equipment which was in use 57 years ago, when the Starfish Prime nuclear test was conducted.  Today, we would see far, far greater damage if this test. or an attack of similar size, was repeated.

A “Black- Sky” Event

To bring this forward to today, if one of these old Soviet-era suitcase bombs was detonated in a high-flying airplane today, the EMP produced by that one, relatively small blast, would cause a power grid failure for a distance that would be beyond what the pilot could see.  If this were to happen in the U.S., it could easily cause a cascading failure which would crumble the entire U.S. power grid.

In the U.S., Texas is the only State which has its own, independent power grid.  Though connected to the other two U.S. power grids, Texas might still endure a national ‘cascade’ event, but the power grids of other States probably wouldn’t survive.

Keep in mind, too, that our modern nuclear bombs have a much greater yield, and pulse, than Starfish Prime and these old suitcase bombs.  North Korea has detonated six nuclear bombs of sizes conservatively estimated to be from 50-140 kt.  Their latest test was of a bomb that was 100x larger than the bomb used for the Starfish Prime test.

With an EMP attack, the use of a sophisticated missile is unnecessary. Nevertheless, more than a dozen nations possess the missile technology needed to launch an intercontinental EMP attack. Several dozen more have the technology to launch an off-shore EMP attack on the United States.

Today, there are at least 9 countries with nuclear bombs.  In addition, Iraq and many terrorist groups are actively pursuing this technology. Someday, someone is going to detonate one that will affect us all. As nations, and as individuals, we need to be ready for this.

The #1 EMP threat feared by the U.S. Government is an EMP device launched from a ship that is cruising in international waters, just off the coast of the United States.  By launching an attack from a ship and then immediately sinking the ship, evidence would be destroyed.  This method might make it possible to attack the U.S. or Europe with impunity. We can track the route of the ship, but currently we would not be able to confirm the source of the bomb with 100% certainty. As a result, the attacker would know that retaliation would be unlikely since the perpetrator would have a good chance of remaining anonymous.

Lastly, as we consider these topics, let’s keep in mind that laboratory tests and computer modeling is totally inadequate. To date, these theoretical models and small tests have all proven to be flawed and unreliable.

Our Conclusion 

An EMP and CME are just two of the many threats we are facing.  Thankfully, doing what we can to prepare for these “specialized” threats does not require a lot of specialized effort. A lion’s share, probably 95% of our preparations remain the same regardless of the physical threat.  With EMP and CME threats, the additional effort is minimal to achieve a significant level of added protection. Therefore, it is worth undertaking the basic steps required to protect at least some electronics which would be useful to us in an emergency or an extended grid-down situation.

Simple precautions, like using a new steel trash can, properly outfitted and stored, are a worthwhile way to protect crucial electronics such as shortwave radios and 2-way radios.  (For D-I-Y instructions, read “Prepared, Ready to Roll, Book-2, pages 489-494, by SIG Swanstrom.) Unfortunately, most “Faraday cage” commercial products are largely ineffective, so buyer beware.

What makes these do-it-yourself (D-I-Y) preparations even more viable is that random factors, such as the electronics being located inside a metal or rebar-reinforced building, a basement, parking garage, or even being in the electronic shadow made by a mountain or hill, can make a huge difference.  And, we can’t rule out Providence, either.

In the Bible, when God told his people that He was going to give them victory over an enemy in battle, they still went out carrying their weapons.  They still fought.  Not because they didn’t trust their God, but because God expected them to do their part.  Similarly, it behooves us to do our part, too.

Whether you believe in divine Providence or dumb luck, surviving a major event such as these will likely be vastly improved by doing what you can to prepare. Now, in advance of these problems, do what you can to prepare for this and other emergency situations. Be proactive.