Creating new worlds, one story at a time

Electro-Magnetic Pulse (EMP) and Its Effects

Since my novel, After the Fall: Jason’s Tale, takes place after an EMP attack on the United States, I thought it might be good to write about what our experts in Washington think about this threat.

E1-E2-E3: First, the bones of an EMP: there are three parts to the “pulse”, cleverly labeled E1, E2 and E3. E1 is the shortest pulse and consists of gamma rays. They travel at nearly the speed of light. Their danger is that they hit electrical circuits so fast that surge protectors cannot react in time to block them. They disable the surge protectors and cause some damage to the electronics downstream, mostly semi-conductors. The E2 pulse lasts longer, but still well under a second, and it has unimpeded entry into electronic circuits whose surge protectors are now disabled, completing the damage, shutting down most electronics. The E3 pulse is the final round, lasting up to hundreds of seconds. It has a long wave length and couples to long distance power transmission lines following them and burning out power stations and transformers on the grid. An EMP burst couldn’t be better designed to do maximum damage to a society’s power and transportation infrastructure.

Sun attacks: We get EMP attacks from our sun via “coronal mass ejections”.  We’re protected from most of their effects by the earth’s magnetic shield. However the threat posed, as in my and other stories, by a nuclear induced EMP attack is real and our magnetic shielding won’t protect us.  The scenario may be attractive to many rogue regimes as you don’t have to precisely target a city and you can do more wide spread damage. As in my novel, the terrorists at first don’t like the idea; they want to see fire and death rain down from the sky, but they are won over by the vision of the U.S. “dying from within” as society collapses.

Food: Think about it; our cities have approximately a three day supply of food. Grocery stores and their food delivery systems are a modern marvel. We get a bewildering array of choices, mostly year around, ever replenished in a three day cycle, thus insuring a constant flow of perishable items. Now take away the delivery system; modern trucks stop running, trains stop running, planes stop flying.

The first casualty of the breakdown in our transportation system would be food supplies (next would probably be gas). Cities would quickly run out as people made a run on the grocery stores. Add to this situation the fact that credit cards don’t work anymore. How many of us have sufficient amounts of cash on hand to make necessary purchases, even if we can fight through the crowds to find the goods?

No Information: So we have no food being delivered and no credit cards being accepted. Now let’s add in the loss of electricity and communications. We don’t have lights, we can’t call anyone and we don’t get informed about what is going on—no television, radio or internet. In modern disasters, there is generally some form of communication by which the authorities can let the population know what’s happened and direct them in how to respond. The sense of isolation would be terrifying to many; local officials, when found, would have no better idea of what happened and what was being done about it than anyone else.

Hospitals would be out of action; their backup generators, conveniently integrated into their electrical systems, would have been damaged. No lights means surgeries would have to be done under flashlight, if the hospital had any. Medicines would soon be in short supply. People with diabetes might be the first to suffer without a supply of insulin, but others would soon succumb.

Breakdown: I don’t mean to depress my readers, but you can see that it is not hard to project an apocalyptic vision from the above. How long could our society remain cohesive? The density of our cities is made possible only by the infrastructure that would now be disabled. How long would we remain friendly to and supportive of each other? How soon would hunger and fear drive us to desperate action? Not to mention those in society who already tend to live on the edge of the law. We may find there are many more sociopaths as well as psychopaths amongst us than we want to believe. And many would be driven to such behavior out of a belief that aggression is needed for survival. Survival for most people would drive out most other feelings.

90% Casualties: This is grist for an author’s mill. For my novel, I have drawn the most severe picture. I have an electrical engineer friend who doesn’t think it would be as bad as I describe (but that doesn’t make for as good a story). The army has some “hardened” systems so it wouldn’t be completely disabled. Still James Woolsey, former CIA Director, in an August 12, 2014 editorial in the Wall Street Journal, points out that the EMP Commission (whatever that is/was) concluded in 2008 that within 12 months of such an attack 90% of the U.S. population could be dead. Even if that estimate is way off base, 50% of the U.S. population dying would be catastrophic.

So clearly an EMP attack is great fodder for a novelist, but it is also a real and present threat. This threat has been recognized by our current administration, but no one seems to be in any hurry to address it. Woolsey’s editorial pointed out that protecting the country’s national grid (which would keep the power on, even if transportation were shut down) would cost 2 billion dollars, about what we give Pakistan a year in foreign aid. Something to think about; meanwhile, the subject provides fertile soil in which to sow stories.

Would you be able to survive the collapse of society?  Would you want to? Let me know your thoughts.

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  1. Thanks for the great blog. I know that the EMPs can happen and have probably happened many times in the past (CME).
    I’ve enjoyed your books and it really has me thinking about prepping.
    With Trump as our current president, I think we are close to a nuclear EMP attack.
    If I was younger , I could see stocking heavily for survival. However, my wife and I are in our 70s and live in a beautiful but undefensible house.
    How about doing a blog with us seniors in mind, if there is hope for us at all.

  2. Thanks for the great article. I would be interested in how people who actually prepared for this type of disaster would fare in this scenario. Someone who had electronics, solar panels, vehicles, etc. in a Faraday cage or otherwise protected from EMP. I would think they would become instant targets, being the only ones with electric or running vehicles. As for me and my family surviving the collapse of society… I would like to… I have planned for it… but I think we would have to hide whatever “prepping” we have done because I think others would just kill us for our stuff (or try to… it won’t be that easy!)

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