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The Day The Electronics Died: What Happens After An EMP

There has been a great deal of talk recently surrounding EMPs. Electromagnetic pulses are a very real threat and one of the most likely SHTF scenarios.  Most countries have the technology, and unlike nuclear weapons these machines are not regulated. It is also very possible for EMPs to occur naturally.

What Is An EMP?

An EMP, also sometimes called a Transient Electromagnetic Disturbance, is a brief burst of electromagnetic energy.  Most people know that an EMP can damage electronic devices, but it can also do physical damage.  For example, a bolt of lightning is actually a side-effect from an EMP. If you have ever seen a tree after being struck by lightning, you know how destructive this force can be.

There are times that EMPs can come from outside the earth’s atmosphere.  It is possible for a meteor to hit our atmosphere and cause a pulse when it breaks apart.  The sun can also produce EMPs as gases explode outward from the surface. These are called solar flares and they happen all the time. Major flares are the ones that can do real damage.

Nuclear EMPs are generated both as a primary EMP resulting from the blast and a secondary EMP resulting from ionizing the surrounding air.  As the electrons are ripped from the atoms and then reattached, another pulse is emitted.  A normal nuclear bomb produces an EMP, but a NEMP (nuclear EMP) is specifically designed to do its primary damage through the pulse and not the blast.

HEMPs are high altitude blasts that work a bit differently.  They flood the stratosphere with gamma rays that ionize atoms.  As these atoms react with the earth’s gravity, it creates a much stronger pulse than a ground level blast.  These could easily take down a 700 mile radius disabling about half of the United States with one bomb.

NNEMPs or non-nuclear EMPs generate the pulse without using nuclear material.  These devices serve a very specific purpose as they have a small radius of effectiveness but allow the user to target a defined area.  They are ideal for taking out ground vehicles and aircrafts.  They do still require a chemical explosion and can be delivered via missile or drone.

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The Aftermath

So what will happen after an EMP?  Pure chaos is likely.  EMPs create surges in current and voltage in all electronic components.  This means cell phones, televisions, radios, computers, cars, trains, and planes would all go down because of the computers built into these devices.  The electrical grid would be permanently fried so it would take months or years to get the power back on.

No power means no running water, no refrigeration, no A/C or heat, no lights, no communication, and no access to your funds in the bank.  It would literally send us back to the stone-age, and most people would not know how to survive for more than a few days.  Out of desperation, hordes of people would take to the streets looting and stealing any supplies they can find.

The threat goes further than just panic. Prisons would shut down and inmates would likely escape.  With the police down for the count, criminals would do what they please.  The violence would be severe.  Hospitals and nursing homes would shut down and people would start dying as their breathing machines and other devices power down. Without vital prescriptions, many more would die in the coming days and weeks.

It is estimated that as many as 500,000 people would die in the first hour due to planes crashing.  Without power, every aircraft in the sky would fall to the ground or glide into buildings killing almost everybody on board. Many people on the ground would die as well when these flights plow into populated areas.

Elevators would be a death trap as they freeze in place.  Those inside would be in complete darkness and would have to try and find a way out before dying of dehydration. Anybody living near nuclear plants would be in trouble as well.  As the backup generators get fried, these plants would melt down releasing large amounts of radiation. They would kill anybody downwind of the plant. There are 99 nuclear reactors located in the US.

Another risk is being on a highway during the pulse.  Cars going 70 MPH would lose their power steering, but would keep rolling until they come to a stop. Many vehicles would run into oncoming traffic or would coast off the edge of the road. Some would hit other cars doing major damage.  Those in tunnels would be in complete darkness as well, so they would really be in trouble.

Cholera would likely become a problem within the first few weeks.  Cholera is caused by people drinking tainted water.  With no power, water filtration plants would go down.  Humans can only survive for three days without water.  When day three rolls around people will start drinking whatever water they can find.  This disease will likely kill more Americans than any other aspect of an EMP event.

One of the most widespread issues in this scenario is getting to your children.  Many parents work 20 or more miles from home or from their child’s school.  With all transportation coming to a halt, parents would have to hike to their kids and hope their teacher stuck around despite having a family of their own.

Protected Devices And Faraday Cages

What devices would not be affected?  The short answer is that any electronic device could be susceptible.  However, small devices may not have enough wiring to draw damage from a pulse.  It all depends on the strength of the pulse. Also I have heard that auto manufacturers protect some of the vehicle’s components against EMPs, but you cannot bank on any vehicle being 100% protected.

The only reliable way to protect anything electrical is a faraday cage.  Faraday cages are enclosures made of either solid metal or wire.  In the event of an EMP the pulse would travel around the cage and not through it leaving electronics unharmed.  These devices must be unplugged for this to work.  I have seen faraday cages as large as a room and as small as a purse.

For the smallest versions you can purchase one online for items like cell phones, radios, flashlights, solar chargers, and inverters.  With any sized faraday cage, there must be a layer of non-conductive material inside the cage but surrounding each item.  This could be cardboard, Styrofoam, plastic, or even paper.

For mid-sized cages a metal filing cabinet or metal swing-door cabinet work well.  These give you plenty of space for smaller items, but there is also room for slightly larger things like small generators, solar panels, or medical equipment. One way to finish off your cage is to line the inside with sheets of foam insulation or cardboard.

For the largest cages you can line a room with sheet-metal or build an actual cage. The cage can be made from any conductive material so rebar or exposed copper wiring works well.  A large enough faraday cage can protect an entire household’s electronics including a vehicle in some cases. Do not forget that you still must surround the items with a non-conductive material.

The Big Picture

An EMP event is getting more and more likely, and the government knows it.  The EMP commission report submitted to congress in 2004 indicated that 9 out of 10 Americans would die in the two years following a pulse.  Furthermore, millions would die in just the first few weeks. If the mainland United States is ever attacked, this would likely be the first move.

What are the long term consequences?  A major EMP strike could shut down US power for 10 years.  The entire grid would have to be rebuilt.  It would cost the United States over $2 trillion in just the first year. In addition, it would leave the US susceptible to mainland attack.  Without our jets, Humvees, helicopters, missiles, and ships we would be at a great disadvantage.

The craziness of all this is how simple the solution could be.  For a mere $2 billion the US government could retrofit most of the grid to protect against an EMP blast.  I know that sounds like a great deal of money, but it is only .1% of the $2 trillion that would be spent in the first year after the blast.  Despite how likely it is that this will happen, the government has no intention of doing the work to protect us all.

The only advantage that the survivalists and preppers will have is that we will know what has happened when it happens.  While other people are trying to call 911 or trying to finish their day at the office, we will be gathering supplies and bugging out or bugging in.  While others are running around confused, we will setting up security and gathering our families.  We will be ready.

Is that enough?  Definitely not.  Action needs to be taken on a larger scale to protect against this problem.  If congress has known about this threat since 2004, then there is no excuse for our lack of preparation. It is just a matter of time before another country takes advantage of our weakness.  I truly hope there will still be a United States after the dust settles.

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About Ryan Dotson

My name is Ryan Dotson and I am a survivalist, prepper, writer, and photographer. I grew up in the Ozark Mountains and in the foothills of the Pocono Mountains. My interest in survival started when I was in Boy Scouts and continued as my father, uncle, and grandfather taught me to hunt and fish. In the last few years I have started taking on survival challenges and have started writing about my experiences. I currently live in Mid-Missouri with my wife Lauren and three year old son Andrew.

One comment

  1. Hi Ryan,

    You state that vehicles in tunnels would be disabled by an EMP.
    I think being underground would provide a large measure of protection, dependant of course, on the distance and bearing from the tunnel and the entrances to it, also the vehicles would be surrounded by an electrical earthed tunnel, tunnels are usually lined with Steel reinforcement mesh,before they are sprayed with concrete.

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