Is the Threat of an EMP Overexaggerated?

Around 2010, it seemed like the only thing being discussed in the prepping community was the risk of an EMP. Compared to zombies, gamma-ray bursts, a 2nd Civil War, and all the other mega-doomsday disasters, a powerful EMP created by nuclear weapons or solar activity seemed far and away the most likely thing that could happen.

solar flares
sun close-up showing solar flares

And people were right to be worried! However, with time dragging on and nothing of the kind having occurred, some folks are claiming that the threat of an EMP was, or is, actually overexaggerated. But is it really?

No, I don’t think the threat of a major EMP is overexaggerated. Considering the two most likely causes, nuclear weapons are hardly rare, and solar activity is constant and unpredictable. Such an event would be nothing short of a catastrophe.

The trick with so-called doomsday events is that they are incredibly serious but mercifully very unlikely to occur.

That being said, there are numerous ways that a powerful EMP, one bad enough to completely capsize our electrical grid, might happen and there is really nothing we can do about several of them.

Accordingly, the threat of them will be present from here on out, and I personally believe it’s only a matter of time until one does occur. Keep reading and I’ll tell you more…

EMP Attack: The Real Science of Electromagnetic Pulse

How Common are EMPs?

If you want to get down to brass tacks, EMPs are actually shockingly common. They can be caused by high-power transmission lines, lightning strikes, and everyday natural solar phenomena in the form of coronal mass ejections or solar storms.

If you look at it that way, they really do happen all the time, and we even have a precedent for a wide area, damaging and persistent EMP in the form of the 1859 Carrington Event.

But to be a little more realistic, massively destructive EMPs very rarely happen, and practically speaking have not happened in the current era. This does not mean that they won’t, though.

We are Only Really Worried About Major EMPs

Talk to anyone who has ever had a lightning strike anywhere near their car, and they will probably tell you that the threat posed by EMPs is indeed quite real! Lightning strikes are powerful enough to generate a pretty substantial EMP that can fry all of the electronics in a car, even if not directly struck.

That’s terrible if it happens to you, but hardly anything of note when it comes to prepping. After all, we aren’t worried about incidental damage that is only an insurance claim at the end of the day, however scary and inconvenient it might be.

The kinds of EMP events that preppers are talking about, and that some preppers are now calling overexaggerated, are those that can affect a very wide area, meaning regionally, nationally, potentially even globally.

The kind that can completely disable or totally destroy electrical grids and anything reliant on electronic components.

The Big Three EMP Threats

The three major EMP threats, of the magnitude we have good cause to be very afraid of, are nuclear EMPs, caused by the detonation of a nuclear warhead, non-nuclear EMPs, a type of weapon system which generates a massively potent pulse, and natural EMPs, the aforementioned solar storms and coronal mass ejections.

Nuclear EMP: Likelihood Low, Severity High

If we think this through rationally, we know that there’s sadly no shortage of nukes in the world.

The detonation of a nuclear bomb at ground level will be bad enough, but will also produce a powerful EMP that can knock out electrical systems far beyond the actual blast and flash radius of the bomb itself.

Arguably a worse outcome is a high-altitude nuclear detonation, which will intensify the electromagnetic pulse due to its interaction with the Earth’s ionosphere.

Any place with line-of-sight to such a detonation could potentially be affected, meaning entire swaths of the United States might be in danger!

Non-Nuclear EMP: Likelihood Moderate, Severity High to Very High

EMP generator weapons leave out the Earth-cracking kaboom of a nuclear warhead but still emit a powerful, even continuous, wave of electromagnetic energy that can overload grids, start fires, and completely fry unprotected electronics.

To our knowledge, these systems have not been deployed in open warfare, at least not publicly, but we know they exist and are certain to be a tool in the arsenals of major powers and, potentially, minor ones.

Natural EMP: Likelihood High, Severity Moderate

And lastly, we must consider the known and previously experienced effects of solar activity. Let’s get real, there’s not one thing we can do about the sun, and though coronal mass ejections of substantial power rarely strike the earth, they do happen often enough to have occurred within recent history.

Electricity and communications systems were in their relative infancy all the way back when the Carrington Event happened; I shudder to think what might occur if a similar instance, or something even more powerful, were to occur today.

Mercifully, humanity has kept the nuclear genie in the bottle since the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, outside of testing of course, but between increasing global tensions and the fact we can’t do anything about solar activity, it seems it’s only a matter of time until we are on the receiving end of an extremely powerful EMP.

An EMP Attack is Likely an Attractive Option to Hostile Powers

Something else that preppers should keep in mind is that a deliberate EMP attack, being either the less-spectacular detonation of a nuclear weapon at high altitude or the deployment of a specialized EMP generator weapon, might be an attractive means of asymmetric attack or defense for a hostile power.

It’s obvious, of course, but if you nuke someone you’re going to get nuked back in this day and age, and nobody wants or can afford that.

But is there a precedent for using an EMP strategically in such a way? If it doesn’t directly cause death, so might that forestall deadly retaliation of some kind?

These questions will get answered at some point, but it’s highly likely that any opponent who has access to them and is getting involved in a proper, large-scale war will look to deploy an EMP one way or another in order to degrade the ability of the US to wage war or just to cause total havoc here on the homefront.

The Aftermath of an EMP Could Be Apocalyptic

I must also remind readers that the consequences of a powerful EMP will likely be absolutely cataclysmic considering how badly maintained and degraded America’s electrical grid is.

For decades now, human error, serious wind events, and localized storms have caused massive, regional blackouts that have lasted for days or weeks.

If an EMP affects multiple regional grids simultaneously, you can expect cascading failures, widespread fires, gravely disrupted or even halted commerce, and total societal chaos. And this isn’t theory, or some sci-fi story: we know that will happen.

Accordingly, when the severity of the event is so high, the threat must be taken seriously.

1 thought on “Is the Threat of an EMP Overexaggerated?”

  1. I have to disagree with the assessment that a solar EMP will have a moderate severity. While this is possible as in the 1989 blackout in Quebec that lasted for 9 hours a massive solar storm the size of Carrington or larger could wipe out the entire world wide grid. Ancient records show flares much larger than Carrington in history. Worse yet it will happen. Even a smaller one can take out the internet which will cause massive disruptions in our country such as the indefinite closing of every major retailer including the nation’s largest grocer whose registers are useless without an internet connection.

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