There are a lot of people talking about electromagnetic pulses (EMPs) these days. A few of them actually know what they’re talking about. And even those few don’t know exactly what effects an EMP might have because most of it is still theory. If someone tries to sell you something that will protect your electronic equipment in the event of an EMP caused by a solar flare, a nuclear war or a terrorist group detonating a nuclear device above the earth, do your research before spending any money. It’s likely to be a scam.
First, let’s take a quick look at exactly what an EMP is and how it can burn out electrical and battery-operated devices. A nuclear burst close to the ground can cause untold misery for people, but it’s really not all that damaging to electronic equipment because that burst is quickly dampened by the earth. Any EMP effects would be confined to the region of the blast. EMPs become more powerful and widespread when a nuclear device is detonated much higher up in the atmosphere where the earth cannot soak up the free electrons.
In theory, one 20-megaton bomb exploded at 200 miles above the United States could cause an EMP that would knock out much of civilian electronic equipment across the continental U.S. Terrorists know this and there is no question that somewhere, someone is working on trying to turn this into reality.
Back in the late 1950s and early 1960s, at the heart of the Cold War, both the U.S. and U.S.S.R. were testing nuclear devices in the earth’s atmosphere. One of the U.S. tests in 1962, known as the Starfish Prime project, detonated at an altitude of about 250 miles. It produced a yield equivalent to approximately 1.4 megatons of TNT and resulted in an EMP that illuminated a large area of the Pacific Ocean, caused electrical damage in Hawaii some 900 miles away from the detonation point, and trapped high-energy electrons to form radiation belts around the earth, disabling one-third of satellites in low earth orbit and causing other satellites to fail over time.
Also in 1962, the Soviet Union detonated a 300-kiloton missile warhead west of Dzhezkazgan at an altitude of 180 miles. The resulting EMP blew the fuses and overvoltage protectors on telephone lines, burned down a power plant and shut down 620 miles of power cables.
Those types of tests have long since been banned, and while there is data from the tests, it is not as comprehensive as many would like. The fact is, we still don’t know for sure how an EMP would affect a modern society that has become dependent on electronics. The information is sketchy. Even electronics designers have to test their equipment in powerful EMP simulators before they can be sure it’s capable of withstanding the effects.
For example, it has been widely assumed for some time now that battery-operated vehicles including cars and trucks would be disabled by an EMP. Logically, and certainly on paper, that assumption is correct. But a number of real-world experiments, including those conducted by the U.S military, have not confirmed that assumption. Many cars have proven to be resistant to the effects of EMP simulators, other than cars with fiberglass bodies, those located near large stretches of metal and possibly newer models with many IC circuits. One theory is that a car’s metal body is partially insulated by the rubber tires that are in contact with the ground.
Now let’s take a look at some of the false information there is out there about EMPs, which will help you avoid being scammed by those offering protection from them.
Light It Up
Some people have compared an EMP to a lightning strike. Going under the assumption that they are similar, they have designed strategies for protecting electrical equipment against it. This theory is flawed, and I will tell you right now that any claims of protection based on that theory are no good. The products they are pushing will not do what they are designed to do.
Yes, the effects of a lightning strike on electrical equipment can be similar to the effects of an EMP, including burning out electrical equipment with intense electronic surges. But an EMP is really more similar to a super-powerful radio wave.
Sticking with the lightning theme, there’s information out there that an EMP could fry people’s brains or cause them other health problems, such as being hit by lightning would do. If an EMP wiped out electronics nationally or even in a region, it could negatively affect a person being able to access his funds and find food and water, but the blast itself would not hurt a human, animal or plant. Wires carrying surges through wires to metal, such as what happens with electrical equipment, is what causes concentrated damage when it comes to an EMP.
Ultimately, the only real protection for your electronic equipment is going to be a Faraday cage.
Prior to the Civil War, English scientist Michael Faraday created a cage that blocked external static and non-static electric fields. This enclosure was formed by conducting material or by a mesh of such material. Its operation depends on the fact that an external static electrical field will cause the electric charges within the cage’s conducting material to redistribute themselves so as to cancel the field’s effects in the cage’s interior. Within your home, a Faraday cage could protect your most valuable electronic equipment, including computers, during an EMP attack.