Tuesday, January 12, 2010

Electro Magnetic Pulse (EMP)

The Discovery Channel produces a show called "Future Weapons". This re-run "Future Shock" included a description of EMP (Electro-Magnetic Pulse). They reproduce an EMP with a special device hung from a tower but I've seen devices on the Internet that can produce the same effect. Essentially, a large pulse of energy creates a sympathetic wave in one's electronic equipment and destroys it. For equipment designed to handle large current it is usually not a problem, but semiconductor electronics such as your electronic ignition won't work. Your on-board computer will be dead. It will need to be replaced. If a pulse occurs over the USA most modern cars will roll to a stop and remain dead until you replace the parts if any parts are available. Not likely. If you are driving your grandfather's F-150 pickup truck or a pre-1968 Volkswagen you will probably be OK.... for awhile.

What is EMP?

EMP (Electro-Magnetic Pulse) is an energy wave that includes visible light, radio waves microwaves and can induce magnetism. This is how electric magnets work, antennas work and why a electricity is generate by passing a wire through a magnetic field (otherwise known as a electric generator). EMP is a pulse of this energy that overwhelms the designed limits of certain types of equipment (most often semiconductor electronics) and destroys them.

How does EMP Fry Electronics?

Semiconductor electronics (transistors, computer chips) in such appliances as televisions, cell phones, iPods and even electronic ignition and speedometers in cars are designed to take only a take very, very small flows of electricity to run. If a sudden spike of electricity if forced through them, they will react badly either producing unexpected signals (corrupting data) or burning out the path the electricity takes rendering the device useless and must be replaced.

If you watch the video at Future Weapons on EMP you will see Mack driving a car while an EMP device goes off. Suddenly the car engine dies and he rolls to a stop. He feels nothing. The car seems fine other than the engine no longer runs. But what is not obvious is that the car is totally dead. It doesn't work and it will never work again until the electronics are replaced... a very expensive proposition and time consuming in any case.

What Happens Next?

If you are caught by an EMP while driving between towns, you are looking at a very long walk. No one will be coming to get you. You can't call. Your cell phone is dead. They can't get to you in any case. The tow truck is probably dead too.  The only cars running will be those that have only a mechanical distributor, usually car made prior to 1968. In 1968 the pollution standards changed in the USA causing manufacturers to use electronic ignition and other electronic sensors to monitor and adjust engine timing and fuel via computer.

As you walk home you'll notice all the lights in the city are out. Most power stations are not properly shielded to survive even a solar flare event so they are less prepared for a deliberate EMP attack. In the 1960's, when folks were really worried about such issues, less than 10% of power stations were shielded (according to a fallout shelter preparedness pamphlet I read). The electric lines above ground act as an antenna sending a pulse not only to the power station but to every home it services (depending on how much power is in the pulse).

Once you reach home, your phone lines will run for a few days until the batteries at the phone company run down. They are not prepared for an extended power outage. Civil preparedness plans seems to work under the assumption of a short-term event, localized damage, followed by restoration of power using resources from surrounding areas. If damage is widespread (and dead cars are blocking every road) trucking in resources will become problematic to say the least.

Gravity-fed waterlines will lose pressure but should work for awhile. Once the water towers have drained no more water will be available because the water towers can't fill unless the pumps are running. If your family is prepared, they can fill the bathtub with water. You can also get water by draining the hot water heater. (There is a drain value on the side of every tank.)

How can you know what the consequences of an extended loss of electricity at home will be? Walk over to your power panel and flip off the big switch.

[One Second After]
A good "what would happen if" book on EMP is the novel "One Second After" by William R. Forstchen. He goes step-by-step how a man who has retired to his country home with his family finds that the power has suddenly gone out. It is eerily quiet because the traffic noises have stopped. The phones are out, the water has stopped and the only thing that seems to work is an old radio he had stuffed in an ammo box in the closet. Yet as he tries to tune in a station he hears only static. All the radio stations are gone and he wonders when the power will come back. It is a few days before he realizes that it's not coming back and he has a number of problems to solve before it is too late.

How Likely is an EMP?

The mostly likely event is a lightening strike bringing down power stations (the Power Grid). This happened in 1977 when a few lightening strikes knocked out key power stations causing the New York City Blackout. The blackout was followed by "city-wide looting and arson". It lasted for less than two days but after supposedly "fixing" this problem, it happened again in 2003 when trees fell against some power lines suddenly taking a power station off the Grid. The resulting cascade brought about The Northeast Blackout.

The next mostly likely event would be a large solar flare that would knock out power stations, disrupt radio transmissions and endanger air flight. The Sun has been unusually calm in the last few years but in 1989 the largest solar flare in history hit the Earth causing 6 billion dollars in damage and brought about the Quebec Blackout.

Other possibilities are a HERF gun used against your car or computer by a prankster. I also remember worrying when North Korea launched a test rocket toward Hawaii that it was possible he could have set off an EMP device in the upper atmosphere. Evacuating Hawaii or even supporting it with basic food and water would be overwhelming had there been such a device on board.

How Do I Prepare for EMP?

You can set aside some electronic equipment in special storage boxes you can make or you can buy and adapt. See video below.

Having one of your cars being a pre-1968 car would help but might not be practical. Alternatively you might have special replacement parts for your auto stored as the video above suggests and then do your own mechanical work to get your car going again. Either way seems expensive and might not be the best use of your efforts if you are already situated at home. If you are already prepared for an extended grid-down situation then you aren't going anywhere soon. You might prepare for staying in place first before spending money on expensive replacement parts for a vehicle. In that case, having a pre-1968 car available makes more sense because it is useful even if no EMP emergency occurs whereas storing expensive replacement parts for my car that I hopefully will not use seems less efficient use of my preparation dollars. Alex Shrugged
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