Hollywood loves EMPs. They've been featured in movies like Goldeneye, The Matrix, and even Cars 2, and it might be tempting to just write them off as another Hollywood trope. After all, British super-spies, reality bending computer simulations, and talking cars are all fun to watch but at the end of the day, we all know they aren’t real (probably).
Well, I’m here to tell you otherwise. EMPsare real and more common than you may think. They’re also easier than you might think to understand and be prepared for. In this article, I’ll teach you everything you need to know about EMPs including what they are, where they come from, and how to protect your devices.
EMP is an abbreviation that stands for electromagnetic pulse. During an EMP, asource emits a pulse of electromagnetic energy in the atmosphere, which causes the air to become electrically charged. This pulse is very brief and doesn’t affect people, but the atmospheric disturbance it creates can have serious consequences for electrical equipment.
Minor EMPs mainly just create interference for certain radio frequencies and aren’t a big concern. More powerful EMPs create high voltage and high amperage electrical charges which can cause temporary or permanent damage to a device.
This is because electricity is naturally drawn to ground and will follow the path of least resistance to get there. Since our electrical devices are designed around the same principle of least resistance, they serve as excellent conductors for the electrical charge.
Following an EMP your devices will become temporarily electrically charged. Basic components such as cables and batteries will be unaffected, but more sensitive components (such as diodes and resistors) can be burned out under the right conditions. This means that any complex electrical devices like phones, laptops, radios, etc. are susceptible and could become either temporarily or permanently disabled after an EMP.
Major Causes of EMPs
Perhaps the most well-known EMPs are the manmade variety (thanks, Hollywood). These fall into two aptly named, if not very creative, categories. They are Nuclear EMPs (NEMPs) and Non-nuclear EMPs (NNEMPs. I know...).
NEMPs result from the pulse of electromagnetic radiation following a nuclear blast. This pulse causes a powerful EMP. Nuclear detonations on the ground have a relatively small EMP radius, however, it has been discovered that nuclear blasts in the upper atmosphere magnify the effect and produce a much stronger EMP with a larger area of effect.
NNEMPs on the other hand are created without the use of nuclear radiation. There’s a long explanation involving a lot of techno-speak about how this is achieved, but the short of it is that these devices exist, have smaller areas of effect than NEMPs, and can be weaponized into bombs or missiles that can be deployed without suffering the effects of a nuclear explosion.
One important characteristic of man-made EMPs is that they are (of course) at humanity’s discretion. Depending on where you fall regarding the issue of human morality, you may take this as good or bad news. Regardless, this means that man-made EMPs are hard to predict.
I don’t want to spend a lot of time speculating about whether we face a nuclear or technological apocalypse. I’m neither qualified nor interested in making those kinds of assertions. Suffice it to say that man-made EMP weapons exist and may one day see use in the real world, although I will also say that if that day ever comes, we’ll probably have bigger problems on our hands than a dead computer.
Far more common than the use of EMP weapons is the phenomenon of coronal mass ejections, or CMEs. A CME is essentially a burst of energized particles and magnetic fields emitted by the sun during a solar storm. When a CME comes into contact with the earth’s atmosphere, the disturbance can cause a geomagnetic storm resulting in an EMP. EMPs caused by coronal mass ejections can range in strength, but even comparatively small CMEs can have serious consequences.
The worst CME on record occurred in 1859 and is known as the Carrington Event. It was caused by a coronal mass ejection so large that the resulting storm affected the entire world. The storm caused Auroras (like the northern lights) to appear in the Caribbean, lit up parts of the world in the middle of the night, and disrupted telegraph systems across the globe (Bell, Phillips).
The severity of the Carrington Event is unlike anything else we’ve seen in our 162 years of recording CMEs. Many worry that, were it to happen again, it would cripple the world because of our dependence on electronics in our day-to-day.
The good news is that it’s unlikely to happen again anytime soon.
Research conducted in Greenland suggests that a solar storm of Carrington Event magnitude is a bimillennial (every 500 years) event (McCracken et al). Other researchers have suggested that events of that size may, in fact, be even less frequent, occurring every few millennia (Battersby).
Disregarding the Carrington event, CMEs still pose a problem. Since 1859 we’ve recorded smaller but still harmful storms that occur much more frequently.
A research team from the University of Warwick’s Centre for Fusion, Space, and Astrophysics classifies geomagnetic storms into two categories. Severe superstorms are the more common and less severe of the two. They estimate that these occur every three years and can be dangerous but much less so than great superstorms. Great superstorms happen every 25 years and can have serious consequences for technology (Gough).
For instance, in 1972 a large solar storm in Illinois damaged the long-range telecommunications network across the state, resulting in costly repairs. In 1989 a power plant in Quebec was unable to transmit power due to a similarly sized solar storm, causing a massive power outage that lasted nine hours and affected six million customers (Bell, Phillips).
Because of the potential for disruption posed by CMEs, the scientific community keeps a close eye on the sun and efforts are being directed at predicting future events. While there is no known way of stopping CMEs from causing geomagnetic storms, having an early warning could make all the difference in preventing serious damage.
The average person is likely to live through three or four great superstorms and dozens of severe superstorms. Ignoring the possibility of another Carrington event, it is still prudent to prepare for the possibility of an EMP event given the frequency with which smaller superstorms occur.
Protecting Your Devices
Pretend you’re out fishing and you brought a camera with you. To protect it from getting wet you might put it in a ziplock bag. The bag is watertight so that even if the camera is completely submerged, only the bag gets wet and your camera is fine. The same goes for protecting against an EMP.
Think of the electrically charged air as the lake that you want to protect your camera from. You need to find something “electricity proof” that you can put your camera in. This is called a Faraday cage.
Early on these were actual cages made of copper mesh. Nowadays you can find bags, boxes, and other containers that function as faraday cages. You can even buy Faraday cloth to construct custom containers. The reason these containers work is they have a sealed layer made of a conductive material such as copper or mylar. When there is an EMP, the electrified air can't penetrate the container to affect the devices inside.
This works great for small devices. Unfortunately, the Faraday solution doesn’t scale well. It’s expensive and impractical to try to use a Faraday container for larger appliances like your fridge or an entertainment system, let alone a whole home. That’s where products like EMP Shield come in handy.
They work by monitoring your home’s electrical system. When the shield detects a surge of power it draws the excess energy away from your appliances. This happens in a fraction of a second, so the surge never has a chance to build up and damage your appliances (EMP SHIELD INC).
Between Faraday containers and EMP Shields, you have all the tools you need to become EMP-ready.
So What Now?
I’ll admit I was skeptical when I first started researching this topic. Having heard about it mostly from preppers getting ready for the apocalypse, I thought, “Ok, yeah, but an EMP isn’t actually that likely. Right?”
It turns out that they’re much more common than I first thought.
I grew up mostly in tornado alley. Twice a year my schools did fire drills; every summer I got quizzed about the safest place in my home, and every first Wednesday of the month the tornado sirens would be tested. That was tornado preparedness for us. We drilled and practiced and quizzed until it became second nature (I still flinch internally when I hear a siren). And yet, in the twelve years that I lived there I never once saw a tornado.
That’s what preparedness is about. It’s about knowing the risks of where you live and being ready for them, even knowing and hoping that you never encounter them.
The truth we have to confront is that we have an angry sun that often throws junk at us and that there are some crazy people in this world who have the power to push a big, bad button. EMPs are a real possibility, and we should be doing something about it.
So do it. Get EMP ready. You may never need it, but I promise you’ll never regret it.
Written by Eitan Mizrahi
Battersby, S. (2019, November 19). "Core concept: What are the chances of a hazardous solar superflare?"Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.
Bell, T., Phillips, T. (2008, May 6). A super solar flare. NASA
EMP SHIELD INC. (2021). Frequently asked questions: how does emp shield work?
Gough, E. (2020, January 31). Destructive storms usually hit earth every 25 years or so.Universe Today
McCracken, K., Dreschhoff, G., Zeller, E., Smart, D., Shea, M. (2001, October 01). "Solar cosmic ray events for the period 1561–1994 1. Identification in polar ice, 1561–1950". Journal of Geophysical Research. 106