Estimated reading time: 10 minutes
The threat of a high-altitude EMP taking out our electric grid is one of the more popular TEOTWAWKI events discussed within the prepping community. There’s actually plenty of good reason for that, as it is one of the more credible major disasters that could strike.
There are several bad actors in the world who are capable or nearly capable of committing such an atrocity, and some have publicly stated their intention to do so.
Countering that, our anti-missile defenses are woefully inadequate. The defenses we do have could easily be defeated by the simply sending several missiles our way. They wouldn’t all need be tipped by nuclear warheads, as our efforts to destroy the first several would use up our anti-missile defenses, leaving us vulnerable to any that follow.
Should we ever be attacked by an EMP, it is clear that the impact on our electric grid would be devastating. The biggest risk is that it would destroy the 55,000 electrical substations, by melting down the transformers.
Those transformers are all custom made for the specific substation, therefore there is no backup supply of them. With only a few manufacturers to choose from, worldwide, it is doubtful they could all be replaced in less than 10 years.
But that doesn’t mean that every piece of electronic equipment in the country would be fried, as some people think. EMP operates under the same laws of physics as radio propagation; it’s not some magic genii that can destroy at will. There’s actually much more that will survive, than most people think.
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Myth #1: All Cars & Trucks Will Stop Running
One of the first things that most people talk about is how our cars and trucks will stop running, as if that would happen instantly. But according to the EMP Commission, which did a fair amount of testing on vehicles, it looks like most vehicles will continue to run.
Granted, their testing was inconclusive; because it was non-destructive. They stopped upping the level of the EMP when cars stopped running. But in every case, the car restarted, without any need for repairs. If the EMP is severe enough, some might not restart, especially cars with plastic bodies.
One of the things that protects cars and trucks is that most have metal bodies, making them rolling Faraday cages. While the EMP can still get through the windshield, where it could attack the electronics under the dash and follow wires to the car’s computer brain. But that depends a lot on whether the windshield of the car is pointed towards or away from the EMP when it happens.
The big problem is going to be coming up with fuel for those cars and trucks. Refineries won’t be working anymore and the fuel that is in their storage tanks will probably be seized by the government. The only fuel that may be available is what’s stored in the underground tanks at gas stations. The problem there will be pumping that fuel out of the tanks.
Myth #2: Airplanes Will Fall Out Of The Sky
Another common myth is that airplanes will fall out of the sky, killing tens of thousands of people and starting massive fires. But airplanes are even more perfect Faraday cages than cars are. Not only that, but airplane designs, especially those used by the military and by the airlines, are tested for EMP resistance.
Because the airplane is not in contact with the ground, any EMP that hits it will travel over the skin of the airplane and continue on to the ground. Lightning does this all the time, without impacting the airplane at all. For an EMP to get to the electronics inside the airplane, they would have to be attached to ground.
The big problem for pilots will be that all of their navigational aids, as well as the radios of the air traffic controllers will likely go out, leaving them to flying by eye and by the seat of their pants. While they are trained in doing this, there’s a lot of risk involved, especially as they get nearer to airports.
With many planes trying to land and without the air traffic controllers, pilots will have to be extremely aware of the space around their planes, in order to avoid accidents. One private plane, ducking under a wide-body to land, could start a chain-reaction of accidents.
Of course, airplanes that are on the ground will probably be rendered useless, as they are typically grounded for fueling operations. Not only that, but it will be more or less impossible to refuel those planes once they are on the ground.
Myth #3: Cell Phones & Tablets Won’t Work
One of the surprising categories of things that will still work is our cell phones and other portable electronics. Those are all small enough, that they won’t be able to absorb enough of the EMP to destroy them. The exception to that might be those which are plugged in, recharging.
That our phones will still work is somewhat of a mixed blessing, as the cell phone network will be down. So, all that we’ll be able to do with them is use the apps installed on them. That could be very useful, assuming that we have apps installed which don’t need access to the internet and yet will help us survive. Charging might be a problem though.
For small electronics, the thing that makes the biggest difference in EMP survival is whether or not there are cables connected to that device, acting as an antenna to bring in the EMP and fry the electronics. I’m not sure if a television would survive; but let’s assume that it could; that is, it could if it was just standing there on the table, not connected to anything.
But if it is hooked up it would be destroyed, between the E2 EMP pulse traveling through the power line and the E1 pulse being absorbed by the connecting wires, traveling down them to the sensitive circuitry inside the TV.
Myth #4: All Computers Will Be Fried
Lots of people have old computers and other electronics stashed away in a closet or basement. As with the cell phones, those aren’t connected to any wires and in most cases, the case of a desktop or tower computer is made of steel, making it a Faraday Cage.
So, while the computers sitting on our desks will likely be fried, the old ones that they replaced will likely survive. If we can just find a way of producing power, we’ll be able to use the computers again. That probably means using older versions of software and it will be without the internet; but it will still be useful.
Myth #5: It will be Impossible to Replace Electronics
Every scenario I read for a post-EMP world shows the people trying to survive without any electronics at all. If they come up with any means of producing electric power, it probably happened because they drew their own wire by melting down copper wire that had been melted by the EMP and then drew that out into wire, from which they made their own generators. Lots of work.
One thing that everyone seems to forget is that our country is filled with warehouses, most of which are metal buildings. Since the products stored inside those buildings are packed in Styrofoam and cardboard, they are insulated from the building itself. In other words, what we have are huge Faraday Cages, packed full of brand-new electronics, still in the box.
The first problem is going to be finding what is available in those warehouses, that is actually useful. Then it will be a matter of getting the owners of that property to release it, so that we can put it to use.
Myth #6: No Power Plants Will Survive
The idea that all the power plants will be destroyed is a bit questionable. The big issue is actually that the substations will be destroyed, not that the power plants will. Some sorts of power plants, like hydroelectric and wind, are largely protected from an EMP by the way they are built.
While it is still possible that the E2 pulse, which will cause a huge electromagnetic surge, resulting in a huge electrical surge in our power lines, will destroy power plants, some may very well survive.
Of course, having power plants that survive, without substations, means that making any electricity that they are able to produce will be difficult at best. I looked at the numbers on this a while back and I think it would be possible to turn the 690-volt output of the wind turbines into something useful.
All it would take is some first-class scrounging to find some undamaged power pole transformers and the wire to hook them together the right way.
Myth #7: Nuclear Power Plants Will Blow Up
Along with the belief that all power plants will be destroyed, there are also people saying that nuclear power plants will be destroyed, perhaps even more spectacularly than past nuclear power plant accidents.
The thing most people don’t realize is that nuclear power plants are about as isolated from the world outside their walls as you can get. Their computers are not connected into the internet, as a safety precaution. The buildings themselves are largely made of steel-reinforced concrete, making them Faraday Cages.
The electricity they use is generated in-house, so they are not dependent on any outside power source. About the only thing that an EMP could do is to send a surge up the output lines; but if anything is capable of accepting that surge, without melting down, it’s a power plant.
Myth #8: Solar Panels Will Fry
Speaking of producing power, there are many people who think that their solar panels will fry, along with everything else. Surprisingly though, solar panels are fairly EMP resistant. While they will receive some damage, that amounts to 10% or less of their output. Since those panels are designed with a large buffer to make up for power loss, they will still be producing enough power to run most of what they did before.
The tricky thing here is that the solar charge controller and voltage inverter are likely to be damaged by the EMP, even while the solar panels and batteries survive. So it will be necessary to store spares for these two devices in some sort of Faraday Cage.
Myth #9: There Will Be Lawlessness and a General Breakdown of Society
Another big thing that people talk about is how society will break down due to an EMP. Part of that is based upon the belief that most government officials will abandon their posts in such as time, either due to stress and their ability to effectively cope with the situation or due to them not seeing any way of surviving if they do their jobs.
Personally, I think that a lot of our public servants are more responsible than this, although I won’t say the same thing for the politicians who are their bosses. But let’s assume that these people are right and all the officers in our local police departments turn in their badges and go home to take care of their families; what would happen then?
If we go back in history far enough, there was a time in this country where there were no law-enforcement officers. In those cases, the people policed themselves, either through vigilante groups or through concerned citizens taking turns on patrol. There were enough good, law-abiding citizens with guns to take care of their communities then, just as there are now.
So, even if the lawless amongst us tried to take over; there are plenty of people who would gather together to stop them. Some of those groups might be surprising, like the local church’s men’s group; but they’ll be there. You can count on it.
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