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How to think about, protect against, and survive an EMP attack

An electromagnetic pulse (EMP) that causes the nation’s power to go out, planes to fall from the sky, and most modern technology to suddenly stop working sounds like the stuff of dystopian science fiction — yet this apocalyptic scenario is exactly what government and scientific leaders have been warning the public about for decades.

Some experts dismiss the EMP threat as overrated fear mongering, while others consider it as real and dangerous as climate change. Until we know more about the risks and results, the evidence points to EMPs as a valid and reasonable concern you should protect against in your survival preparedness.

In reports and studies going back decades, the US military and an alphabet soup of government agencies have all sounded the alarm about the threat to modern life posed by EMPs from three main sources:

  • nuclear explosions

  • powerful solar events

  • dedicated EMP bombs and sci-fi weapons

We spent over 95 hours talking to experts and reading detailed reports in order to sort scientific fact from fear-mongering fiction. The experts we interviewed include a top scientist who recently testified before the Senate on the threat of space weather to the power grid, and an engineer who has spent his career preparing classified and unclassified reports on the ways EMPs affect technology.

Here’s what we’ve learned:

EMPs are powerful bursts of energy that can occur naturally as a result of so-called “space weather” events (i.e. the sun blasting charged particles at the earth) or can be triggered by a man-made source like a nuclear explosion.

There are two types of EMPs we care about: high-frequency pulses that affect the small wires in computer-based systems, and low-frequency pulses that affect large-scale equipment in the power grid.

Experts have modeled a range of EMP scenarios. Some (relatively) optimistic models suggest that even a large EMP could leave most of the national grid intact, even though it would still displace tens of millions of Americans for years and cause short-term regional and national chaos. Other, more pessimistic outcomes feature an immediate collapse of most of the power grid and a cascading collapse of the rest of the nation’s critical infrastructure that results in long-term chaos.

The sun-based EMP threat is the big one that even most skeptics are forced to acknowledge. In any given year we have between a 1% and 3% chance of the sun taking down enough of our power grid to trigger a rapid, cascading collapse of all the systems (telecommunications, fuel, water, food, commerce) that make modern life possible.

Forget about EMP superweapons. That is secret, sci-fi hardware that only real militaries will have access to — if the tech even exists today to begin with. So if your city is on the receiving end of such a weapon, it’s because we’re at war with a major military power, in which case we all have bigger problems than your car shutting down from an EMP.

The nuclear-based EMP threat from terrorists is close to zero, and the threat from rogue states is quite low. The nuclear EMP threat from major military powers is the same as the threat of a nuclear exchange, since an EMP attack that could be attributed to a specific foreign enemy would only take place in the context of a full-blown conflict.

Some groups and politicians vastly inflate the nuclear EMP threat from rogue states and terrorists in order to sell books, rile up voters, argue for foreign invasions, and convince their government to buy costly tech from big defense contractors.

The energy industry has powerful incentives to downplay the threat from EMP because hardening the grid will cost them money. For decades, the industry has been actively lobbying regulators and the public to minimize the appearance of any threat so they can carry on with business as usual and remain free from additional, costly regulations.

The full range of EMP threats are worth preparing for to one degree or another. The majority of EMP preps are covered by preparing for other scenarios — mainly nuclear explosions and general grid-down events — but there are a handful of EMP-specific preps that you should know about, e.g. Faraday cages, learning how to stop a car with an emergency brake, and knowing which questions to ask and actions to take immediately after the power goes out.


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