You’ve probably heard all about the horrible things that an EMP will do, if we are ever unfortunate enough to have an enemy set one off over the United States. (Or if we experience a Carrington-like major solar storm.)
It’s actually pretty scary, especially when you take the time to consider how much we depend on electricity and electronic gadgets in our day-to-day lives. Never before has there been a society that has been so dependent on such a resource.
According to the report of the EMP Commission to Congress, a large part of the U.S. population would end up dying in the year following an EMP attack. That’s got a lot of people scared, and rightly so, especially if they don’t understand EMP and how it affects electronics.
How Does EMP Damage Electronics?
Basically, an EMP attacks electronics in two ways. The first is a direct attack in the form of energy similar to radio waves. However, the amount of electricity provided via an EMP is enormous, when compared to the amount of electricity in the radio waves we receive from our local radio and television stations. It even makes the amount of electricity from lightning look small by comparison.
This radio wave attack will hit all sorts of electronic devices directly. The worst attacks will be on devices which have wires connected to them that can act as antennas. So, computer systems and home entertainment systems will get hit hard, due to all the cables attached to them.
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Some small electronics, such as cell phones and MP3 players, may actually survive in this regard, simply because they don’t have the “antenna effect” of wires attached to them.
The second way that an EMP attacks electronics is via the power grid. The millions of miles of electric wires strung back and forth across the country act as an immense antenna for radio waves, including those that come from an EMP. So, when the EMP reaches power lines, it will be absorbed, generating a huge spike.
Normal surge protectors that are used for protecting electronic equipment won’t be effective against the voltage surge from an EMP for two reasons. First of all, they are designed for the much lower electrical power surge created by lightning. Secondly, the voltage spike from an EMP is much faster than that created by lightning. So, having equipment connected to a surge protector will mean nothing.
This one-two punch that an EMP creates will make it very difficult for any solid-state electronics to survive. Even equipment that is housed in metal cases, which should function as a faraday cage, is susceptible to damage, simply because of the voltage spike.
What Might Survive?
We need to understand that an EMP only damages solid state electronics. That means the stuff that’s mounted to circuit boards inside radios, cell phones, televisions, computers and other electronic devices. They simply can’t handle the power of an EMP.
Here are a few items that likely will survive:
There are a number of electric devices we use that aren’t controlled by solid-state electronics. A clothes washer, for example, is nothing more than a motor, a mechanical timer and a couple of valves. Like most appliances, there isn’t anything sensitive enough in a washing machine to be fried by the EMP. Therefore, most home appliances will probably survive.
*Let me put a caveat on this. Manufacturers are moving more and more toward adding solid-state controls to appliances. So, the fancier appliances may not work, even though the simpler models will.
2. Vintage electronics
Most true vintage electronics doesn’t use solid-state components, especially if it contains vacuum tubes. While we’re talking some fairly old equipment here, if you have an old radio or television that uses tubes, it will probably still work when your new fancy one won’t.
3. Solar panels
Surprisingly, solar panels weather an EMP very well. You’ll see a slight degradation of their power output — somewhere between 5 and 10 percent — but that’s about it.
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The panels will still produce power and will do so for many years.
4. Small, portable electronics
There is a chance that small electronics, on the order of a cell phone, may survive. A lot will depend on the location of the device when the EMP hits. Even minimal protection may be enough so that these devices will continue to function (obviously), the cell towers may be out of order). At least you’ll be able to access information from your phone.
The common understanding is that electronics will survive if they are stored in a faraday cage. This is any sort of metal container which can be closed. It even works if the container is made out of fencing or chicken wire.
Of course, many of us spend at least part of our time inside large “faraday cages.” Metal buildings qualify as a faraday cage, as long as the electronics are insulated from direct contact with the building itself. So, people at work may find that their tablet and cell phone work, even if their computer is fried by the voltage surge coming through the grid.
While most people think that cars will be shut down by an EMP, the report from the EMP Commission provides details on EMP testing conducted by cars. This testing utilized a cross-section of automobile models sufficiently large as to represent all modern cars in the country. The worst problem any car had was stalling and having to be restarted by the driver.
Since cars are made of metal, they are a natural faraday cage. That means that the electronics within the cars are protected from EMP. To be extra sure, storing a spare computer brain for your cars in a faraday cage would ensure that you could start it. The problem, though, may be that the grid will be down and gas pumps won’t work – meaning you won’t have gas for your car.
Finally, at any one time there are millions of dollars worth of electronic devices stored in a wide variety of warehouses, scattered all across the country. In most cases, these warehouses are metal buildings with metal roofs. That makes them faraday cages. So, the electronics stored inside those warehouses should survive the attack. All that will be required is to unpack them and set them up.
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