Editor’s Note: This resource has been revised and updated for 2018.
Of all of the reasons to prepare, one that we all need to take seriously is the possibility of a catastrophic EMP, or electromagnetic pulse. This is especially true right now, as we face a huge amount of solar activity the likes of which could send out huge solar flares wiping out communication systems and modern electronics.
To be blunt about it, an EMP, if large enough, would affect the entire planet. In an instant, civilization as we know it would change as we get swept backward in time by a century or two.
WHAT IS AN EMP?
For those of you that only kind-of, sort-of understand EMPs, in the simplest of terms, an EMP is is an abrupt burst of electromagnetic radiation.
There could be many causes. To start with, certain types of high energy explosions, such as a nuclear explosion, will cause an EMP. Likewise, an EMP can be the result of a suddenly fluctuating magnetic field. Or, as I have mentioned before, it can be the result of Coronal Mass Ejection (CME) from solar activity. But perhaps most sobering of all, is the possibility of a man-made EMP weapon that is purposely deployed in order to wreak devastation on our planet.
Regardless of the trigger, an EMP can be devastating to the power grid, resulting in rapidly changing electrical fields that can create fluctuating electrical currents and wild voltage surges. Bottom line? The electronic gizmos we have come to rely on would be toast. The microchips would be fried or so severely damaged that they would become useless.
LIFE AFTER AN EMP
What would life be like following a massive EMP event or episode? There would be no power, no transportation systems, no communication systems, no banking, no internet, no food and no water delivery systems. This would truly be an End of The World As We Know it situation.
Ask yourself these questions:
- What if the power went out and never came back on? Could you fend for yourself?
- Could you keep yourself warm in the winter and cool in the summer?
- Where would you find food?
- What would you use for money if credit cards and ATM’s no longer worked?
- How would you get from one place to another without transportation?
- How would you wash your clothes?
- How would you keep yourself healthy if sanitation systems were no longer functional and medicine could no longer be manufactured?
- And the biggest question of all, how would you communicate with the rest of the world?
An electromagnetic pulse could potentially fry the vast majority of all microchips throughout the world. In an instant, nearly all of electronic devices would be rendered useless.
Back in 2004 the Wall Street Journal wrote:
“No American would necessarily die in the initial <EMP> attack, but what comes next is potentially catastrophic. The pulse would wipe out most electronics and telecommunications, including the power grid. Millions could die for want of modern medical care or even of starvation since farmers wouldn’t be able to harvest crops and distributors wouldn’t be able to get food to supermarkets. Commissioner Lowell Wood calls EMP attack a “giant continental time machine” that would move us back more than a century in technology to the late 1800s.”
MASSIVE SOLAR FLARES DO HAPPEN – REALLY!
We are risk right now; perhaps not so much from an overt EMP attack by our enemies (although that could) happen, but from at attack by Mother Nature and the sun. NASA readily admits that the number of solar flares increases approximately every 11 years, and that the sun is currently moving towards another solar maximum, likely in 2013.
Will it happen? All I can say is that it has happened before, with the “Carrington Event” of 1859:
At 11:18 AM on the cloudless morning of Thursday, September 1, 1859, 33-year-old Richard Carrington—widely acknowledged to be one of England’s foremost solar astronomers—was in his well-appointed private observatory. Just as usual on every sunny day, his telescope was projecting an 11-inch-wide image of the sun on a screen, and Carrington skillfully drew the sunspots he saw.
On that morning, he was capturing the likeness of an enormous group of sunspots. Suddenly, before his eyes, two brilliant beads of blinding white light appeared over the sunspots, intensified rapidly, and became kidney-shaped. Realizing that he was witnessing something unprecedented and “being somewhat flurried by the surprise,” Carrington later wrote, “I hastily ran to call someone to witness the exhibition with me. On returning within 60 seconds, I was mortified to find that it was already much changed and enfeebled.” He and his witness watched the white spots contract to mere pinpoints and disappear.
It was 11:23 AM. Only five minutes had passed.
Just before dawn the next day, skies all over planet Earth erupted in red, green, and purple auroras so brilliant that newspapers could be read as easily as in daylight. Indeed, stunning auroras pulsated even at near tropical latitudes over Cuba, the Bahamas, Jamaica, El Salvador, and Hawaii.
Even more disconcerting, telegraph systems worldwide went haywire. Spark discharges shocked telegraph operators and set the telegraph paper on fire. Even when telegraphers disconnected the batteries powering the lines, aurora-induced electric currents in the wires still allowed messages to be transmitted.
“What Carrington saw was a white-light solar flare—a magnetic explosion on the sun,” explains David Hathaway, solar physics team lead at NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Alabama.
One of the scariest things about an EMP is that unlike just about any other disaster, this one can happen either naturally or due to man’s intervention. This is in contrast to most disasters are either man-made (nuclear, economic, war, etc.) or natural (hurricane, earthquake, tornado, flood, etc.). An EMP is unique in that it can be caused both ways.
EMPs can be caused by three things: lightning, solar storms, or nuclear explosions. In fact, many people have already experienced low-impact EMPs already, and may not have thought about it. This is because low-impact EMPs easily happen on a small scale during a lightning and thunderstorm.
Let’s walk through what happens.
A bolt of lightning hits a local transformer or nearby power line. A huge surge of electricity is sent through the lines to a small number of surrounding buildings. If that surge happens to hit your home, it may take out devices not connected to a power surge protector. Things affected are plugged-in televisions, stereos, microwaves, and other appliances. These items are easily replaced so no real harm is done other than a little inconvenience and a blow to the budget.
On the other hand, when an EMP occurs on a much larger scale, it is a lot more than an inconvenience. It is a disaster of major proportions because nothing works! All of the electronics we depend upon to live our lives day-to-day become inoperable. If this were to happen, we would have a major mess on our hands – a mess that could last for years.
Okay, so we know EMPs can be caused by major solar storms and even by a lightning storm if we are unlucky enough to be near a strike. But how likely is a man-made EMP that can cripple the nation or even the entire world?
Pretty likely. There really are real-life EMP weapons out there. According to the global intelligence firm Stratfor, the technology that is involved in creating an EMP attack will be a big part of modern warfare going forward.
Additional Reading: Gauging the Threat of an Electromagnetic Pulse (EMP) Attack
In addition, there are also readily available and relatively cheap ways that localized terrorists, domestic or otherwise, can wreak havoc on target areas. Using explosives to take out power lines and send a big surge through them is one possibility. This type of attack could take out a big portion of the power grid. If an entire power plant is destroyed, power will be knocked out to entire cities or even large segments of the country.
Additional Reading: What Happens When the Lights Go Out for Good?
Think about that and consider the effects that go beyond not being able to charge your cell phone or turn on a television. Without electricity, anything plugged into the ‘grid’ will be fried unless it has been protected by a Faraday cage. But what else… your car? If it is less than 20 years old, it will very likely be rendered useless.
Do you think you’re safe with a generator for power? Think again. Many modern generators have electronic circuits in them to help regulate the flow of electricity. Bye-bye generator.
Getting back on point, seasoned preppers feel they are prepared because they have their own food resources and have practiced disconnecting from the grid to hone their off-grid skills. The less experienced of beginning prepper may not understand the effect of a total grid-down situation. Anything you buy, whether it is coffee, sugar, or household batteries and matches, is going to be in very short supply if a long-term disruption occurs. Consumables may not be available at all.
Transportation will be difficult over distances, and factories will not be able to function. If you still have money in a bank or other financial institution, it may be inaccessible and completely unavailable for a very long time. It may “disappear” and barter may become the currency of the day.
Alright, I’m sure you’re thinking, “Okay, okay, so people could cause major havoc with a nuclear strike or EMP weapon. And lightning can take out a local transformer. But nuclear strikes are a mutually assured destruction so they are not that imminent, and lightning can be recovered from quickly. Sure, terrorists can attack with a weapon, but there are protections up to help stop that… so?”
No matter what protections there are, those things can still happen, but solar storms are something we simply can’t stop or control.
Solar storms powerful enough to cause widespread EMP destruction happen roughly every 11 years. Consider this: if a solar flare erupts, it can take as little as five minutes for major damage to occur. Not pleasant to think about, but planes, helicopters and anything electronic in the air will fall to the earth when an EMP hits. Nuclear plants will melt down, and people will go to war with each other in the streets over food and supplies.
When thinking about the destruction a widespread EMP could cause, think “throwback.” Everyone will instantly be transported without the use of a time machine to the very early 1900s, or even the 1800s.
Skills, Strategies, and Supplies You Need to Prepare for an EMP
On the plus side, other than nuclear attack, most EMPs are small and are not deadly to people, only electronics. You are likely to survive a common EMP. That does not mean, however, it will be an easy life. If you are not prepared, the struggle will be very real and very difficult.
Learn how to purify water. No matter how much water you can store, eventually you will run out. When planning for an EMP, don’t think short term. A major EMP disaster will be longer-lasting than anything you can stock up for.
Learn to cook outdoors over an open fire.
Learn to cook from scratch using bulk foods, canned goods, and fruits and vegetables you have grown yourself or that you acquire from neighboring farms or farmer’s markets.
Practice and be prepared to be a leader. Family members, as well as people in your surrounding area, are likely to be distraught and scared. It will take strong leadership to develop a watch group to protect each other from marauders.
Develop old time, pioneer skills that allow you to continue to carry on life, even if it is not the same as before the EMP strike.
Additional Reading: 46 Pioneer Skills for the Modern Homesteader
Attend flea markets, garage sales, or estates sales and learn the art of bargaining. This skill will be useful in a barter economy.
Build a Faraday cage and acquire a “Faraday collection”. Place small electronics like radios, laptops, inverters, batteries, watches and even cell phones in a galvanized metal garbage can, or a popcorn can that is insulated with cardboard or Styrofoam so they can be ready and keep you connected to the outside world following an EMP attack. You can find out how to build a quick and easy Faraday cage here.
Note: Keep in mind that even protected electronics may not work following a blast depending. No one knows for sure what will work and what will not, with the differentiator possibly being their frequency range. For that reason, try to have multiples of the items you wish to have on hand. They can be old and outdated by today’s standard but that will not matter. What you want to do is increase the likelihood that at least one device of each type will work.
Have a long-term supply of food and water, or the resources to generate them without power.
Get a bike! There’s nothing better than pedal power when an EMP hits, and it beats walking.
Learn to grow food in whatever area you have available. If that is not possible due to locale or other reasons, develop relationships with others in your community that do have the ability to grow food. Offer to lend a helping hand in return for some of the bounty. There is not a gardener on the planet that will turn down an offer to pull weeds!
Be prepared to defend yourself and your property. You need to decide how you want to arm yourself whether with a firearm, pepper spray, a baseball bat, or a bow and arrow.
Seek out like minded folks that will barter for things they need in return for items that you have available.
Live a healthy lifestyle. If stuff happens, you will be much better off if you are healthy and not reliant on exotic prescription drugs or medical procedures. Eat healthy, natural and real foods and get regular exercise. This just makes good common sense.
Create your own power with solar panels. Surprisingly, the sun is also the most powerful resource for surviving an EMP as well as one of its instigators. Solar panels themselves should not be affected by EMP bursts. On the other hand, the inverters and generators connected to the panels power may be destroyed by an EMP strike. Keep this in mind and keep a spare inverter in your Faraday cage so it is ready to replace the one you may be using that gets fried.
TVs, video games, and computers will no longer work. Stock up on board games, books (including coloring books and pencils for the adults), and puzzles to keep your mind occupied while you wait out the crisis.
Have plenty of emergency candles, matches, flashlights and extra batteries on hand at all times.
Make sure you have a generous supply of the prescription medications you use on a regular basis. Also, stock the first aid kit with lots of supplies, and plenty of over-the-counter medicines that will be impossible to get once local stores are sold out (or looted).
Store plenty of drinkable water plus some method to purify water. Locate supplemental water sources now and be prepared to purify the water on your own.
Stock plenty of basic, non-perishable food that will get you by while you are learning to survive under the most trying of circumstances. (See 20 Items to Kick Start Your Food Storage Plan.)
Recommendation: Bug In or Bug Out?
When an EMP occurs, your best bet is to “bug in.” Hunker down and deal with the aftermath.
An EMP, whether natural or manmade, is likely to happen quickly and it will be impossible to have enough notice for running off to a remote retreat or bug-out location. In addition, it is pretty likely that there isn’t going to be anywhere you can run to that is far enough away to not be affected by a major attack.
If you do have a bug-out location, and most of your supplies are located at a distant location, the first few days will be difficult. Getting to your bug-out destination, if you can even get there, will most certainly be harder than you had planned for. Conditions may be dire as the unprepared mob the streets and roads, willing to attack anyone and everyone that appear to have more than they do.
In that case, it is still best to hunker down in your current location for the initial days after an EMP strike. Wait until everything and everyone settles down a bit. Have some food and water on hand, and other emergency supplies to allow for several days of seclusion. Before venturing out, wait to find out if the EMP was caused by a temporary issue like a lightning strike, or if it was a long-term disruption that will not be solved anytime some by the local power company.
Once you are sure you can make it to your long-term bug-out location, you will likely be hoofing it to your destination. Be prepared to carry what you need and to take the time it takes to get there. It is also a good idea to be fully armed because you will be threatened along the way. Guaranteed.
THE FINAL WORD
We are all members of the 21st century prepper movement. We are learning to be self-reliant and to educate ourselves relative to the ways of old. We are stocking up on essentials and learning to prepare for the worst of times with a positive mindset.
As frightening as a massive solar flare and an EMP may be, we can only do what we can do but even a little bit is better than nothing. That said, I hope an EMP never happens. But if it does, I want to be ready to fend for myself and to continue to live a rich and rewarding life in spite of it all.
For more information on solar flares and EMPs, visit the NASA website. It will make a believer out of you.