The Risks and Dangers of an Electromagnetic Pulse

An electromagnetic pulse is created by either a solar storm or high-altitude nuclear explosion.
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City Lights of the United States|Photo by Earthobservatory.Nasa.Gov

While natural disasters such as hurricanes, earthquakes and tornadoes are capable of inflicting severe damage, there exists another, much more catastrophic threat to our way of life: an Electromagnetic Pulse, or EMP.

According to the Homeland Security News Wire (HSNW), an EMP — a short burst of electromagnetic energy created by either a solar storm or high-altitude nuclear explosion — poses a threat to any area dependent on electricity. In other words, a majority of the world.

A famous example of an EMP is the high-altitude nuclear test conducted by the United States in 1962, code-named Starfish Prime. During this test, a Thor rocket carrying a W49 thermonuclear warhead was launched and detonated 250 miles above a point near Johnston Island in the Pacific Ocean. The result was an EMP which caused significant electrical damage, including blackouts, in cities some 900 miles away in Hawaii.

An EMP can also be caused naturally by geomagnetic storms such as the Carrington Event in 1859, which caused a failure of telegraph systems across the world. As the HSNW notes, an EMP is capable of causing outages which last anywhere from two weeks to two years, owing partly to the fact that ordering replacement transformers takes months. A recent example of this was sees in 2012 when Hurricane Sandy hit and parts of New York City were left without power for over a week.

According to the HSNW, some reports estimate that the cost of a solar storm EMP to the US economy would be somewhere between $500 million to $2.6 trillion. The U.S. National Academies says the damage would be even more costly and recovery would take multiple years.

Of course, an EMP caused by a high-altitude nuclear explosion, or an explosion compressing a magnetic coil or strong microwave fields is also a possibility. The HSNW says several countries have begun researching creating an EMP via a non-nuclear device.

As the HSNW points out, as we become more interconnected via technology on a global scale, events such as an electromagnetic pulse become a real concern. Simply put, an EMP could potentially put an end to our technologically advanced way of life. We must be prepared for any eventuality.

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