The room is choked in inky darkness, and the eerie silence around you is deafening: The a/c is no longer humming outside; the whirl of the refrigerator is gone; and the ceiling fan has stopped sweeping circles across the ceiling. Inexplicably, the familiar nighttime landmarks of your apartment have been extinguished: the blinking lights on your Wi-Fi router, the clock on the wall, and the streetlights casting a yellow pall on your curtains. Your dark phone is dead weight in your hand, and you realize this is bigger than a power outage.

You stand on your porch overlooking a blackened neighborhood and shadows meandering in the street below. The world as you knew it is gone, along with it, technology, electronics, and the power grid for much of the country (if not world).

An electromagnetic pulse (EMP) is a burst of electromagnetic radiation, of which includes visible light, radio waves, microwaves, and other wavelengths along its spectrum. Not all EMPs are equal, but a large EMP burst—either manmade or natural—can easily destroy any modern society relying on electricity, electronics and computers. This type of disaster would take one of two forms. It could be a massive coronal mass ejection (CME) from the sun or the result of the high-altitude detonation of a single nuclear weapon.

When they occur naturally from CMEs emitting from the sun, a sudden eruption of plasma from the surface of the sun sends charged particles hurtling outward through space. If these solar storms are large enough and directed at the Earth, they could cripple or destroy the electrical grid. The massive currents induced in the grid’s electrical power lines by the EMP can, and have, burned up transformers and electronics connected to it over large geographic areas. A big CME could theoretically leave the world without power for months or years.

A nuke EMP is actually more complex and destructive than a CME type, but the latter is of much longer duration, with the potential to affect a larger geographic area. The main points for surviving either are the same, but the weaponized EMP requires some additional preparations to protect electronics.

The Biggest Fear

emp attack radio
CB and ham radios might be the only means of communicating after an EMP event.

While Cold War-era Americans focused their worry on the threat of apocalyptic full-scale nuclear war with the Soviets, a new and unanticipated danger was slowly emerging parallel to it. It is the antithesis of the terrifying blinding flashes, and mushroom clouds, and vaporizing explosions, and fallout of nuclear attack. It is actually invisible and harmless to the human body. If survival in a radioactive nuclear wasteland was your old worst-case scenario before the collapse of the Communist Bloc, your new one, whether you realize it yet or not, is surviving a massive EMP.

Government-sponsored scientific and military study groups have been examining the EMP threat and reporting to Congress since at least the 1980s. The most recent report advised that the North American power grid remained highly vulnerable to complete destruction by EMP, with the easy potential of leaving the population without electrical power for several years. The report estimated that in that scenario, 90 percent of the population would be dead after one year.

Death By EMP

emp attack missile
Not an idle threat! Several unstable countries have the ability to “HEMP-strike” the U.S. via a scud missile topped with a fission nuclear weapon.

I’ll begin with the weaponized EMP (often called a high altitude electromagnetic pulse or HEMP). The nuclear HEMP actually includes the principle element of a naturally occurring EMP, and a plausible HEMP attack on the United States might take the form of a small cargo ship in nearby international waters launching a basic Scud missile topped with a fission nuclear weapon aimed into space, where it explodes 300 miles above Kansas before the military can react to it.

The explosion would not be heard, and the flash might not even be noticed in the day. At night it might look like the instantaneous appearance of another moon and a lightening of the sky to daytime blue, followed by a long and beautiful aurora borealis. Since the blast is on the edge of space, there would be no fallout and no direct physical damage to anything on earth. Nearby objects in space, like satellites orbiting space stations and spacecraft, would be destroyed by the nuclear explosion or damaged by radiation.

Beginning at the moment the nuclear weapon explodes, three successive pulses, named E1, E2 and E3, would hit everything within the line of sight. From 300 miles up, there’s a lot in sight. The entire United States could be targeted with just one, simple, atomic bomb (with 1950s technology) lofted up with a short-range tactical ballistic missile small enough to be carried in a sea-land shipping container.

HEMP Anatomy

emp attack grid

E1 Pulse: The E1 pulse hits first. This extremely short and powerful electromagnetic pulse is created when the gamma radiation from the exploding bomb blasts the electrons right off of the atoms in the atmosphere and they in turn hit others, creating a cascade of electrons that hit the earth and induce very high voltages in any conductors they come in contact with. This will fry most unprotected delicate electronics, including all of the little microprocessors used to control just about everything.

The voltage spike is too fast to be stopped by ordinary lightning and surge protectors. In fact, the intensity of the E1 pulse can completely destroy them, leaving the electrical components with no protection against additional surges.

E2 Pulse: The E2 pulse follows on the heels the E1 and lasts much longer, up to one second. It is similar to the EMP produced by a lightning strike. Unfortunately, by the time the E2 pulse hits, the E1 pulse has likely already disabled all conventional protection mechanisms that would stop the longer E2 pulse from damaging the electrical devices it hits.

The E1 and E2 are like a quick one-two punch for anything plugged into the electrical grid or equipped with an antenna.

E3 Pulse: The E3 pulse is the slowest and longest component of the HEMP and can last hundreds of seconds. It is caused when the nuclear explosion heaves the Earth’s magnetic field around. The duration of the E3 pulse over the uncountable miles of long wires that make up the electrical grid could induce enough current to burn up every transformer in the line and destroy the delivery system that carries the electricity that runs everything that makes our modern lifestyle possible.

It is important to understand that any conductor, including the unplugged power cord of an electrical device, will become an antenna during a HEMP. The best antennas are long electrical conductors like the wires running overhead on telephone poles, underground, or undersea. Basically, the entire electrical distribution system becomes a huge antenna, and the bigger the antenna, the more electricity is induced in it by the HEMP.

The massive size and interconnectivity of the electrical grid is its greatest weakness during a HEMP. The E1 and E2 pulses wreck the grid’s control and protection systems. The E3 pulse is the knockout punch that does the heavy damage to major elements of the power grid.

Swath Of Destruction

emp attack hospital
Grid down, now what? Hospitals and nursing homes might be two of the worst places to be during a nuclear EMP strike. Besides lifesaving equipment shutting down, most staffers will leave in order to rally home to their loved ones.

The destruction will be hard to repair. Transformers are big, expensive, and almost entirely made overseas (China) with delivery times of at least a year under present, normal, production demands. Our electrical grid is largely the creation of private enterprise, and the power companies that control it see no immediate economic incentive in purchasing back up transformers and have made virtually no preparations to deal with an emergency of the magnitude of a HEMP or EMP resulting from a large solar storm (or CME). Those naturally occurring EMPs only produce an E3 pulse.

After a HEMP or huge CME, the electricity goes off and might not come back on for years. Once the batteries and emergency generators run out of fuel, we are back in the 19th century but without the infrastructure.

Water: Water is absolutely critical to life. Before electricity people either had wells or lived near a water source. Today, if the electricity stops flowing, so does the water. The only exception to this would be those places where water was delivered by gravity. Countless people will die from lack of water and from illness brought on by drinking contaminated water. Even though many residents of rural areas still rely on wells today, modern wells are almost all electrically powered.

Electricity: With nothing electrical running, the national economy will halt on the spot. All factories will cease production. Natural gas won’t be pumped through pipelines. Gas pumps won’t pump. Kitchen stoves and microwaves won’t work. Refrigerators will stop and the food inside will spoil. Canneries will stop packing, and the only preserved food available for long-term storage will be stocks on hand, military MREs and home-canned food.

Utilities: Everyone on hospital life support systems will die. Poorly ventilated urban apartments designed for central air conditioning will become stifling in the summer, while no dwelling without a wood stove or fireplace will have heat in the winter. Communication will all but cease in the absence of powered cell towers and charged phone batteries. Radio and television broadcasts will stop along with the sets in our homes we watched and listened with.

On a good note, if you want to call it that, the EMP pulse from a CME is not expected to damage vehicles or electrical devices and electronics that aren’t connected to the grid or some other long conductor that could serve as an antenna. This means that at least our modern transportation system would survive to help with reconstruction if the EMP’s source was the sun.

However, the impact of a HEMP on unplugged electronics and vehicles is less certain because most of what we know about its actual effects are from tests conducted in 1962. The military has not shared any new information with the public since those 1962 tests. One thing bodes very ill—with today’s technology, it is possible to make vastly more powerful EMP weapons, and several countries are known to be working on such weapons.

End Of The Road?

emp attack car
Though a CME might not permanently damage vehicle electronics, the effects of a HEMP can, and probably will, be much greater on exposed vehicles.

If the transportation system proves highly vulnerable to HEMP attack, as many suspect it is, it will be the nail in the coffin for civilization. All modern vehicles (land, sea and air) rely on some degree of electronic systems and computer control.

If the E1 and E2 pulses are large enough to destroy those controls, the trucks, cars, trains and planes stop where they are until someone finds the replacement parts to repair them or figures out how to bypass the defunct electronic controls with manual ones. The most immediate and grave consequence of the loss of our transportation system is there will be no satisfactory way to get sufficient quantities of food from the places it is produced to where the people that need to eat it are.

Ready Yourself

emp attack faraday pouch
A faraday pouch for your phone is good protection for everyday use. Note, after an EMP strike your cellphone might work, but your cell phone network is not likely to be operational.

As many as 250,000 to 500,000 deaths will occur immediately following a large-scale EMP event as commercial airliners lose power and drop from the sky, medical life support systems stop running, power plants and hydroelectric generators fail catastrophically, pacemakers give out, and other similar effects ripple across the nation. But assuming you’re not one of these unlucky first casualties, your chances of immediate survival are actually rather high.

EMPs don’t harm the human body. You won’t even know an EMP has occurred until you try to turn on a light, start a car, or make a phone call. Immediately following an EMP, you’ll need to decide whether to stick around or get out of Dodge. Your situation may vary, but if you are in an urban city center, life will get difficult sooner rather than later, and sticking it out with millions of other cold, hungry, and desperate people may prove fatal.

You could lay in a few years’ supply of food and vitamins in a hidden backwoods enclave not likely to be discovered by roving bands of raiders. It would need a water well with a manual pump or access to fresh water nearby. It would be wise to obtain some water purifying and medical supplies, of course.

For communication and information gathering you would need to protect some hand-held ham radios, a shortwave radio, their battery chargers and a solar charger inside a homemade nested faraday cage.

For transportation, any old car that doesn’t rely on electronics to function would do well. Don’t forget to stockpile several hundred gallons of preserved fuel.

Surviving the years of starvation and chaos following a devastating EMP is every bit as challenging as surviving an old-school nuclear holocaust.

In the immediate aftermath of an EMP, the steps you’ll need to take to survive will vary depending on where you live, your health, the weather, resources in the area, and the supplies and tools available to you. This guide can’t address every possible factor that could influence your situation, but if you want to survive, no matter where you are, preparation is critical. Start now.

This article was originally published in “Survivor’s Edge” Fall 2017. To order a copy, visit

Up Next

4 Essentials to Surviving a Train Emergency

In the event of a subway or train emergency, these helpful tips will keep...