June 1, 2018

The lights shut off. The screen of the phone you are looking at goes black. You try to turn it back on, but nothing happens. You look outside and a commercial airliner careens out of the sky and hits the ground in a fiery explosion in a forest nearby. You run to the backup generator in the basement and frantically try to turn it on, but it won’t budge. Panicking, you try the landline to call your mom at work, but the landline doesn’t work. You get in the car and put the key in the ignition, but the car doesn’t turn on. Panic begins to rise as you walk to your local grocery store, wondering what could’ve happened. Gunshots ring out around you, and you decide to turn back home. You’re terrified and clueless.

This narrative is all too familiar in books geared towards younger people today. It strikes a similar tone to many dystopian novels written recently. However, this narrative has one difference from the others–it could happen. Tomorrow we could be facing a catastrophe larger than any this world has ever seen, and disaster could strike at any moment.

An atmospheric EMP, or electromagnetic pulse, is a burst of electromagnetic energy produced by a nuclear explosion in the atmosphere, considered capable of widespread damage to power lines, telecommunications, and electronic equipment. A high-powered nuclear weapon as small as 100 kilotons, which normally would have an explosive range of around 5 kilometers, can shut down the entire U.S. electrical grid.  To research this threat, Congress appointed a board of scientists to the EMP Commission and tasked them with assessing the possible threat to the United States and its allies. The commision published the “Report of the Commission to Assess the threat to the United States from Electromagnetic Pulse (EMP) Attack, in which they stated, “EMP is one of a small number of threats that can hold our society at risk of catastrophic consequences. EMP will cover the wide geographic region within line of sight to the nuclear weapon. It has the capability to produce significant damage to critical infrastructures and thus to the very fabric of US society, as well as to the ability of the United States and Western nations to project influence and military power.”

These weapons have already been developed and tested by multiple countries, most notably the U.S. and Russia. In fact, the first test of an EMP was completely accidental. On July 9, 1962 a nuclear missile carrying a 1.4 megaton nuclear warhead was launched from the Johnston Island test facility in Hawaii, detonating 240 miles above the Pacific Ocean. In an article from “We Are The Mighty,” Paul Huard describes what happened next: “In Hawaii, [800 miles away from the epicenter of the explosion], the effects were almost immediate: street lights blew out, circuit breakers tripped, telephone service crashed, aircraft radios malfunctioned, burglar alarms sounded, and garage door openers mysteriously activated. As the flash from the nuclear explosion dimmed, an aurora formed in the sky that could be seen for thousands of miles. One reporter in Hawaii wrote, ‘For three minutes after the blast, the moon was centered in a sky partly blood-red and partly pink. Clouds appeared as dark silhouettes against the lighted sky.’ The high-energy radiation not only created a massive light show; it temporarily altered the shape of the Van Allen Belt – part of the magnetosphere surrounding the Earth that actually protects the planet from solar storms that could destroy life on the world’s surface.”

This type of test doesn’t even come close to what could happen if a nuclear weapon was launched with intent to act as an EMP. Reliable sources have even confirmed Russia’s claims that it has a “super EMP,” a nuclear weapon with low destructive power relative to newer nuclear weapons but capable of acting as an extremely powerful electromagnetic pulse. Any nuclear weapon can be used as an EMP if the missile or other device it is launched on can reach outside the atmosphere. This means that rogue nations like North Korea or Iran likely have the capability to launch an EMP attack that could plunge the U.S. into darkness. It is feasible that in the future, if a terrorist organization were to get its hands on a nuclear weapon and missile ordinance, it could launch an attack from anywhere in the world, and it would be untraceable and without warning.

This could have potentially disastrous implications for our society. Some experts have estimated that up to 90 percent of the Eastern United States would be wiped out within a year, based on the strength of the EMP(s). That’s a high estimate, but there are a number of effects from an EMP that could severely impair towns and cities in the U.S. Hospitals would shut down, leaving anyone in need of life support to die. Many medicines that keep people alive and healthy, like insulin, need to be kept cold and replenished every day or few days. With the electrical grid and communications down, the supply of medicine would stop, and without a supply eventually clinics and hospitals would run out of their medicine stores, effectively killing their clients. Any perishable food would go bad after the first week or so, and all that many people would have left to eat would be non-perishables, with the U.S. food distribution system offline. After a few months without power food would become scarce, and without a way to produce food many people would die from starvation, mainly in cities that depend on food from other places. With no way to effectively control a large population without power in modern society, it would be extremely hard to enforce law. Martial law would be almost immediately put in effect across the country, allowing each town, county, or city to have complete control over law enforcement. In some places even stealing could be grounds for a public execution. It would be nearly impossible to keep things under control even with these measures in place, leading to widespread violence.

An attack like the one described would have disastrous implications for everyone at Wilson. Modern cities like DC are extremely dependent on technology to function, and without any technology all major cities would be almost uninhabitable after a month without aid, following a major EMP attack. Large cities are extremely difficult to govern without coordination and cannot be self-sufficient, meaning a loss of power and technology could spell doom for DC and many other cities in the U.S.

All of this doom and gloom doesn’t mean that we cannot protect ourselves against an EMP if one were to be launched and detonate successfully. There are techniques of “hardening” technology to make them at least somewhat protected from an EMP. Experts have estimated that the U.S. government could protect the country from the worst effects of an EMP for as little as $2 billion, which is a small amount in comparison to the amount it would cost to bring the country back under control after an EMP attack. It is not a question of if we are hit with an electromagnetic pulse, it is a matter of when. There have been “super solar storms” that occur on Earth, causing geomagnetic disturbances on the level of an EMP. The last recorded natural event of this nature was 155 years ago, and many scientists believe the Earth is overdue for another. Even with these very real threats presented to us, our government has done nothing to protect our country, and most of the world’s population is completely oblivious. Action is needed, but inaction is all we have. For more information on EMPs and how to be prepared for one, go to


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