An electromagnetic pulse (EMP) is a burst of electromagnetic radiation shockwaves and energy which can be generated either by a bomb or a large solar flair. When EM waves strike an electronic device, the energy turns into heat, which can destroy the device, just as a lightning strike can damage electronics.
A nuclear bomb detonated hundreds of miles above the ground generates gamma rays which get converted into an EMP, which can destroy electronic equipment throughout a large area. The people are then left without electricity, which stops almost all economic activity, including financial accounts and transactions. There would be no more fuel or water, because pumps use electricity. The delivery of food and other goods would stop when the fuel runs out.
There can also be a non-nuclear electromagnetic pulse (NNEMP) using microwaves and carried in satellites, missiles, drones, and ships.
In 1962, in a project called Operation Starfish, the U.S. military set off a nuclear bomb 240 miles above an atoll in the Pacific Ocean. The resulting electromagnetic pulse (EMP) affected the electric grid in Hawaii, blowing out streetlights and creating telephone outages and radio blackouts.
The threat of an EMP has been demonstrated by nuclear tests. In 1962, in a project called Operation Starfish, the U.S. military set off a nuclear bomb 240 miles above an atoll in the Pacific Ocean. The resulting electromagnetic pulse (EMP) affected the electric grid in Hawaii, blowing out streetlights and creating telephone outages and radio blackouts.
It is possible to protect electronics from an EMP, and the militaries of the US and other countries have been hardening their equipment. But nothing has been done to protect the civilian infrastructure, especially the electrical grid. The US has enemies that could deliberately destroy its economy. It seems unlikely that Russia or China would commit such destruction, but North Korea might, and there are of course terrorists who would enjoy such a catastrophe.
It is in human nature to discount and ignore important but not imminent threats. Political campaigns focus on current hot topics which seem trivial compared to the existential threat of an economic catastrophe. A problem has been that there have been alarmists who have stoked fear of disasters which have not happened. But EMP is a real threat, recognized by the military, government officials, and scientists.
One expert who has warned us of the EMP threat is Dr. Peter Vincent Pry, a former CIA Intelligence Officer and head of the Task Force on National and Homeland Security. His recent book is Electric Armageddon: Civil-military Preparedness for an Electromagnetic Pulse Catastrophe.
The GRID Act of 2010 passed the House but not the Senate. In 2011, Arizona Representative Trent Frank sponsored H.R. 668, the Secure High-voltage Infrastructure for Electricity from Lethal Damage (SHIELD) Act. This attempt also failed, and the EMP problem has been ignored by the candidates for president. In 2013 Dr. William Graham, Chair of Congressional EMP Commission, along with other experts in the Foundation for Resiliant Societies, wrote a letter to President Obama and to federal agencies, entitled “Government Emergency Actions on Electromagnetic Pulse Threats.” But there was no response.
Even if the USA is not deliberately attacked, there is an on-going threat from geomagnetic solar storms. There was such a storm in 1859, the Carrington event, which destroyed telegraph transmissions. There would be time enough to shut off the electric grid, if the system were prepared. Currently there is no plan or practice exercises to do so.
There has to be a physical protection of the grid and the electronic infrastructure, but also, it is important and urgent to confront the religious, political, and economic origins of hostility and terror.
The EMP threat makes terrorism an existential threat to all the economies of the world. Public attention has been focused on local attacks such as occurred in Boston and Paris, but few are discussing the global threat. There has to be a physical protection of the grid and the electronic infrastructure, but also, it is important and urgent to confront the religious, political, and economic origins of hostility and terror.
One way to protect electronics from an EMP is with a Faraday cage, a covering of conductive material such as metal. The cage blocks electromagnetic energy by distributing the electrical charges to reduce or eliminate the damage. Individuals can protect themselves from a loss of electricity with shielded solar generators, but that is expensive.
Most people believe that the prime responsibility of government is to protect the people. Instead, government is meddling into affairs that don’t harm others, and spends treasure to repair deprivation done by its tax and regulatory policies. The US has thousands of troops in South Korea and Japan, countries quite capable of defending themselves. It would only take $20 billion dollars to protect the US electrical infrastructure from its biggest threat, EMP, but nothing is being done. EMP has to rise to a prominent political issue. Unfortunately the political dynamic is reactive, not proactive.
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FRED E. FOLDVARY, Ph.D., is an economist and has been writing weekly editorials for Progress.org since 1997. Foldvary's commentaries are well respected for their currency, sound logic, wit, and consistent devotion to human freedom. He received his B.A. in economics from the University of California at Berkeley, and his M.A. and Ph.D. in economics from George Mason University. He has taught economics at Virginia Tech, John F. Kennedy University, Santa Clara University, and currently teaches at San Jose State University.
Foldvary is the author of The Soul of Liberty, Public Goods and Private Communities, and Dictionary of Free Market Economics. He edited and contributed to Beyond Neoclassical Economics and, with Dan Klein, The Half-Life of Policy Rationales. Foldvary's areas of research include public finance, governance, ethical philosophy, and land economics.
Foldvary is notably known for going on record in the American Journal of Economics and Sociology in 1997 to predict the exact timing of the 2008 economic depression—eleven years before the event occurred. He was able to do so due to his extensive knowledge of the real-estate cycle.