Preparing for the Worst: Understanding and Protecting Against an EMP

Like any other kind of preparedness, EMP protection starts long before any electromagnetic pulse occurs. Knowing what causes an EMP, what happens when an EMP occurs, and what to store are all keys to EMP protection.

An EMP is created when a nuclear weapon is detonated high in the atmosphere. At these heights, the blast effects of the weapon aren’t a concern. Instead, the wave of rapidly changing electric and magnetic fields concerns us. The changing fields can damage or disable electronics.

In 1962, the U.S. military detonated a 1.4-megaton warhead at a distance of 240 miles above sea level. The resulting electromagnetic pulse destroyed streetlights and caused telephone outages and radio blackouts 600 miles away! Before this test, scientists thought they understood the EMP effect and how it would affect electronics, but seeing it in the real world proved them wrong.

Scientists were sent scrambling to figure out how the EMP effect would affect the defense of the U.S. and how it could be used against the country.

I’m a strong believer that understanding how and why events happen helps you to better prepare yourself than just reading a checklist. If you’re interested in learning what to do to protect yourself from an EMP, you can skip down to that section in the article.

Most of this information is taken from material provided by the Commission to Assess the Threat to the United States from Electromagnetic Pulse Attack (Referred to as the EMP Commission from here on out.).

How Does an EMP Work?

An EMP is created when a nuclear weapon is detonated high in the atmosphere. At these heights, the blast effects of the weapon aren’t a concern. Instead, the wave of rapidly changing electric and magnetic fields concerns us.

EMP Protection

An EMP has three components associated with it. The International Electrotechnical Commission calls these pulses E1, E2, and E3.

E1 travels at about 90% of the speed of light but is very intense. It exceeds the voltage limitation components in computers and telecommunications devices, overloading them and making them unusable.

E2 is much less of a concern. This effect lasts up to 1 second and is similar to a lightning strike. Luckily, most parts of the power grid are protected from this type of electrical effect.

E3 is the slowest of the pulses compared to the effects scientists associate with a very strong solar flare. When E3 strikes the power grid, the power lines act as an antenna, transferring massive amounts of power to the lines, destroying transformers, and potentially damaging power plants.

How Likely is it That We Could Get Attacked by an EMP?

The more reliant we are on electronics, our enemies will likely use an EMP against us. Reports from various intelligence agencies show that Iran, Russia, China, and North Korea all possess (or could possess) a means of delivering an EMP weapon.

Dr. William Graham has researched EMP effects since the first tests in the 60s; he was also the Chairman of the two Congressional EMP Commissions. Dr. Graham has said multiple times that something as simple as a container ship could transport an EMP weapon close enough to the U.S. to make it effective.

He also said that the weapons don’t need to be all that accurate. Even an older generation SCUD could effectively launch a nuclear warhead high enough to create the desired EMP effect.

The missile needs to be able to go up high enough and can be effective.

Iran has tested launching its version of the SCUD from the sea onto land, and ISIS has even displayed captured SCUDs in the past. So as we get more and more reliant upon electronics in our everyday lives, our enemies get access to more and more means of delivering an EMP attack!

What Will Happen After an EMP?

Even one relatively small weapon would wipe out a large portion of the U.S. power grid. At about 200 miles, a nuclear detonation could affect 70-80% of the continental United States.

The parts of the grid that remain operational would begin to be taxed to the point that they would fail soon after an attack.

The good news is that the military has been preparing its electronics since the 1960s. The bad news is civilian electronics aren’t protected at all from the effects of an EMP.

What Happens to Electronics?

There is conflicting information about what will happen to electronics, even from reliable sources. I’ve done my best to choose the info that has the most scientific backing behind it.

It’s estimated that about 1/3 of running vehicles will stall. Of those vehicles, about 1 in 6 will not start back up. Now that may seem low, and it may be, but imagine if 1/3 of the vehicles on a busy highway suddenly stalled. The accidents alone would clog the roadways even if they all could get started again.

Components used in power distribution centers, power plants, and even transformers take time. It takes far longer to produce and get them into service than most people imagine. They’re difficult to manufacture and are typically built when needed, not stockpiled for later use.

Can you imagine a world with no power or electronics?

Our society is based completely on the use of computers and near-instant communication. Take these things away, and everything from the stock market and the banking system to ordering the next delivery to Walmart screeches to a halt!

Manufacturing comes to an end until power is restored. There are no more batteries, fuels, etc., being produced.

How much fuel have you saved for your generator or vehicle, even if they continue to work?

Pumps of all kinds cease to function, many cars stop working, and there is no way for radio stations to broadcast emergency information (Even if there was, who would be listening?). It’s a real SHTF scenario. It’s everyone’s worst SHTF scenario, all happening simultaneously.

These effects will be felt worldwide, not just in the United States. How much of the world economy is based here in the U.S.? Who’s going to rush to fill the power vacuum? How are countries going to deal with American refugees?

Remember, these are the estimated effects of ONE EMP! We’d look at ten or more weapons detonated if Russia attacked us to ensure overlapping coverage. That means Canada and Mexico are also going to feel the effects!

Won’t There Be Humanitarian Aid from Other Countries?

I’m certain there will be humanitarian aid sent after an EMP. Everyone from European countries to China will be sending in humanitarian goods.

The bad part is it won’t come close to being enough!

There is no way to effectively provide humanitarian aid to a country as large as the United States. Our closest neighbors, Canada and Mexico, would likely be reeling from the effects of the EMP, so that they would be of little help.

How Do You Protect Yourself from the Effects of an EMP?

So what should you be doing now? EMP protection revolves around you becoming as self-sufficient as possible.

An EMP would send us back into a 1700s lifestyle. The best thing that you can do is to be able to rely on yourself for everything from food production to medical care to construction.

Surround yourself with as many able-bodied and reliable people as possible, and you’ll be better off.

Ideally, this preparation probably looks like a small, nearly self-sufficient farm with a simple lifestyle with little dependence upon electronics. A mechanical backup for as many systems as possible will make this even more efficient. A mechanical pump for the well is an example.

For most of us, protecting ourselves from an EMP by starting a self-sufficient homestead is either not possible or not desirable. So what can most people do to maximize their EMP protection?

The first thing you can do is to mentally prepare yourself for what would likely occur. Are you ready to deal with the sight of many dead bodies? Are you ready to watch people go crazy as they realize that their world has forever changed and there’s no going back?

Simply considering these things will put you ahead of most of the population. By even having the desire to read this article, you’re infinitely more prepared than the 9-5 day-to-day office worker that has never even considered the possibility of an EMP.

Having a plan and being aware of the possibility of an EMP is key. Don’t stand out in the road with your neighbors; try to figure out what is happening.

It would be best to act because the world hasn’t stopped moving forward. While everyone else is standing around talking or sitting in their cubicle waiting for the lights to come back, you should grab your get-home bag and go home as fast as you can.

You need to be on the move before everyone else realizes what has happened! Once that occurs, it’s anyone’s guess how things will go down.

Faraday Cages

Faraday cages are designed to limit the strength of the effects of an EMP on electronic items. Sealed Mylar bags and certain mesh bags also have the same effect.

There are a few common misconceptions that people have about Faraday cages. The first is that they only protect against nuclear EMP and not EMPs that are generated from the sun. The E1 pulse damages smaller electronics, and solar events do not generate that type of pulse.

The second is that they need to be grounded. Grounded faraday cages are more susceptible to the E1 pulse than other Faraday cages.

The final misconception comes from home-brewed testing. Many build a Faraday cage and then try to test it with 2-way radios. This seems logical, but it doesn’t prove whether the Faraday cage works.

2-way radios are designed to receive very faint signals. This method works if you use three levels of protection. At that point, your layered Faraday cages should stop the signal if they’re doing their job.

While Faraday cages work, they aren’t really practical. The best use of a Faraday cage would be to protect medical equipment or other equipment you couldn’t live without.

You could put radios, a spare laptop, or an extra phone in a Faraday cage, but you’d need to have protected some way to recharge them.

Additional EMP Protection Reading

The EMP Commissions that Congress put together did a great job of putting the information into terms that the common person could understand! Their writing is in plain language because they wanted the results to be understood by everyone. Despite these facts, very little has been done to protect the power grid from an EMP attack.

It’s so far-fetched to our lawmakers that they don’t believe it’s possible, or (more likely) it’s so outrageously expensive to protect the power grid that they’re just willing to risk it.

A lot of the work, the EMP Commission, did is available here.


An EMP, or electromagnetic pulse, is a serious threat to our modern way of life. The effects of an EMP can be devastating, causing widespread damage to electronics and infrastructure.

It’s important to understand how an EMP works, the likelihood of an attack, and how to protect ourselves. Preparing for an EMP is not only about storing supplies but also about understanding the science behind them and taking steps to protect our electronics and power sources. We can better survive and recover from an EMP attack with knowledge and preparation.

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