Surprising Things that May Survive an Electromagnetic Pulse (EMP) Event

One of the biggest existential threats that face us today isn’t global warming or climate change (or whatever they are calling it this week), it’s an electromagnetic pulse (EMP). There are several ways that an EMP can be produced, but the most threatening is by exploding a nuclear bomb above the atmosphere. Such an attack could be orchestrated by a rogue nation or by a terrorist group. Although relations with North Korea seem to be improving and an actual peace treaty ending the Korean War is on the table, the hermit kingdom hasn’t denuclearized. They aren’t the only such rogue nation with nuclear weapons either; there is clear evidence that Iran’s nuclear program is much farther along than what we have been led to believe. Either of these countries is just about as likely to attack the United States with an EMP as they are to say “Hello.” But the risk of EMP isn’t limited just to human actors, nature herself could hit us first. A coronal mass ejection (CME) from the sun could. Essentially the sun releasing massive amounts of plasma and magnetic field, usually following solar flares, CMEs also produce EMP. We were fortunate in 2017 that a CME event missed the earth, with the effects radiating harmlessly off into space. Should an EMP hit the United States, it would be devastating. We are a country that is highly dependent on electricity for just about everything. But an EMP would most likely eliminate the grid and much of our electronics. Without a constant, reliable source of electrical power, our entire infrastructure and economy comes to a screeching halt. According to the report of the EMP Commission, such an event would result in the death of 60 to 90 percent of our population, with the majority of people dying of starvation. As individuals and as a society, we are not prepared to live without electricity. The general consensus is that anything electronic would be immediately and irreparably destroyed, from our smartphones to jet aircraft. But while much of that will be destroyed, not everything will. Knowing what will not be destroyed could very well be an important part of being able to survive and rebuild your life once the EMP is over.

Cars & Trucks

The general consensus is that all cars and trucks will immediately stop running. But this conclusion doesn’t necessarily match with the facts. Most cars and trucks are nearly perfect Faraday Cages; at least, the ones with metal bodies are. With the majority of the electronics hidden in the engine compartment, there is a pretty good chance that most will survive.

emp-carPhoto by Cory Checketts on Unsplash

The only way that the EMP could get to those electronics would be through the windshield, so this is highly dependent on the design of the car’s body (size and angle of the windshield) and the amount of electronics that are under the dash. EMP coming through the windshield could be captured by wiring under the dash, which would carry it to the computer and other electronics, destroying them.

When the EMP Commission was studying the effects of EMP on cars, the worst effect they recorded was cars stalling due to the EMP. But those cars were able to be restarted. So there is some evidence to show that cars could survive. However, even if they do, the bigger problem will be a lack of gasoline available for those cars.

Airplanes

Like cars, this one is highly controversial. The common belief is that all airplanes will drop out of the sky, as their engines will no longer work. But like cars, aluminum-bodied airplanes are nearly perfect Faraday Cages. The proof of this is that airplanes are regularly struck by lightning, which passes over the skin of the airplane and continues on, without damaging anything.

emp-plane

Photo by Erwan Hesry on Unsplash

Granted, lightning is nowhere near as destructive to electronics as an EMP, so that isn’t a perfect proof. But it does give some indication of the possibility of airplanes surviving. During the Cold War, many commercial aircraft models were tested for EMP as part of the design process, but this isn’t done so much today. So it seems that the older the airplane, the greater chance of it surviving. Of course, the other problem that pilots will have to deal with is that all of their navigation aids and the air traffic controllers they depend on will be instantly offline. So even if the airplane remains functional, the pilot will be faced with the challenge of getting their airplane on the ground safely.

Cell Phones

The E1 pulse, followed up by the longer E2 pulse, will be the ones that damages most electronic devices. Generally speaking, the spike of the E1 will take out any surge protection, allowing the E2 to enter those devices and destroy the delicate electronics. But these pulses need a means of getting into the electronics to start with. That means either as direct radiation through the case or being captured by wires attached to the device and thereby transferred into the device.

emp-iphone

Photo by Jamie Street on Unsplash

Cell phones are too small to capture much in the way of this electromagnetic radiation and unless they are charging, they usually don’t have wires attached to them. Therefore, it is possible that the phones themselves, and other compact electronics will survive. The phone system will be out, but the phones may make it. While this will greatly reduce the utility of cell phones, there are still a number of things we are able to do with them, without being connected to the network. Anything you have stored in the phone will still be available. So if you have survival information stored there, you could use it.

Vintage Electronics

EMP was first observed during the Manhattan Project of World War II, but it was not considered important. The tube-type electronics of the day were not harmed by the EMP. Today’s electronics are much more delicate, mostly due to the miniaturization of circuits brought about by transistors and integrated circuits.

vintage-radio

Photo by Alex Blăjan on Unsplash

What this means is that any tube-type radios, televisions and other devices you own will probably still work. How useful they will be will depend a lot on what they are and how you use them. An AM/FM radio that still works won’t do much good if there’s nobody transmitting. But if you have a tube-type shortwave or Ham Radio, there will be people you can talk to.

Vintage Computers

Many of us have old computers sitting around somewhere in a closet or basement. The market for used computers is a joke, so we rarely sell them, but rather keep them around as spares. This may cause them to survive.

old-mac

Photo by Federica Galli on Unsplash

Most computers are metal-cased, providing protection from EMP. This protection won’t do much good for the computers we use, as they have wires attached to them, which will carry the EMP spike through the case. But computers which aren’t being used usually don’t have any cables attached. So it is quite likely that they will be able to survive. All you’ll need is a power source to get them running.

Major Appliances

Of all the electronic devices we use in our day to day lives, major appliances are some of the simplest. Consisting of motors, relays, switches and sensors, there isn’t much that can be damaged by an EMP. On top of that, most are in metal cases, which provide further protection. About the only part of most appliances which can be damaged by EMP are touch-screen controls. So you’re actually better off with the simpler appliances, which use switches, than the fancy ones.

old stove

Photo by Annie Spratt on Unsplash

Of course, we’re going to have the same problem with these, that we have with vintage computers, finding a source of electric power. But if you are living at least partially off-grid, you will have your own electrical power generation you can count on.

Solar Panels

One of the more surprising things that will survive an EMP is solar panels. While the electromagnetic pulse will hit the panes and will cause some damage, they will still function. You’ll lose somewhere between 5 and 10 percent of their output; but you’ll still be able to produce electricity.

solar panels

Photo by American Public Power Association on Unsplash

However, while the panels themselves will survive, as well as any batteries you have in a battery backup system, the solar charge controller and voltage inverter will probably not. In order to be able to use your solar panels in a post-EMP world, you’ll need to have a spare solar charge controller and voltage inverter stashed away in a Faraday Cage.

Warehouses Full of Stuff

The one thing I never see anyone else talk about, which I am quite sure will survive an EMP is all the inventory in all the electronics warehouses across the country. Most warehouses are metal buildings, which makes them Faraday Cages. The inventory stored inside those buildings is packaged in electrically insulated packaging. So any electromagnetic radiation that hits the building will go directly to ground, not into the devices stores inside the building.

warehouse

Photo by H E N G S T R E A M on Unsplash

If you are going to rebuild your life or help rebuild your community after an EMP, it would be a good idea to know what electronics warehouses are in your area and what types of inventory they carry. While a warehouse full of smartphones and televisions probably won’t do anyone much good, warehouses full of industrial electronics will be worth their weight in gold.

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