You wake in the night and hear shouting outside. The room is thick with darkness—all the lights are off. Something’s wrong. You assume it’s a power outage and grab your smartphone to check the time, but it’s dead, too. That doesn’t make sense—the phone had a full charge earlier and is plugged into the wall. The shouting continues. Someone’s trying to call an ambulance. You get up and go to the window, but you can’t see anything outside. The streetlights are black silhouettes against a blacker sky. Someone pounds on your front door, calling your name. You run to the door and open it. Your neighbor stands outside. “It’s happened,” he says. “Cell phones and landlines are down, and nobody can get their car to start. A few flashlights are still working. Everything else is fried.”
You say nothing. There’s nothing to say. Like your neighbor, you’ve begun to understand what’s wrong. The world you knew is gone. No more lights, no more cars, no more phones, no more Internet, or radios, or refrigerators. Any electronic device more sophisticated than a simple flashlight is fried beyond repair, along with the entire power grid and all communication networks.
Your nation, maybe the world, has been hit by an Electromagnetic Pulse (EMP).
What is an EMP?
An Electromagnetic Pulse (EMP) is a sudden burst of electromagnetic radiation. These EMPs occur every day. The sun produces electromagnetic bursts constantly, while electronic circuitry can create small electromagnetic effects during standard operation. Most of these common EMP events go unnoticed.
Massive pulses, though, can destroy sensitive electronic devices, from computers and cell phones to the transformers that regulate our power grid. A large EMP could be catastrophic, and preparation begins with understanding what causes such events.
EMPs arise from two primary sources.
Solar Coronal Mass Ejections (CME)
A coronal mass ejection (CME) is a sudden eruption of plasma from the surface of the sun. Also referred to as a solar storm, a CME sends charges particles hurtling through space. If a large enough “storm” were to hit Earth, the pulse would induce massive electrical currents in electronic cables, causing transformers to short and plunging our electrical grid into darkness.
Nuclear Detonation (NEMP / HEMP)
A Nuclear EMP (NEMP) is an electromagnetic pulse created by a nuclear detonation. When a nuclear warhead detonates close to the surface of the Earth, much of the EMP blast is absorbed into the ground. As a result, the actual EMP is negligible—if you’re close enough to notice the EMP, you’re probably in range of the actual explosion.
But when a nuclear warhead detonates dozens or hundreds of miles above the Earth, high in the upper atmosphere, the resulting pulse spreads outward at close to the speed of light, with nothing to contain or interrupt it other than air molecules. This is called a high-altitude nuclear EMP (HEMP), and it’s what most scientists and military strategists refer to as an “EMP attack.”
The effects of a nuclear EMP are similar to those of a solar EMP, only more severe and more precise. While solar EMPs destroy large electrical systems like transformers, the gamma rays produced during nuclear fission create a separate pulse that is highly damaging to small circuitry, making a nuclear EMP far more destructive, overall.
What Would Happen?
Nobody knows the full extent of the damage a solar EMP or nuclear EMP attack would cause, but experts hypothesize that the outcome would be catastrophic.
In the 1960s, the United States and the Soviet Union separately conducted multiple high-altitude nuclear tests. The resulting EMP damage spanned hundreds of miles. If a similar weapon were detonated today at a tactically optimal location and height above the United States, there’s little doubt the resulting pulse would knock out virtually all electronic systems and devices in North America, effectively erasing modern civilization.
In the case of an EMP caused by a solar coronal mass ejection (CME), the damage to small electronics would be less severe, but the event would nevertheless shut down our power grid and phone networks for as long as a year or more while critical repairs are made. A year without power would be enough to bring our nation to its knees.
“The world you knew is gone. No more lights, no more cars, no more phones, no more internet, or radios, or refrigerators.”
How Likely is an EMP Event?
The threat of an EMP striking the United States is all too real, and as electronic technology advances and we grow more and more dependent on it for daily life, our vulnerability increases.
When discussing the likelihood of an EMP event occurring, former head of U. S. Strategic Command General Eugene Habiger says, “It is not a matter of if, it is a matter of when.”
Advanced nations like Russia and China are more than capable of producing and detonating high-altitude nuclear bombs. North Korea is believed to have successfully tested a powerful EMP weapon in 2009. The components required to create a small but effective EMP device are readily available, and the engineering proficiency needed for construction is basic enough that small terrorist groups and lone-wolf extremists could feasibly build their own “EMP bombs.” While not nuclear in nature, these devices could still bring down a large city or target points of tactical significance.
What about natural EMPs from the sun? At the moment, NASA is keeping an eye on solar activity with the goal of “forecasting” extreme solar weather. But experts suggest we will have no more than two or three days of advance notice should the sun emit a cripplingly large burst—something that could happen at any time.
How to Survive an EMP
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. 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. But experts predict that a sufficiently large EMP attack would result in tens of millions of deaths over the two or three years that follow. What you do in the first few days after the event will determine your chances of surviving long-term.
Preparing to Survive
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, inclement 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.
In the first five minutes following the pulse, you’ll make a critical decision. This decision is the single most important factor that will affect your survival, and if you put off making this choice, you’ll end up paying for it.
You need to decide whether to “dig in” or “get out.”
Assuming you live in a moderately populated urban or suburban area, the repercussions of this decision will rule the next decade of your life. You can start adjusting your living space to accommodate an off-the-grid lifestyle, or you can grab your bug-out bag and as much water as you can carry and make a break for it. Which option is better? It depends.
Digging In: Your home is no doubt already stocked with many essential items you’ll need for survival—food, water, blankets, tools, medicine, room for storage, and so on. Your home provides shelter. You probably know your neighbors and various members of your community, which may add a layer of security. In addition, getting out of town only makes sense if you have somewhere to go. You’re better off trying to secure yourself in your home than wandering with nothing but a backpack through unfamiliar countryside.
Getting Out: Living off the grid long-term is almost impossible without land and a supply of fresh water, and in a resource crisis, the last thing you want are neighbors. Your greatest threat to survival may well be the people around you. Lack of electricity and communications will cripple law enforcement—imagine an urban area with no security cameras, no burglar alarms, no phones, no tasers, no searchlights, no police cars patrolling the streets. Riots, looting, and general anarchy will reign. Urban areas must import food from elsewhere, and with all transportation shut down, starvation will set in sooner in the cities than in rural areas.
Whether you decide to stay or go, you must make the choice and commit to it within the first five to 10 minutes following the pulse. If you waste hours or days trying to decide or end up changing your mind later, it will be too late to take the specific tactical steps required for survival.
Assume the worst. You’ll lose nothing if you’re wrong, and you’ll gain valuable time and composure if you’re right. By assuming the worst, you give yourself permission to make decisions you wouldn’t otherwise make, and you’ll be able to make these decisions faster. Don’t wait around hoping things will get better in a day or two. Allow yourself to enter survival mode immediately.
Form alliances early—before disaster strikes. Allies are important whether you’re planning to remain in your community or head for the hills. Establish a group of trustworthy neighbors, friends, and family members, and make sure everyone knows the stakes. Your chances of survival are better when you’re part of a team, but everyone needs to be on the same page.
Start meeting and connecting with residents in your neighborhood today. You need to know who’s trustworthy and who isn’t, and no matter how prepared you are, you won’t have the time or presence of mind to accurately gauge this in the wake of a disaster.
Develop a community response plan for your neighborhood. Discuss potential disaster scenarios and map out a blueprint for how you’ll work together to survive as a community. Write it down. Rehearse it as a group. This is a great way to determine what resources are available and who is on board to help.
“Guns, ammunition, knives, clubs, bows, and other weapons will play an important role in your survival over the coming years.”
Digging In: Survival Techniques
If you’ve chosen to stay put, to remain in familiar territory with a community you trust, take the following immediate steps to set yourself up for survival.
Collect as much water as possible. After the grid goes down, you’ll still have running water, but it won’t last long. If you’re at home when the pulse hits, start filling bottles, buckets, tubs, and other containers with water from the tap as fast as possible. Collect as much as you can. Don’t let anything else enter your mind until this is done. If you wait, you won’t get another chance.
Get to a grocery store. Grab all the cash you have, lock your door behind you, and don’t stop to talk to anyone. Run to your local grocery store immediately. You want to get there before everyone else does—preferably while everyone else is still thinking this is just a simple power outage.
Stock up on the following items.
- Canned beans, canned vegetables, and canned fruit.
- Dried foods like jerky, pasta, beans, and brown rice.
- Peanut butter, nuts, and dried fruits and vegetables.
- Canned meat, especially canned salmon, chicken, and turkey. > Canned soup, especially thick soups and chili.
- Bottled water and sports drinks containing electrolytes.
- Whole grain flour, oats, and salt.
- Vitamin supplements and powdered “superfoods.”
Purchase everything with cash. If you’ve acted fast enough, chances are the stores are still open for business and accepting cash. Take the shopping cart with you when you leave—you’ll need it to transport your goods back to your home or apartment.
Stock up on medical supplies. Your next stop is a local pharmacy or general goods store. Your goal is to obtain a good supply of standard medical supplies and medicines.
- Bandages, gauze, and disinfectant.
- Over the counter pain relievers and fever reducers.
- Dish soap, hand soap, and hand sanitizer.
- Chlorine for water purification and storage.
- First aid kits, surgery kits, and syringes, if available.
Create a cooking area. If you have a large charcoal or wood barbecue at your home, you’re all set. If not, designate a sheltered space in your yard as a cooking area and dig a shallow fire pit. Your cooking space should be close to your house, as this will allow you to take advantage of the fire for heating purposes.
Dig a latrine. Find a section of your yard located downhill and away from your home. Dig a shallow trench about 4 feet long, 6 inches deep, and 6 inches wide. Set aside a pile of loose topsoil to use to cover waste.
Establish a defensible position and a security detail. In cooperation with your neighbors and other community allies, determine what area you will protect and establish a plan to guard and defend it from criminals, vandals, and vagrants. It may be best to choose a group of two or three homes and create a single fortified position. Alternately, your neighborhood may be laid out in a way that creates a natural defensible perimeter.
Locate and distribute weapons. Unfortunately, there’s no avoiding this step. Guns, ammunition, knives, clubs, bows, and other weapons will play an important role in your survival over the coming years. As a group, take stock of available weapons and ammo, and determine how to distribute them for optimal security. Carry a tactical knife on you at all times, and if you own a gun, don’t let it out of your sight.
Getting Out: Survival Techniques
If escaping to a rural area or into the wilderness is your plan, preparation is critical. This probably isn’t a feasible strategy if you’re not ready ahead of time. If you think your chances of survival are better on your own, keep the following in mind.
Know your destination. Don’t run without a goal. Bring a map and compass and start out with a clear idea of where you plan to end up. Your destination should be somewhere close to fresh water and natural food sources. If you don’t know where in your area to find these things, you’re not prepared enough to get out.
Before disaster strikes, you should identify a bug-out location (BOL) within a one- to two-day walk from your home that can serve as your destination in the event of a catastrophe. Map out a way to get there and memorize it. Assume all roads will be blocked. Walk the route in advance and note important landmarks.
Plan for delays. Identify two or three sites along the route to your BOL that can provide temporary shelter during your journey. Rehearse the route, and keep the map and compass handy in your bug-out bag in case your plans need to change on the way.
Dress in layers. You will know best how to dress for the conditions in and around your home and your BOL. Regardless, dressing in layers is always advisable, as it allows you to bring multiple clothing items that you can wear or remove as the weather demands.
Grab your bug-out bag or a backpack you can fill with food, water, and supplies.
If you’ve prepared properly, you already know what you need to bring with you, and your bug-out bag is fully stocked and ready to go. If not, fill a backpack with non-perishable high-energy food items, like granola bars, jerky, and peanut butter. Take along a first aid kit and as much water as you can carry. Knives, a gun, ammunition, and any other weapons and tools you can fit are essential.
Hit the road. Get out as soon and as fast as possible. You won’t be the only one planning to vacate the city, and as soon as the reality of the situation hits everyone else, the road is going to be full of desperate wanderers. You’re not safe in the open. You need to make it your goal to reach your BOL immediately.
History of EMPs
No truly catastrophic EMP event has yet occurred, for the simple reason that up until 50 or 60 years ago, such an event couldn’t occur—our reliance on electronic technology had not yet advanced to the point where EMP disruption would cause complete social collapse, as it would today. Nevertheless, a number of historical incidents serve as proof that EMPs in their various forms are real and highly dangerous.
The Carrington Event (1859)
On September 1st, 1859, British astronomer Richard Carrington aimed his telescope at the sun and sat down with ink and paper to sketch what he observed through the lens. After recording a series of large sunspots, he saw two massive points of white light flare up rapidly and vanish. He had never seen anything like it.
Hours later, a massive geomagnetic storm tore through Earth’s atmosphere, lighting up the night sky with immense auroras visible as far south as Cuba and Jamaica. But this was just the beginning.
At the time, the United States had just started to adopt electronic communication in the form of the telegraph. Telegraph wires crisscrossed the nation, connecting major cities, but beyond this, electrical systems didn’t play a large role in public infrastructure. On the night of September 1st, telegraph operators throughout North America watched, confused, as one of the most powerful EMPs in recorded history wreaked havoc on the telegraph network. The pulse did more than just disrupt communications. Electric sparks leapt from telegraph machines, injuring workers. Telegraph paper burst into flames. Metal contact points melted. Lines were inoperable for hours. When operators disconnected the machines from their power supplies, they found that they could still transmit, as the lines were powered entirely by the induced current from the EMP.
The storm came to be called the Carrington Event and stands as an unprecedented example of the effects a powerful EMP can have on electronic communication systems. But the Carrington Event wasn’t a fluke of history. Similar EMP disruptions have occurred in the decades since. In 1989, a solar coronal mass ejection caused an EMP that shut down Quebec’s entire power grid for 12 hours and brought the region to a complete standstill. During the same event, the U.S. grid struggled but managed to stay mostly online, with the exception of a few localized failures. The 1989 event was about one-third the size of the Carrington Event.
On July 23rd, 2012, a CME erupted from the sun and narrowly missed Earth, passing directly through our planet’s orbital path. The storm struck a satellite, and measurements revealed that the 2012 CME may have been larger than the Carrington Event. Daniel Baker, director of the Laboratory for Atmospheric and Space Physics at the University of Colorado, said in a presentation in April 2014, “If it had hit Earth, we would still be picking up the pieces.”
Starfish Prime (1962)
More than 50 years ago, an early nuclear weapon detonated 250 miles over the middle of the South Pacific Ocean produced an electromagnetic pulse strong enough to knock out streetlights and telephone communications systems in Hawaii and New Zealand. About one-third of all satellites in low orbit failed, and some sources claim that the blast fried ignition systems in cars 1,000 miles away from the launch site.
The test was called Starfish Prime. Carried out by the United States on July 9th, 1962, the full power of the EMP couldn’t be measured—it went off the charts. As the pulse struck Hawaii, the public learned for the first time that a nuclear bomb detonated in the upper atmosphere could damage electronic systems.
The Starfish Prime blast occurred at a height of 250 miles. A nuclear warhead detonated at a similar height over Kansas or Nebraska today would shut down the entire continental United States, most of Canada, and parts of northern Mexico.
The Soviets conducted their own high-altitude nuclear tests and saw similar unexpected results. During one such test, called “Project K #184,” the Soviets detonated a relatively small nuclear warhead 180 miles above a remote region of Kazakhstan. The resulting EMP took out 350 miles of telephone lines and 620 miles of buried power cables, and started massive fires in a nearby powerplant. A Russian scientist later reported that the plant was completely destroyed.
Starfish Prime and Project K were controlled tests performed in remote areas—back in 1962. Imagine the devastation that would result from an actual attack carried out with a modern EMP warhead over a tactically significant region where all aspects of daily life rely on advanced electronics.
Five Essentials for EMP Survival
Survival in a world gone dark won’t be easy, but these five essential items will help.
You’ll need transportation, and a bike is going to be your best option. Most cars, trucks, trains, airplanes, and motorized boats are going to be permanently out of commission. Find a bike that’s lightweight, easy to disassemble and repair, and suited for off-road travel, and get accustomed to riding it well before disaster strikes.
A Faraday cage is a metal enclosure designed to block electromagnetic radiation. They’re easy to build using materials available at your local hardware store, and you can find step-by-step instructions online. Store essential electronics like handheld radios, medical devices, GPS systems, and others inside a Faraday cage to help prevent damage from an EMP.
Chlorine Dioxide Tablets
Water treatment systems won’t be operational in the wake of an EMP, and there’s a good chance your municipal water supply won’t last long. You’ll need to find water to survive, and any water you find will need to be purified. Chlorine dioxide tablets are great for this, and they’re easy to store and transport.
Candles & Lanterns
Light is often taken for granted in the modern world, but without electricity, this will be a major concern. Stock up on candles, kerosene lanterns, matches, lighters, and wicking. It wouldn’t be a bad idea to get a book on how to make candles and keep it handy, as you’ll need to either find or make your own candles when your stockpile runs out.
A cast iron wood stove will make cooking and heating much safer, easier, and more efficient in the aftermath of an EMP. While it’s not something you can carry with you on the move, it’s a good idea to have one in your home or bunker or wherever you plan to dig in. Stock up on wood and charcoal if you can.
Editor’s Note: A version of this article first appeared in the Doomsday 2016 print issue of American Survival Guide Magazine.