When the lights go out forever…

posted at 5:21 pm on August 13, 2014 by Noah Rothman

It would come with almost no warning. Without any immediate signs as to why, the lights go out, cars stop dead, telephones cease to function, everything with a microchip in it fails, and most of it all never works again.

In the wake of an electromagnetic pulse (EMP) attack on the United States, part or all of the country is thrust back into the 1860s but with 10 times the population. The threat is real, it is pressing, and the United States is doing little to address it.

It strikes many Americans as a fanciful prospect, almost cheesy apocalypse porn, to suggest that something as simple as the destruction of the nation’s power grid could thrust the United States into the dark ages. But those who have investigated this prospect are not rolling their eyes to the threat as are so many of the country’s sophisticates.

In The Wall Street Journal opinion pages on Wednesday, former CIA director James Woolsey and CIA veteran and congressional EMP Commission member Peter Vincent Pry warn of the threat posed by an EMP attack on the United States.

Recent declassification of EMP studies by the U.S. government has begun to draw attention to this dire threat. Rogue nations such as North Korea (and possibly Iran) will soon match Russia and China and have the primary ingredients for an EMP attack: simple ballistic missiles such as Scuds that could be launched from a freighter near our shores; space-launch vehicles able to loft low-earth-orbit satellites; and simple low-yield nuclear weapons that can generate gamma rays and fireballs.

“What would a successful EMP attack look like?” they ask. “The EMP Commission, in 2008, estimated that within 12 months of a nationwide blackout, up to 90% of the U.S. population could possibly perish from starvation, disease and societal breakdown.”

This is a rather antiseptic way of phrasing at the die out which would accompany an EMP attack. Those deaths occur in the immediate wake of this attack due to starvation, thirst, lack of medical care and viable pharmaceuticals, exposure, and mass violence. In the ensuing months, with governmental services having broken down entirely, fiefdoms arise. Conflict over scarce resources becomes commonplace. The globe, faced with the almost immediate withdrawal of American military power, descends into war as competing powers rush to fill the vacuum.

These thought experiments sound far too much like science fiction for many. And there is some excellent science fiction surrounding speculation as to what an EMP attack would look like. William Forstchen’s One Second After is an especially compelling read exploring what effects an EMP attack would have on society in the near and long-term.

Can this dark future be prevented? Of course, but the will to address this threat in Washington apparently does not exist.

“In June 2013, Rep. Trent Franks (R., Ariz.) and Rep. Yvette Clark (D., N.Y.) introduced the Secure High-voltage Infrastructure for Electricity from Lethal Damage, or Shield, Act,” Woolsey and Pry write. “Unfortunately, the legislation is stalled in the House Energy and Commerce Committee.”

Similarly, the committee-approved Critical Infrastructure Protection Act (CIPA), also aimed at crafting a national emergency plan to help local, state, and federal officers mitigate the risks the public will face in the wake of an EMP attack has not come to a vote in Congress.

“The cost of protecting the national electric grid, according to a 2008 EMP Commission estimate, would be about $2 billion—roughly what the U.S. gives each year in foreign aid to Pakistan,” the WSJ editorial observes.

Too often, though, cynicism and skepticism have prevented America’s political leaders from acting. It may be too late when they finally realize the scale of this threat to American national security.

It is ironic that, in just a handful of generations, America’s dependence on electricity and computer technology is absolute. Its disappearance would lead to the collapse of civilization, a prospect which must look quite enticing to those actors who wish to do America harm.

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Talk about EMP never fails to get the widest range of opinions. Many see it as no big deal and others point out it is a killer event. Like most thing I think it will be somewhere in between. But lets not kid ourselves it will be more towards the killer side. Let me relate two events that I have experienced.

The first was the result of a lightning strike. I had started a computer software company in the early 1990s and our office had a wired network with about a dozen computers on it. A bolt of lightning hit about a half block away and the electrical pulse induced in the wiring of the network burned out every one of the computers even the ones that were not turned on.

The next event occurred when we had a big storm several years ago and we were without power for 6 days. I had a backup generator system so I thought I was okay. Only problem was I needed gasoline, 10 gallons a day. Since the power was out over a wide area no gasoline was available since all the gas stations were shutdown. I had to drive over 20 miles into Seattle everyday to get gasoline.

What this showed is that our emergency backup systems are for short term use. If the outage runs into months they will all fail. This includes water, sewer, transportation, etc. It is not a stretch to say that we would be in a preindustrial society. And we are not prepared to live in this environment.

Tsuchino1 on August 14, 2014 at 12:03 AM

The blacks loot all of the local stores at the first hint of trouble. It would be a pretty big nightmare.

cimbri on August 14, 2014 at 12:19 AM

HOW DID YOU GET THIS PICTURE OF ME?!

SailorMark on August 13, 2014 at 11:24 PM

…look out your window…not that one, the one in the back…

right2bright on August 14, 2014 at 12:27 AM

The blacks loot all of the local stores at the first hint of trouble. It would be a pretty big nightmare.

cimbri on August 14, 2014 at 12:19 AM

That is a horrible post…but then…

right2bright on August 14, 2014 at 12:29 AM

Your choices are:
Death by disease / infection,
Death by starvation,
Death by exposure,
Death by violence.

Them that die’ll be the lucky ones.

Tard on August 13, 2014 at 5:56 PM

Obamacare application?

justltl on August 14, 2014 at 1:36 AM

Time to become really good friends with the Amish.

ProfShadow on August 14, 2014 at 1:47 AM

$2 Billion, or about the amount that we wasted on the Obamacare website. Just stop funding that debacle and there would be so much that we could do.

Theophile on August 14, 2014 at 2:11 AM

Look, I’m an electrical engineer. This EMP thing is WAY exaggerated.

The voltage and current surge generated by EMP is proportional to the length of the conductive path it hits. Long power & communication lines are the most vulnerable. Yes, solid-state electronics are vulnerable to voltage surges, but the conductive paths in computer circuitry are MICROSCOPIC. It’s really hard to impose a strong enough external field to “fry” a microchip. Electronics in cars, and home computers and appliances not plugged in a wall outlet, would almost all survive.

Lightning generates a HUGE EMP locally. Go on Youtube and there are videos of cars actually hit by lightning. They and the cars around them did not stop running. If a lightning bolt hit 20 feet from a laptop computer, the microchips would likely barely even feel it, much less be “fried.”

Field strength decreases as the square of distance. A few hundred miles from an EMP weapon its effects would be VERY attenuated. If you were close enough to a nuclear EMP for electronics to be destroyed, your biggest worry would be the blast and radiation.

If you still want to be a gloom-and-doomist about EMP, go ahead. Not me.

Bat Chain Puller on August 13, 2014 at 8:55 PM

So. Much. THIS.

DangerHighVoltage on August 14, 2014 at 2:33 AM

I wonder if they make little generators to run my pacemaker? Perhaps if I thrash around a lot the static current might…naw.

Maybe we should all just double down on our prayers–politics is such a failure and…

Don L on August 14, 2014 at 4:13 AM

Forget EMP, worry about a solar storm. We missed one by a week recently.

It isn’t the one event, it’s the cascade effect. How weak and old the grid really should be the worry. We read stories about how we were one power plant away from a regional black out.

Here’s the nut of it. 1. If the blackout is big enough and long enough it won’t matter if FEMA has rockets tied to its butt. The distance will be too great. If the people can’t drive out of the zone, they will be stuck. Getting ENOUGH stuff in will be the problem- as shown with that tiny windstorm called Sandy that nearly crippled the NE.

2. An expert in this area stated in two weeks after an event, 25% of the population will die- medical issues. In another two weeks, another 25% will die- starvation and lack of water. Those people will be mostly kids, teenagers, and those who don’t know how to forage for food and water. Add, disease and violence and you can knock off another twenty or so. As we have seen in MO currently. The locals there are upset over a shooting. Make them hungry and scared and see who much damage roving bands of entitled urban youth, armed urban youth, will do.

It is just what it is. The size of the loss of power will dictate the number of dead from it.

archer52 on August 14, 2014 at 4:55 AM

OregonPolitician on August 13, 2014 at 11:42 PM

Your entire post makes absolutely no sense and bears no relation to anything being talked about. I English your primary language? I have to speculate that when you wrote that post that you were either high, drunk or terminally stupid.

Oldnuke on August 14, 2014 at 7:28 AM

And we are not prepared to live in this environment.

Tsuchino1 on August 14, 2014 at 12:03 AM

Speak for yourself there Tonto, I am prepared. Which is what grills my grits. Your message speaks not one wit of your own personal responsibility for your own life. Its not the government’s job to `save you` from some disaster — that’s your job. If my dear sainted grandmother could live without electricity for nearly half her life then by golly I should be able to develop the skills to do so for an extended period myself. That is only three generations back.

So Tsuchinol, put down the game controller and learn some survival skills.

Dr. Dog on August 14, 2014 at 9:28 AM

I would highly recommend Mr. Fortschen’s book as well. Very compelling reading.

kozanne on August 14, 2014 at 9:40 AM

The factual, engineering-based comments on EMP are angering me, please stop immediately.
This is the only fun in my life and I Demand Hyperbole!!

Tard on August 14, 2014 at 10:13 AM

If you still want to be a gloom-and-doomist about EMP, go ahead. Not me.

Bat Chain Puller on August 13, 2014 at 8:55 PM

The problem is that if you kill just a couple of relay points on the eastern seaboard you take out the power distribution network for that entire area. Once that is gone for any length of time, it doesn’t matter if your computer is fried or not, because you won’t be able to turn it on. And your car will still run – until you’re out of gas (and you can’t get more because the pumps at the station are all electric). And it won’t matter if you could pump it, because you won’t be able to pay for it unless you keep a lot of cash handy before the lights go out. And, you won’t even be able to call 911, because the phone switches will all run out of power, as well.

GWB on August 14, 2014 at 10:30 AM

Hey, I never said EMP can’t take out power grids, and electronics that are plugged in to them. It can, and would. It wouldn’t be pretty. (But I think power grids are more resilient than what the alarmists say.)

I just take serious issue with this idea of EMP as some sci-fi “force field” that can “fry” microchips from a thousand miles away. Ridiculous.

P.S.- Remember the Gulf War Kuwaiti oil field fires that we were told would take a “year or more” to extinguish? What was it actually- six weeks? Heh.

Bat Chain Puller on August 14, 2014 at 11:10 AM

Can we just say, f#*k Pakistan foreign aid and invest that $2 billion in protecting our electrical grid? Pretty much of a no brainer in my humble opinion.

Krupnikas on August 14, 2014 at 12:02 PM

P.S.- Remember the Gulf War Kuwaiti oil field fires that we were told would take a “year or more” to extinguish? What was it actually- six weeks? Heh.

Bat Chain Puller on August 14, 2014 at 11:10 AM

First fire was started in January 1991 the last well was capped in November 1991. That’s closer to 11 months than 6 weeks.

Oldnuke on August 14, 2014 at 12:13 PM

Bat Chain Puller on August 14, 2014 at 11:10 AM

Most of the “frying” isn’t from the EMP, but from the surges created by the EMP. And those can travel a long way. (No, not cross-country, but a long way.)

The oil field fire-fighting had the advantage of modern technology. If there had been no way to fly that team in, and the locals had had to deal with it? It would have been years.

GWB on August 14, 2014 at 12:27 PM

The first was the result of a lightning strike.

Tsuchino1 on August 14, 2014 at 12:03 AM

Why are you comparing a lightning strike with an EMP pulse. A lightning strike is a tremendous amount of energy that’s focused on one point. An EMP pulse is omni-directional. The energy is distributed over an increasingly growing sphere. As that sphere grows, the surface area of the sphere grows quadratically. This means that the energy is reduced quadratically.

I’m not saying that nothing will happen. I just don’t believe that all solid state electronics will fry. Some are inside casings that have some reflective properties. I would guess that, at most, only the most exposed and vulnerable electronics would be affected.

Look, I’m an electrical engineer. This EMP thing is WAY exaggerated...It’s really hard to impose a strong enough external field to “fry” a microchip. Electronics in cars, and home computers and appliances not plugged in a wall outlet, would almost all survive.

Bat Chain Puller on August 13, 2014 at 8:55 PM

I agree with this. It’s hard enough to fry a microchip at close range. It’s especially hard to do it at long distances.

So. Much. THIS.

DangerHighVoltage on August 14, 2014 at 2:33 AM

Agreed.

corkie on August 14, 2014 at 12:56 PM

Most of the “frying” isn’t from the EMP, but from the surges created by the EMP.

GWB on August 14, 2014 at 12:27 PM

What surges are you talking about? Anything not plugged in, as he said, wouldn’t be exposed to any surges in the electrical grids transmission and distribution system. And the amount of energy that can be propagated along T&D lines is limited. If the lines fry, then no energy is propagated.

corkie on August 14, 2014 at 12:59 PM

Most of the “frying” isn’t from the EMP, but from the surges created by the EMP. And those can travel a long way. (No, not cross-country, but a long way.)

And if the devices aren’t physically plugged in to the power grid (with, you know, a wire), the surge path is… what, exactly?

Frying the computer chips in cars? Very, very doubtful.

Bat Chain Puller on August 14, 2014 at 1:03 PM

Thanks, corkie. Beat me to it.

Bat Chain Puller on August 14, 2014 at 1:04 PM

I’m going to speculate that any EMP pulse strong enough to fry free-standing electronics would also fry electrical transmission lines. This means that no surge would occur through the transmission lines. I’d love to see an EMP pulse weapons tested over a mock city. I bet the weapon would only be about 20% effective – and that’s if it was detonated directly overhead.

corkie on August 14, 2014 at 1:35 PM

Just thinking outside the box so pot shot away.

* NORAD tracks everything in orbital space. An effective EMP has to be suborbital to maximumize effect. Hence it will be detected early.
* How fast can the power grid shutdown? Not necessarily the gen stations, but the distribution points and long lines? Maybe a minute?
* Can a means be arranged that NORAD could send an alert in the boost phase for an immediate grid shutdown?

If the industry could pull that off it would seem to be cheaper than wholesale upgrades. A preventive disruption that saves the grid and those attached to it. A return to service in weeks rather than years. Hopefully some power engineer will show me the error of my ways.

Dr. Dog on August 14, 2014 at 1:44 PM

P.S.- Remember the Gulf War Kuwaiti oil field fires that we were told would take a “year or more” to extinguish? What was it actually- six weeks? Heh.

Bat Chain Puller on August 14, 2014 at 11:10 AM

First fire was started in January 1991 the last well was capped in November 1991. That’s closer to 11 months than 6 weeks.

Oldnuke on August 14, 2014 at 12:13 PM

What was WAY overblown was all the nonsense about oil-well fires causing ‘nuclear winter’.

slickwillie2001 on August 14, 2014 at 2:04 PM

The EMP-vulnerable points are power grid transformers and load transfer switches. Almost all these already have serious surge protection (against lightning and line failure transients) but nuclear EMP supposedly would last longer than these short transients and would overload the protection.

Some power lines would physically burn out but I think most of them would survive.

Phone, CATV, and digital data copper lines are vulnerable the same way, and are also surge protected (to a point). I really have no idea how much damage these would sustain, but potentially (heh) pretty bad.

Fiber optic lines are non-conductive and not susceptible to EMP.

I think we’d get power grids back up pretty quickly. Communication/data links, probably longer but just guessing.

Bat Chain Puller on August 14, 2014 at 2:38 PM

Look, I’m an electrical engineer. This EMP thing is WAY exaggerated.

The voltage and current surge generated by EMP is proportional to the length of the conductive path it hits. Long power & communication lines are the most vulnerable. Yes, solid-state electronics are vulnerable to voltage surges, but the conductive paths in computer circuitry are MICROSCOPIC. It’s really hard to impose a strong enough external field to “fry” a microchip. Electronics in cars, and home computers and appliances not plugged in a wall outlet, would almost all survive.

Lightning generates a HUGE EMP locally. Go on Youtube and there are videos of cars actually hit by lightning. They and the cars around them did not stop running. If a lightning bolt hit 20 feet from a laptop computer, the microchips would likely barely even feel it, much less be “fried.”

Field strength decreases as the square of distance. A few hundred miles from an EMP weapon its effects would be VERY attenuated. If you were close enough to a nuclear EMP for electronics to be destroyed, your biggest worry would be the blast and radiation.

If you still want to be a gloom-and-doomist about EMP, go ahead. Not me.

Bat Chain Puller on August 13, 2014 at 8:55 PM

Sure, that’s why we were told in the Army to have a wind up watch if we ever had to go to Europe against the Warsaw Pact, and also why the Army paid for the development of an EMP hand grenade a few years back…that sounds like it is to be used against localized chips to me.

But, I would concede that unless we are privy to information where the PTB actually set off a nuclear device, and then checked the damage done to electronic devices due to EMP from the blast, any speculation here one way or another is purely hypothetical.

At any rate, the threat of EMP wasn’t simply dreamed up by somebody looking for more gloom and doom. It had to come from knowledgeable physicists.

Dr. ZhivBlago on August 14, 2014 at 3:21 PM

Fiber optic lines are non-conductive and not susceptible to EMP.

Bat Chain Puller on August 14, 2014 at 2:38 PM

Copper wire isn’t susceptible to EMP, either, but the chips that route the communications through the lines are.

Dr. ZhivBlago on August 14, 2014 at 3:22 PM

What was WAY overblown was all the nonsense about oil-well fires causing ‘nuclear winter’.

slickwillie2001 on August 14, 2014 at 2:04 PM

Yeah, nuclear winter is always overblown as are most EOW scenarios, EMP included. I think EMP is a real threat but whether it’s a real EOW threat I have no idea. I think it’s serious enough that it ought to be researched.

Every time somebody starts with the nuclear winter thing I bring up Tambora. Now that did indeed cause a nuclear winter back around 1815 but humanity survived and right handily. It would take a lot of oil wells on fire to even approach the level of Tambora or one hell of a lot of nukes.

Oldnuke on August 14, 2014 at 3:43 PM

For what it’s worth. From some TV show, which makes it suspect but apparently there is a test site somewhere for EMP and apparently EMP will kill a modern car.

Oldnuke on August 14, 2014 at 3:49 PM

Dr. Dog on August 14, 2014 at 1:44 PM

Just thinking outside the box so pot shot away.

No need to take pot shots, but I think I can address most of your points.

* NORAD tracks everything in orbital space. An effective EMP has to be suborbital to maximumize effect. Hence it will be detected early.

First off I don’t think NORAD tracks everything in orbit. Lots of junk up there. They’d probably see a satellite but what if it’s in a stable orbit and been there for a while? Even NORAD can become complacent when it’s just SOS.

Second optimum altitude for a nuke generated EMP is about 300 miles. That puts it in orbit, not suborbital.

* How fast can the power grid shutdown? Not necessarily the gen stations, but the distribution points and long lines? Maybe a minute?

That question can’t really be answered since the entire grid going down is a nightmare scenario in and of itself. I’ll tell you flat out that there is no method or plan to “Shut down the entire grid”. If you isolate the loads from the generators by shutting down the substations and distribution lines then the generators will trip causing more problems.

* Can a means be arranged that NORAD could send an alert in the boost phase for an immediate grid shutdown?

If the industry could pull that off it would seem to be cheaper than wholesale upgrades. A preventive disruption that saves the grid and those attached to it. A return to service in weeks rather than years. Hopefully some power engineer will show me the error of my ways.

There is no way that I’m aware of that this could be done. Killing the entire North American electric power distribution system would cause almost as much problem as the EMP. A total blackout, without EMP damage is recoverable and utilities have plans in place to recover from them. BUT I will tell you that you don’t ever want to see that happen. You’ll be without power for weeks if not months. Believe it or not a power plant has to have power from some other plant to start up after it’s shut down. You have to be able to start all of those big electric pumps that are necessary to get a plant up and running. If a plant doesn’t have offsite electrical power then it most likely ain’t coming back on line. Pretty much every plan calls for getting a hydro plant back up on line in a controlled manner and then segregating the distribution lines so you can bring up other plants. Then there’s the communications problem and coordinating between utilities. One thing to keep in mind is that none of these plans have ever actually been tried since the whole grid has never gone down. Came close a couple of times but the whole continent has never gone dark….yet.

Oldnuke on August 14, 2014 at 4:14 PM

Oldnuke on August 14, 2014 at 4:14 PM

Interesting.

But I would add that if EMP were to shut down the power grid for the length of time you say, even though not permanent, would, I think, finish off what’s left of our economy? Look at the effects that 9-11 did economically and that was actually a small, localized attack compared to this scenario.

Dr. ZhivBlago on August 14, 2014 at 4:30 PM

When idiot-Obama was looking for things to spend his first Spendulus on (that initial trillion-dollar slush fund for blue states), MANY people said that if we were really going to throw this money in the air we might as well spend it on something useful, like HARDENING THE GRID: shield critical elements, have critical replacements available, build out capacity and redundancy, but that would have helped the nation so Obama was having none of it. Plus, that was man-work, and the feminists complained, so the money went to green fingernail painting instead.

Alec on August 14, 2014 at 6:58 PM

Alec on August 14, 2014 at 6:58 PM

Never mind it being too much work. If it were easy, The One would have refused to allow it.

He is an egotistical, narcissistic primitivist who thinks Utopia looks like a bazaar in Indonesia.

He wants our civilization to vanish, so an “enlightened, mystical” one can take its place. He defines the last few chapters of Atlas Shrugged as a blueprint for a Perfect World, not a disaster.

Far from being interested in preventing an EMP or CME-caused CLE (Collapse Level Event), he’d set it off if he had a way to do it.

And the majority of the left, especially the deep-ecos, would help.

I really don’t think most rational people comprehend just how much this crowd hates our civilization, and the rest of humanity other than themselves. Or what they would do to us if they could.

clear ether

eon

eon on August 14, 2014 at 8:18 PM

Copper wire isn’t susceptible to EMP

Dr. ZhivBlago on August 14, 2014 at 3:22 PM

Good grief. A magnetic field moving past a conductor, or vice versa, creates a current in that conductor. Electromagnetics 101.

This thread is worn out, & so am I. See you elsewhere.

Bat Chain Puller on August 14, 2014 at 8:44 PM

For what it’s worth. From some TV show, which makes it suspect but apparently there is a test site somewhere for EMP and apparently EMP will kill a modern car.

Oldnuke on August 14, 2014 at 3:49 PM

Nobody has ever said that electromagnetic energy can’t be used to fry electronics. What we’re saying is that we are skeptical that a single source, omni-directional EMP can take out all solid state electronics over a wide area of the earth. 20% of the most vulnerable – maybe.

corkie on August 15, 2014 at 12:48 AM

Copper wire isn’t susceptible to EMP

Dr. ZhivBlago on August 14, 2014 at 3:22 PM

Dr., the conductive properties of copper wire can most certainly be destroyed via large amounts of current. A large EM field can most certainly create a large voltage that can cause a large current. I certainly don’t believe that an EMP could take out the copper transmission lines. I was saying that an EMP powerful enough to cause power surges to every home would also destroy the transmission lines before it had the chance to carry such a strong surge to every home.

corkie on August 15, 2014 at 12:53 AM

That doesn’t say that anything was fried. It said that electrical equipment and sensors were affected. Strong EM signals can certainly affect sensitive equipment – especially sensors – during the pulse itself – but that doesn’t mean that the equipment is destroyed. The military hardens devices so that the electronics still work in a noisy or jamming environment.

corkie on August 15, 2014 at 11:29 AM

That doesn’t say that anything was fried. It said that electrical equipment and sensors were affected. Strong EM signals can certainly affect sensitive equipment – especially sensors – during the pulse itself – but that doesn’t mean that the equipment is destroyed. The military hardens devices so that the electronics still work in a noisy or jamming environment.

corkie on August 15, 2014 at 11:29 AM

How many IC chips were there in 1962?

I can only suspect that we’re talking about transistors and vacuum tubes. If so, those kinds of systems being affected by EMP, how would more sensitive chips be affected?

It doesn’t take tons of energy to re-image the information contained on an IC chip like in a cell phone or an MP3 player. Nor does it take much energy to erase or record over magnetically imaged information on hard drives and tapes.

Modern digital memory chips, discs or tapes store information based upon the tiniest amounts of voltage or electron orientation on the atomic level. I doubt it would take much to say, discharge all of the 1 or 0 electronic patterns/codes on a chip. At a minimum, EMP should at least disrupt those patterns in memory.

Dr. ZhivBlago on August 16, 2014 at 9:01 AM

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