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Electromagnetic Pulses- Or, How to Kill 250 Million People in One Year

Updated on November 2, 2012
The sky during Starfish Prime electromagnetic pulse testing
The sky during Starfish Prime electromagnetic pulse testing | Source

Electromagnetic Pulses

BOOM. The power’s out. Most people think that it’s only a power outage, but these people have no idea what’s in store for them. Soon, they realize that it is much more than just a mere blackout. Cars don’t work. Cell phones, even ones with fully charged batteries, have black screens. They just experienced an electromagnetic pulse, or an EMP. This is similar to an extremely powerful solar flare, but most power failures resulting from solar flares are only temporary. This one is permanent. A world without power is a world without, to name just a few: Internet, cell phones, television, radios that aren’t hand-cranked or battery powered- basically anything that needs an outlet to work. Many people can’t imagine a life like this, but an EMP is much worse than a lifelong blackout. An EMP means a world without microchips, like the ones in cars, airplanes, and pretty much any other mode of transportation besides horse or dogsled. This also means no more commutes to work, no more long plane rides, and no more crowded subways. This sounds pretty good! However, this also means no food can be transported, so grocers can’t receive new food, so people starve, so people eat old and spoiled food, so people get diseases like salmonella, cholera, and typhoid fever… see where this is going? Even worse, the U.S. government isn’t even remotely prepared for such an attack. It’s hard to disagree with the fact that the U.S. government should prepare for an electromagnetic pulse attack because the disease ratio would soar, crime rates would increase exponentially, and, ultimately, millions would die.

A visual representation of a naturally-occurring solar flare.
A visual representation of a naturally-occurring solar flare. | Source

Phases of EMPs and Solar Flares

According to Newt Gingrich, “When an atomic bomb is detonated above the earth’s atmosphere, it can generate a ‘pulse wave’, which travels at the speed of light and will short-circuit every electronic device that the ‘wave’ touches on the earth’s surface.” This isn’t an overstatement. Or, take it from Stephen Schwartz, a nuclear weapon expert: “[An EMP is] a brief intense surge in energy… [that] can damage or destroy unprotected electronic equipment.” Electromagnetic pulse waves are divided into three components: E1, E2, and E3. The first component, E1, flies out of a bomb faster than the speed of light and is extremely high-voltage. This is the wave that destroys computer chips, processors, and any other microelectronics. The E1 wave is the hardest wave to protect against. The E2, on the other hand, is very easy to protect against. It’s only about as strong and fast as lightning and doesn’t do nearly as much damage as the E1. The final component, the E3, is very slow (it can take up to two minutes to reach the entire target radius) and basically simulates a solar flare. A solar flare is a burst of energy, caused by the sun, which temporarily disrupts all power. Usually it will come back on, but in the case of a human-induced EMP, the power will most likely never go back on. Solar flares occur in naturally-occurring cycles, and the next large solar flare is to take place in 2013. Hopefully enemies of the United States don’t hit this country with an electromagnetic pulse then and play it off as a natural solar flare!


Don’t worry; the United States isn't the only country vulnerable to an EMP. Not many countries have seen it as a big threat, but many have used it as a threat. For example, Saddam Hussein told the U.S. government that if the United States bombed him, the U.S. could expect an electromagnetic pulse in the near future- after all, two or three could essentially shut down all of America. Al-Qaeda is currently trying to get the parts to create a nuclear weapon that could shoot as high as the atmosphere. Various reports have said that North Korea and/or Iran either have or are almost finished building an EMP. Treaties strictly control the testing of electromagnetic pulses and other nuclear weapons, but who says the United States’ enemies will listen to a piece of paper?

A newspaper headline after the Starfish Prime nuclear weapons testing.
A newspaper headline after the Starfish Prime nuclear weapons testing. | Source

Starfish Prime

The Starfish Prime nuclear testing included the testing of an electromagnetic pulse over Johnston Island in the mid-Pacific on July 8, 1962. The Soviet Union tested EMPs in the same year. Keep in mind- this was just a test, so it wasn’t a full-blown EMP. Not all electricity was blown out and where the electricity did stop, it was reported that it came back on after a while. Military electrical systems were damaged up to 800 miles away from the source of the test launch- an unheard of amount at the time. Now, science shows that the radius can be much, much larger. Eight satellites, six of which were owned and operated by the United States, were damaged beyond repair. Electromagnetic pulses are said to turn the sky to either a deep red, bright orange, or, by some accounts, lime green. Those who witnessed the Starfish Prime electromagnetic pulse testing at a short distance away reported a white flash in the sky, but no sound. There was no sound heard because the bomb detonated so high up in the atmosphere. Thankfully, there were no reports of severe injury after the test, but some people reported radiation-induced illnesses later in life.

Crime and Disease

Another terrible effect of an EMP would be the ever-increasing crime and disease rates. Since there would be no food after a short period of time, many people may turn to looting, and even though it is hard to think about, cannibalism. Because the tap water supply would soon run dry, people would drink polluted or otherwise contaminated water. This could lead to diseases most citizens have only heard about in “help the children in Africa” commercials. Some of the most concerning diseases would be things like salmonella, typhoid fever, hepatitis, cholera, not to mention worms, lice, and other body-borne illnesses, as well as bloated stomachs induced by edema and malnutrition. Think about this- what would doctors do without anesthesia or sterilized electronic medical instruments? The answer isn’t sugar-coated. Surgeries would be excruciatingly painful and difficult for doctors to perform. It will be like the Civil War, where more people died from disease than the fighting!

Death rates would greatly increase in the event of an electromagnetic pulse attack.
Death rates would greatly increase in the event of an electromagnetic pulse attack. | Source

Death Rates

The most devastating effect of an electromagnetic pulse attack is the sheer loss of life. Optimistic estimates say that around 250 million Americans will die. Other estimates, a little pessimistic, say that only 10% of the population will live. Those who live near a farm or other food source might have a bit higher survival ratio (maybe up to 50%, if they’re lucky) than those who live in a massively populated city, where there will be less food to go around. Nursing homes depend on electricity. Without life support and a constant delivery of medications, most of the tenants will pass away. Those with a pacemaker, which also depends on electricity, will be gone, literally a heartbeat after the attack. Suicide rates would soar and the mentally ill will just get crazier without their specialized medication. Drug addicts will either go through serious withdrawal or death. An EMP won’t directly kill anyone, but the effects sure will.

Golf courses may have to be used as graveyards in the event of an electromagnetic pulse.
Golf courses may have to be used as graveyards in the event of an electromagnetic pulse. | Source

Other Ideas

Some more things to ponder: how will pets get fed? After all, who can afford to feed their dog if they can’t even feed themselves? Dogs will either be let loose to fend for themselves, let starve, or possibly eaten. All meat will be gone within a short time unless someone is unbelievably lucky and lives by a massive livestock farm. Even those with the luck, though, won’t be able to feed their livestock unless they, say, stockpile grain in a silo. The reason cars will stop working is because of new-fangled electronic ignition; those with old methods of ignition will still work. However, these cars are few and far between. A city would be lucky to have two or three cars that work. Planes would stop for the same reason, but for the same reason, older planes might still work. As far as communication goes, there isn’t much. Some old tube radios and ham radios will probably work, but the success rate won’t be 100%. One very disturbing thing to think about is, where will all the corpses of the dead go? Smart town leaders would order golf courses as makeshift cemeteries because of the fertile and easy-to-dig ground.

A transistor.
A transistor. | Source

The Downside

There is a downside to preparing for electromagnetic pulses, and that is that it will cost upwards of two billion dollars. In order to protect something from an EMP the transistors and microelectronics must be “hardened”. The $2 billion only counts toward hardening major transistors, many smaller ones would remain unhardened. Another way people can protect their electronic valuables from an electromagnetic pulse is by constructing a Faraday cage. Faraday cages protect objects from electromagnetism, thus making them immune to EMP attacks. To prepare for an attack of this nature, towns should have at least one Faraday cage stuffed with multiple pairs of walkie-talkies, radios (both short-distance and long-range radios), TONS of batteries to power things like flashlights and radios, and an emergency generator so at least some electricity would be working. Sure, preparing for an electromagnetic pulse will be expensive, but aren’t 250 million lives worth more than $2 billion?

A Solution to Obesity?

There is one more reason that some exceedingly misinformed citizens may believe that the U.S. shouldn’t prepare for an electromagnetic pulse. Everybody knows of the USA’s climbing obesity rate. If there was no electricity, there would be no cars. No cars means no transportation that involves anything electronic. Fast food companies, like McDonalds and Burger King, depend on weekly, or sometimes daily, shipments of frozen food to prepare for their customers. Without cars, these shipments can’t be fulfilled. No fast food may sound like a way to make the heavy skinny, but think about this- many obese people have diabetes. Insulin is essential for the day-to-day survival of most diabetics. Insulin needs to be kept cold or it won’t be effective at all. So, if there was an EMP, overweight citizens would indeed be getting very skinny- in their graves.

In the end...

The threat of an electromagnetic pulse attack is an abominable issue because if such an attack was carried out, crime and disease rates would be through the roof and hundreds of millions will die. For these reasons, it is essential to the survival of America to prepare for such an attack. Sure, it might be expensive, but who cares? The government will have more than two billion dollars worth of damage to deal with if the country is attacked. Of course the obesity rates would decrease- but how could the government take an efficient census of this without any fast means of transportation? Any citizen who cares about their diabetic cousin, their grandfather with a pacemaker, or even their aunt who lives in a big city, needs to prepare for an electromagnetic pulse. An EMP means that the United States will plunge back to the Dark Ages. An unending blackout is simply too much for most Americans to deal with. Even the American Foreign Policy Council agrees- when it comes to an EMP, it’s not a matter of if; it’s a matter of when.

Works Cited

American Foreign Policy Council. "Defense Dossier." February 2012. American Foreign Policy Council. 19 April 2012. <>.

Emanuelson, Jerry. Future Science. n.d. 17 April 2012. <>.

Forstchen, William. One Second After. New York: Tom Doherty Associates, LLC, n.d.

—. One Second After Online. n.d. 18 April 2012. <>.

Schwartz, Stephen. "Nuclear Testing." 2012. World Book Student. 17 April 2012. <>.

I would recommend this book to anyone looking for more reading on EMPs.


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    • Conservative Lady profile image

      Sheila 4 years ago from Surprise Arizona - formerly resided in Washington State

      Scary stuff - something none of us wants to think about but it would be wise to prepare. Guess we could go back to living like it was the 1800's and start over. Interesting hub.

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