Understanding the Real Threat of EMP Attacks

Imagine an invisible force capable of destroying every electrical device in its path, from smartphones and laptops to city power grids. This sounds like something straight out of a science fiction movie. But such a phenomenon is actually real; it’s known as an electromagnetic pulse (EMP) or transient electromagnetic disturbance (TED). And it can be weaponized to fry every electronic device within a blast radius hundreds of miles across. Let’s talk about EMP attacks and how you can protect your precious electronics against this threat.

What is an EMP?

An electromagnetic pulse is a sudden intense burst of high-energy electromagnetic radiation such as radio waves, microwaves, X-ray, or gamma rays caused by an abrupt surge or acceleration of electrically charged particles, usually electrons. The high-energy radiation can interfere with components that make up electrical devices and causing malfunctions or total failure.

The radiation’s frequency determines the kinds of electronics an EMP affects. High-frequency EMPs interfere with small devices (computers, appliances, phones, etc.), while low-frequency EMPs mess with large electrical infrastructures such as power grids. However, most EMPs pack a wide range of electromagnetic frequencies that’s capable of damaging every circuit they touch, both large and small.

An EMP propagates wirelessly from its source, similar to how light does. But unlike light, EMPs are invisible and carry way more energy. EMP attacks can occur naturally from weather and astronomical events or be deliberately triggered through artificial weapons.

Natural EMPs

Lightning strikes and solar radiation are the most common sources of natural EMPs. A lightning bolt is basically an electrical discharge in the magnitude of millions of volts, enough to send a destructive surge of charged particles to electrical wires and devices.

The sun's surface releases massive and intense bursts of energy known as solar flares from time to time. Most solar flares are accompanied by coronal mass ejections that spew huge clouds of charged particles into space. If such a flare points directly at the earth, the ejected particles can reach the planet in minutes and destroy electrical infrastructures and devices in what’s known as a geomagnetic storm. This has actually happened many times in the past. Here are three examples of well-documented geomagnetic storm incidents:

1. The Carrington Event of 1859 was the most powerful geomagnetic storm ever recorded. It destroyed major telegraph systems in Europe and North America and even set fire to electronics and shocked telegraph operators.

2. In 1989, a geomagnetic storm over Quebec left millions in the dark for 12 hours after tripping circuit breakers in the city’s grid system.

3. More recently, SpaceX lost 40 of 49 Starlink satellites to the indirect effects of a geomagnetic storm just a day after launch.

Also, distant astronomical bodies and events such as gamma-ray bursts, supernovas, and black holes shower space with high-energy cosmic rays. Unfortunately, some of these rays do find their way to earth, interact with molecules in the atmosphere, and rain high-energy charged particles to the ground. This radiation is not energetic enough to fry electronics, but it can cause unexpected computer glitches known as bit flips. For instance, a single bit flip was blamed for irregularities in Belgium’s 2003 polls.

Weaponized EMPs

EMPs can be weaponized to disable electrical grids and devices within a targeted geographical area. Artificial EMPs can be generated in two ways: nuclear blasts and non-explosive EMP weapons.

Data collected from high-altitude thermal nuclear tests in the 60s and recent studies show that a nuclear blast generates three distinct electromagnetic pulses: E1 lasting only one microsecond, E2 lasting about a second, and E3 lasting up to hundreds of seconds. Although the E1 pulse is the most powerful, E3 is the most devastating, mimicking the geomagnetic storms caused by coronal mass injections.

In 1962, The US conducted a high-altitude nuclear detonation test dabbed “Starfish Prime” 250 miles above the Johnston Atoll Island in the Northern Pacific Ocean. The Powerful EMP resulting from the blast wreaked havoc on Hawaii’s electrical infrastructure, some 900 hundred miles away.

Non-explosive EMP weapons such as Boeing’s Counter-electronics High Power Microwave Advanced Missile Project (CHAMP) have also proved their immense destructive capabilities in real-world attack scenarios.

Should you worry about EMP attacks?

The simple answer is “yes,” you should consider EMPs a likely danger to electrical systems. Even the US government acknowledges the possibility of an EMP attack as a country-wide security threat. In 2019, former President Donald Trump issued an Executive Order calling for the Department of Defense, Homeland Security, and other government agencies to coordinate national resilience to electromagnetic pulses.

Deliberate attacks aside, naturally occurring EMPs are even far more likely. Worse of all, natural EMPs from cosmic rays, solar flares, and lightning storms are indiscriminate and unpredictable.

We’ve seen how a single charged particle (a miniature EMP) can alter the results of a national election. Furthermore, numerous weapons' tests have clearly demonstrated the destructive power of malicious EMP attacks. More worryingly, these attacks can happen at any time without warning, making EMPs real and likely threats worth guarding against. 

How to safeguard against EMP attacks

Can you protect electrical devices from the invisible and powerful force of an EMP attack? You actually can, and it's surprisingly easy to do so too. As an individual, there's nothing you can do to stop an EMP from destroying the mains power grid. But you can protect all the electronics hooked up to the mains by installing sensitive surge and transient current cut-offs or suppressors.

Additionally, you can protect portable devices such as laptops, tablets, and smartphones while on the move by keeping them in a faraday bag. This is a bag designed to deflect and neutralize all incoming electromagnetic signals. It works the same way as a faraday cage, blocking electrical and magnetic interferences from leaking in or out of the bag.

OffGrid’s faraday bag is ideal for shielding precious devices from EMPs and unwanted RF signals such as Wi-Fi, GPS, and Bluetooth. Browse through our rich catalog of stylish, premium faraday bags elegantly designed for convenient and practical everyday use.