EMP – Planet-sized shotgun blasts of electronic destruction!

cmeHa, how’s that for a title?  Maybe a little over the top, but I think it works.  Our planet just missed getting slammed by a huge EMP, which would have accepted no excuses and could have caused some very real damage to us. These things are as real as tornadoes and earthquakes, and potentially much more dangerous. So please, read on.

EMP, or Electromagnetic Pulse, isn’t just the stuff of questionable sci-fi, and it’s not just something kooks and preppers gibber on about (and preppers, please take no offense. I don’t consider it gibbering, but it certainly seems that the mainstream media lumps most of what preppers say into the ‘gibber’ category).

An EMP is any brief pulse of electromagnetic energy. Miniscule ones can happen when you get a static shock and they can be triggered in your car’s electrical system when you turn the key. Fairly big, naturally-occurring ones are associated with lightning strikes, but these are relatively localized. They happen all the time, all around us, and generally are safely ignored.

So, the small, every-day kind of EMP is nothing to be concerned about. Large, dangerous, man-made EMPs, on the other hand, should be a matter of great concern, for those who are concerned at all.  Your garden-variety nuclear device, and its smarter, non-nuclear cousin the e-bomb [http://www.discovery.com/tv-shows/other-shows/videos/future-weapons-emp-bomb.htm] are the primary culprits here. Both, when detonated, create a powerful electromagnetic pulse that can cause catastrophic damage to unprotected electrical circuits.  I’m no electrical engineer, but what seems to be a fairly in-depth, detailed explanation of exactly what happens during an EMP can be found here

So as long as we can avoid nuclear confrontation with an enemy state, and keep nukes out of the hands of terrorists, we’re in the clear, right? Well, no, not quite. Something vastly larger than any earthly enemy is out there, fully capable of zapping our whole planet. That big bad scary thing is our sun.

Stars like our sun regularly have tremendously violent explosions of solar wind and magnetic fields that rise from their surface. These are called Coronal Mass Ejections,  or CMEs. These involve literally billions of tons of solar matter being blasted into space. Much of it falls back to the surface, and it’s not this material that is the concern. It’s the massive burst of magnetic force, a truly sun-sized EMP, that can cause real problems here on Earth. Space.com provides a good video of a huge solar flare that occurred in 2013.

Thankfully, not all CMEs are strong enough to cause us problems, and for a CME to really nail us, it has to be aimed pretty much straight at us. Relative to the size of the Earth, the sun is a very big sphere and the vast majority of its surface, measuring from the center straight out, isn’t inline with our planet. But there have a been a few times throughout history where we were squarely in the solar cross-hairs, including one quite recently, and there’s nothing other than chance keeping it from happening again.

In 1859 there was the Carrington Event, the first documented occurrence of a solar flare striking Earth, and one of the largest such events ever recorded. Society was pretty low-tech then, but the global communications grid as it existed, in all it’s telegraph-y glory, was knocked off-line. Telegraph operators received shocks, telegraph papers caught fire due to sparks, and telegraph equipment was destroyed.

In 1972, a large eruption knocked out long-distance phone service in parts of the United States. In 1989, millions of people in Canada lost power for several hours when a CME knocked out large portions of the power grid. In 2000, a solar EMP took out several satellites, leaving the communication channels they were parts of disrupted. In 2006 a major flare interrupted satellite-to-ground and GPS systems for around 10 minutes. All of these events were markedly smaller and less energetic than the 1859 blast.

Most recently, in July of 2012, a CME that was on the same scale as the Carrington Event occurred.  Thankfully, the sun’s aim was trailing us, but not by much. If this event had happened nine days earlier, Earth would have been directly in the line of fire, and many of our electrical systems would have taken a terrible beating. Put simply, given the state of our technological society, think computers. I don’t mean just desktops and laptops, I mean embedded systems, too. Here’s a short list, just off the top of my head, of things that would be affected, and most likely rendered wholly inoperable: Broadcast and cable tv, radio, the internet, cell phones, cars, planes, trains, electrical systems, and everything that has one or uses one.

It’s obvious, these things really happen, they really affect us, and they aren’t all that infrequent. Whether or not you choose to be prepared in any way should a catastrophic one strike during your lifetime is up to you. I’m not suggesting you live in dread for the rest of your days, instead, there are things you can do that might offer some benefit in the event of a dangerous man-made or naturally occurring EMP.

If an event transpires that leaves your car’s ignition baked, you’re away from home, and the situation is such that you could attempt to walk home, an intelligently stocked ‘get home’ bag would be very welcome. I keep one in my truck at all times. Among other things, I have a pair of good walking shoes packed. Walking many miles in tennis shoes is going to be much easier than trying to walk that distance in dress shoes. Along with the shoes, I have basic survival gear in my ‘get home’ bag: a small medical kit, extra clothes, a few very long shelf life food items, etc. If electrical systems are dead in vehicles and utilities, I’m going to say the work day is over, and I’m going to do everything I can to get home.

Contemplating any widespread, systemic breakdown should trigger consideration of having some degree of preparation in place. That, however, is a whole series of other posts. I encourage you to look into that for yourself, if you haven’t done so already.

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