It could happen in mere seconds. A nuclear device detonates high above the earth’s surface and … silence. Lights that normally illuminate buildings shut off instantly. Electricity and anything else you can think of that is powered by electrical systems and microcircuits no longer functions. If you seek news for what’s going on, you won’t find it on television, because the signal is not working. Phone networks and the Internet are out of service, as well.
People panic, wondering what is happening. They don’t know that a high-altitude electromagnetic pulse (HEMP) hit the United States. They don’t understand what lies ahead.
WHAT IS A HEMP?
When you think of “HEMP,” it’s important to understand this form of nuclear attack causes mass destruction without directly harming people—at least, not right away. The result of the detonation of a nuclear device high in the atmosphere and then amplified by the ionosphere, a HEMP is an electromagnetic energy field that covers the line of sight below detonation. It will damage electronic equipment and electrical systems over an expansive area. This can result in a cascade failure of the power grid, water treatment centers, gas refineries, and transportation and communications systems.
In a report titled Nuclear Weapons EMP Effects, The Federation of American Scientists noted that under the correct conditions (related to both the type of device and the altitude at which it is detonated), a nuclear explosion over Kansas could affect the entire continental United States. Wires and other metallic conductors, overhead power lines and more could serve as antennas to conduct the energy shockwave into the electronic systems of communications equipment, cars and airplanes. In fact, in 1962, the United States conducted a HEMP test over the Pacific Ocean that caused disruption to radio stations and electronic equipment 800 miles away in parts of Hawaii.
HOW IT WORKS
According to a report for Congress, High Altitude Electromagnetic Pulse (HEMP) and High Power Microwave (HPM) Devices: Threat Assessments, a HEMP-inducing nuclear explosion causes three “energy components” that produce different effects that can together damage electronic equipment. First comes the shockwave, which lasts only 1 microsecond. This first energy component is comparable to extreme static electricity. It can overload the circuitry to electronic devices within the detonation’s line of sight.
The second energy component, which is comparable to a lightning strike, follows. Alone, this second pulse might not damage infrastructure that has already taken protective measures against lighting strikes. However, because the first energy component strike is so intense and quick, it can possibly destroy those protections and thus allow the second energy component to be more destructive, according to the congressional report, which was last updated in 2008.
The final energy component is a “magnetohydrodynamic” signal that can last from 1 microsecond to many seconds and damages long lines of electronic equipment. Within the component are two parts, referred to as “blast” and “heave,” according to the report.
When the expanding and conductive fireball warps the earth’s magnetic field lines, a blast occurs. Next, the heating and ionization of a piece of atmosphere below the fireball rises and distorts the earth’s magnetic field, causing the heave.
The fireball continues to expand. On the ground, a “localized magnetic effect” builds before it quickly collapses, causing another “power surge” that can overload electrical equipment connected to the power grid and telecommunications infrastructure. This can spread more damage through connected communications systems and long-lines power, the report says. (Smaller, isolated systems aren’t disrupted as much by the third energy component but are still damaged by the first energy component.) This third energy component depends on the nuclear detonation’s total energy and might not occur with smaller nuclear weapons.
WHAT ARE THE EFFECTS OF A HEMP?
If someone wants to strike the United States with a HEMP at tack, let’s assume they do so with a strong enough device at a high enough altitude to wipe out the entire country’s power grid. Although this will not cause immediate harm to humans, the explosion will disrupt most (but not necessarily all) electronic devices and equipment. Anything connected to the power grid during the burst will likely be rendered useless. This means electricity and electronic communications will likely no longer function.
In addition, anything that operates using computer chips—from small electronic devices to modern vehicles—might be damaged. Although it’s possible that some electronic devices or carriers will not be destroyed, the disruption will be widespread, particularly because electronic infrastructures are interdependent.
WHAT THAT WILL MEAN
Phone networks will not work. Even if your cell phone turns on, you will not be able to reach anyone. It will be difficult to find people who aren’t in your immediate vicinity without phones to communicate. And, if modern vehicles that run using electronic ignition and control systems are blocking the roads, it will be difficult to travel to look for people (not to mention dangerous. But more on that later).
If the country is hit by a widespread HEMP attack (and order is not immediately restored), everything in our day-today lives will change.
Many people tend to have only a few days’ or weeks’ worth of food and water in their homes. Initially, people might take what they can from grocery stores, but anything that needs to be refrigerated will not be edible for long. Canned and nonperishable food items will be snatched up quickly.
Gasoline, kerosene and everything else made from crude oil comes from an oil refinery, which needs electricity to do the job. Without gas, delivery trucks cannot bring food to grocery stores (that is, if the trucks aren’t already useless because their electronic parts are damaged). Farmers might be able to keep cultivating crops, but they won’t have a way to get them to customers.
Trucks, trains and other transportation, for the most part, won’t work or will not be available. The same goes for water and water supplies. Although the planet has an abundance of water, the supplies you use to get water from sources and what you use to treat it to make it safe to drink are limited. And people might not be willing to share. Expect to see many people die from starvation and dehydration.
People who use medicine (such as insulin) that needs to be kept cool will need to find other places to store it, rather than in refrigerators. Those who need medicine or constant care from a doctor or depend on medical devices to live will die quickly. This is even before accounting for the lack of sanitation, which will cause diseases to spread.
It is possible hospitals will become FEMA-like camps. If so, if a sick person can get to one, it’s possible he or she will get the help needed to survive. But chances are that many people will not.
Banks will shut down without their electronic records. Cash will quickly become a thing of the past. People will have to resort to bartering goods and services. Many people who have found success through enterprise, opportunity or whatever other advantages afforded in modern living will find their skills, for the most part, useless in this new, 19th century-like world. Those who keep their wits about them might be able to survive—at least, for a while.
Once mass starvation and the spread of disease become prevalent, life, as we know it, will change. And when that happens, people will change; some might do anything to survive. If you have food, water, medicine or weapons to protect these items, consider yourself a target for theft (or worse). People who want what you have might try to kill you.
LIVING IN A NEW WORLD
If a HEMP attack took place, as more and more systems and modern facets of living became obsolete over time, life could revert to what it was like for people living in the 1700s and 1800s. The lives of people back then looked much different from what civilization is like now.
The first priority for life post-HEMP attack will include finding water, if you do not already retrieve it from a well or other source. If you have to get your own water, retrieving and transporting the many gallons of water everyone in your household uses daily will take time and energy. As things stand now, the average person uses about 80 to 100 gallons of water each day, according to the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS). Much of that comes from flushing toilets and taking showers and baths. So, without toilets and showers, water use might be less—but it’s still going to be a lot.
Groundwater from wells is typically filtered through rocks, according to the USGS, so it may not have pathogens in it, but it could still contain chemicals. Surface-water sources such as rivers, lakes and reservoirs also contain water that needs to be filtered. So, in addition to boiling water, it will be a good idea to get your hands on a water purifier if you don’t already have one.
In this new world, you will not have grocery stores, and you will not be able to depend on farmers far away, because they will have no way to easily transport their food. People will have to farm for themselves or hunt and gather, unless and until someone who is able to do so effectively sets up a shop (more on that later).
Aside from nuts and plants, food will perish quickly without refrigeration, unless you learn the proper ways to prepare food for longer storage. Aside from not being able to shower, you will also eventually have to forgo hygiene products such as shampoos, deodorants and more. And without running water, getting rid of human waste will become necessary. Many diseases can be spread if feces or urine contaminate the water. Animals and animal waste can also contaminate it. Without regular means of sanitation and medicine, diseases will most likely spread.
Finding a doctor near enough to help quickly will be problematic. However, say you do find someone with medical expertise, such as a doctor or nurse. That person will need to depend on whatever might be available, such as medicinal plants or old-world medical treatments. You may need to give this person an incentive for this. Without money, that will mean trading goods and services.
Enterprising people will likely set up shops and farmers’ markets. People could get by living as rural farmers did in the 18th century. Textile factories and other businesses thrived in those times—and could again after a HEMP occurs.
Before electricity, other technology was used for transportation—such as steam locomotives, which derive power from a steam engine that runs off coal and water. Steam carriages and other vehicles of the sort could become sources of transportation again; or people might travel by horses and horse carriages.
But don’t forget: Whatever you have that other people want is something that causes risk, because it could be taken from you … violently. Whatever the government’s plans are to protect against a HEMP’s damaging consequences and restore order might not be effective. So, in this new world, you cannot count on anyone else to protect you or your family.
A HEMP attack might not kill people immediately but, if carried out, it could result in widespread death in the United States. People who are dependent on modern medicines and doctors, as well as those who are unable to get water and feed themselves, keep warm or cool, and protect their families from thieves and murderers could lose everything.
Many countries have access to nuclear weapons that could make this scenario a reality. So, if this occurs, there are some serious questions you need to ask yourself: If a HEMP attack occurs, will I know what to do? Am I ready for the world that will follow? Do I have what it will take to survive?
If you don’t know the answers to these questions, the answers are all probably “No.” It’s time to start getting prepared.
Editors Note: A version of this article first appeared in the March 2016 print issue of American Survival Guide.
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