EMP Attack Threat: Mostly Nonsense to Sell Stuff to Preppers


One of the things you learn when you start following the blogs and Twitter feeds of actual, real-world arms-control-policy-types is that the threat of an EMP attack is mostly nonsense. Like the impending “dollar collapse” that has been used to fleece preppers since the 70s, the looming EMP attack serves mainly as a way to drum up traffic and YouTube channel subs, and sell books.

So what’s wrong with the standard EMP threat scenario, in which a bad actor lobs a nuke into the sky above North America and takes out all of our electronics? Well, for starters, everything.

As international studies scholar and Center for Naval Analysis scientist Joshual Pollock recently pointed out in this Twitter thread, an EMP attack is, by definition, a nuclear attack. Like, it literally involves nuking a country. And because it’s a nuclear attack that involves nukes mounted on an ICBM, our response would be to send a whole volley of nukes back at whoever attacked us.

In other words, every time you see the words “EMP attack,” you should substitute “nuclear war,” because those two are the exact same thing.

There is no timeline in which someone explodes a nuke in the sky above North America, and we don’t promptly glass their entire country, possibly kicking off a wider nuclear war and definitely resulting in tremendous environmental damage.

My point here is that prepping for “the EMP threat” equals prepping for nuclear war — iodine pills, a bunker, the whole nine yards. This is contrary to the common prepper understanding that EMP preps and solar flare preps are the same — they aren’t. An EMP and a solar flare are not the same category of threat — that’s what they’re sold as, but that’s wrong. Solar flare preps are what most EMP preppers actually have, but genuine “EMP preps” are, in fact, nuclear preps.

Even a solar flare probably isn’t nearly as bad as you thought

So now that we’ve established that an EMP attack equals nuclear war, what about the solar flare threat? Yeah, it’s bad and would probably knock out the grid for an extended period of time, and people would die. But William Forstchen’s vision of a world without modern (post-microchip) cars and electronics from One Second After is bunk.

Arms control wonk Jeffrey Lewis has been writing about the EMP threat inflation industry for some time, and his biggest knock against it is the way it exaggerates threats to electronics in general and cars in specific.

First, I know the relevant statistics for EMP effects on automobiles – when the EMP commission performed the same stunt, only 3 of the 37 automobiles died – and all three restarted. (One of 18 trucks did need a tow.) Just based on that sample alone, it would seem very unlikely that the Future Wars producers struck paydirt with a single EMP simulation that killed their rental. Then there is the awkward fact that the electronic windows and dash displays still worked.

An internet commenter once tried to rebut Lewis’s assertions that most cars would be fine after an EMP pulse by citing an episode of the TV show Future Weapons, in which the show’s host appears to drive a car through an EMP simulator and it stalls out and dies.

Lewis took a look at the episode in question, and immediately knew the scene had been faked; there was no way the notoriously risk-averse military would’ve given access to a civilian TV show host and allowed him to drive a car through an active EMP simulator. So, he called up White Sands Missile Range, where the episode had been shot, and confirmed that the guy had not driven a car through the simulator.

Although the 2007 episode of Future Weapons appears to show an individual driving a vehicle through the Horizontally Polarized Dipole II Simulator at the White Sands Missile Range EMP facility during an active EMP simulation, the shot in fact was staged.

There was no one inside the vehicle. WSMR EMP experts confirmed to the official that individuals are not allowed to be exposed to the EMP simulator while it is active. WSMR apologizes that the show represented the shot as such.

Additionally, the official explained that because ordinary fuel is flammable, vehicles cannot go through the simulator without first mixing an additive to the fuel (usually argon), which was not possible for the vehicle used during filming.

In other words, this scene was typical of the entire EMP threat inflation industry: it was fake and meant to freak people out.

But what about the grid?

So, cars and electronics would still work after a Carrington-class solar flare, which is awesome. But if the grid goes down for an extended period, as is likely, wouldn’t it still be The Apocalypse?

This, too, is unclear. The widely-cited Lloyds report on solar storm risks (PDF here) estimates that parts of the grid could go down from a few months to a few years, but the salient word here is “parts.” The Lloyds simulations don’t result in anything like a total grid-down scenario, even for a Carrington-class storm — just large pockets of long-term outages mostly clustered along the Atlantic coast in high-population areas.

So while such an event would be highly disruptive and do trillions of dollars in damage to the global economy, it wouldn’t be Mad Max. Most of the country would still have power, and everyone’s iPhones would still be able to connect to the still-existing Internet. We’d all be following the aftermath on Facebook, no doubt.

Ultimately, if you were hoping that a giant electromagnetic pulse, whether from the sun or a North Korean nuke, would bring about a complete inversion of the social order, wiping the slate clean and elevating the prepared few over the fat and lazy many, keep dreaming. Any existing inequalities would probably be exacerbated rather than eliminated by such an event. The better-off would have the resources to pack up and move to a location with a working power grid, and the poor would be left scrambling for FEMA handouts and dying of dysentery, Oregon-Trail-style.

Furthermore, far from descending in to a Hobbsean war of all against all, citizens in the majority of the country that still has working infrastructure will reach out helping hands to the refugees, and your social media feed would be filled daily with stories of incredible acts of kindness and charity. As Rebecca Solint’s book A Paradise Built In Hell describes, a disaster like this often brings out the very best in humanity, not the worst.

Sorry, but there would be no Negan in post-solar-flare America.

Okay now that I’ve ruined your week, feel free to flame away in the comments.

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