by Steve on January 10, 2010

Electromagnetic Pulse (EMP for short) is a by-product of a nuclear blast.  In simple terms it’s a line-of-sight shock wave of energy capable of rendering non-hardened electronics absolutely useless.  Back in the Cold War days we were concerned about the radioactive fallout from a nuclear detonation and rightly so – nasty stuff as we learned from Hiroshima and Nagasaki.  A dirty bomb in the hands of a terrorist would certainly cause localized problems and is something we hopefully can avoid (the court costs to prosecute the suspects would be ridiculous).

Gratuitous slaps at our PC handling of accused terrorists aside, radiation poisoning is not to be taken lightly but a low altitude or ground level blast would devastate a relatively limited geographic area.  It would undoubtedly disrupt regional infrastructure.  However, given our modern-day dependence on computer-controlled systems, the real danger lies with a high altitude detonation.  The EMP from such a blast centered over the US could bring life as we know it to an immediate stand-still.  Power, water, food distribution, transportation, communication, medical – the list is endless.  This is the basic premise behind William Forstchen’s novel One Second After which I just finished reading.  Couldn’t put it down.  It’s a frightening scenario that multiplies ten-fold once you realize that urban/suburban America would not be able to sustain current population densities without these systems.

While One Second After is a work of fiction, the threat of an EMP attack is very real.  The National Defense Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 2001 established the Commission to Assess the Threat to the United States from Electromagnetic Pulse (EMP) Attack.

The EMP Commission consists of nine American scientists and together they produced a comprehensive report on the threat.  Unfortunately their work was overshadowed by the 9/11 commission’s report which was released on the same day.  Naturally the media focused on the proven threat and EMP got pushed in the closet.  The report is available online.

From Forstchen’s Afterword:

One of the EMP commissioners, Dr. Lowell Wood, a noted nuclear physicist involved with EMP weapons for three decades, characterizes an EMP event as a “continental time machine that would move us back to the nineteenth century.”  When questioned that the technology of a century ago would not support our present population, he unemotionally replied, “Yes, I know.  The population will shrink until it [can] be supported by the technology.”

From the commission’s report:

In 1900, 39 percent of the U.S. population (about 30 million people) lived on farms;today that percentage has plummeted to less than 2 percent (only about 4.5 million people). The United States no longer has a large labor force skilled in farming that could be mobilized in an emergency. The transformation of the United States from a nation of farmers to a nation in which less than 2 percent of the population is able to feed the other 98 percent is made possible only by technology. Crippling that technology would be injurious to the food infrastructure with its security depending on the characteristics of an EMP attack.

It makes you think.

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