Everyone who gets involved in prepping starts out with a concern about something. There is a specific disaster they have in mind when they start. Whether that is a natural disaster that their region is known for, an economic collapse, or even something they’ve heard from one of the fear mongers who prowl the internet, there’s always some first concern that gets them to start looking into prepping.

But contrary to the image portrayed by programs like Doomsday Prepper, there are few experienced preppers who are only looking at one potential disaster. The more people learn about prepping, the more complete a picture they develop; a picture of the many different risks that we face each and every day.

The world we live in is a dangerous place and we all face multiple risks every day. The trick is in figuring out which are the more likely risks and which ones will have the greatest impact on our lives, should it occur. That’s what makes an EMP (electromagnetic pulse) such an important disaster to understand.

What is EMP?

When nuclear weapons were first developed by the Manhattan Project, during World War II, there was a huge amount of speculation by the scientists involved. While they knew that the bomb they were developing would produce an incredible amount of explosive power, they really didn’t know how much. Nor were they sure of all of the effects of a nuclear explosion. Studied guesses ranged everywhere from just a big boom to splitting the world in half.

When Trinity, the first nuclear bomb test was conducted, a massive amount of instrumentation was on hand. Since they weren’t sure what the bomb would do, the assembled scientists wanted to be sure that they recorded all the effects of the bomb. So, they gathered every sort of instrumentation they could find, to record this historic event.

One of the surprising things that instrumentation recorded was the first man-made electromagnetic pulse. More of a curiosity than anything else, the scientists noted that some of the bomb’s energy left as pure electromagnetic energy, not as radiation, light, heat or as part of the shock wave.

Many years later (1962), the first nuclear test specifically aimed at understanding the potential effect of EMP was conducted over the North Pacific Ocean. This test, named Starfish Prime, was conducted at an altitude of 250 miles, 900 miles west-southwest of Hawaii.

Amongst the various effects of that explosion, numerous traffic lights in Hawaii were destroyed, as well as a microwave telephone relay station. The results of the test had been much greater than expected, due to what we now know as the Compton Effect. The only reason that the results were as limited as they were, was that in 1962 most of our electronics were still tube-based; transistors were still new.

In essence, when a nuclear explosion happens outside of the Earth’s atmosphere, almost all of its energy is converted into electromagnetic energy, rather than heat and blast energy. As that energy radiates away from the explosion, some of it enters the Earth’s atmosphere, where it strips electrons off of atoms in the upper atmosphere, essentially magnifying the effects of the explosion.

Were such an explosion to happen today, the effects would be much greater. Our modern electronics not only use lots of transistors, but we have miniaturized the transistor and made arrays of them into integrated circuits used high-tech electronic devices. These highly efficient electronic devices use a much lower voltage and current than the tube-based electronics used in the 1960s. This makes them considerably more sensitive to EMP.

Results of EMP in the Modern World

Were a nuclear device to be detonated 300 miles over central Kansas today, the resulting EMP would hit every electronic device within a visible line of sight. That would include all of the continental United States, except the eastern part of Maine. Only Alaska and Hawaii would go unscathed. In addition to destroying electronics in the USA, the majority of the population centers in Canada and the northern two-thirds of Mexico would be equally devastated.

What this means is that the vast majority of our electronic devices would be instantly destroyed. The computer that you are reading this article on would become a worthless piece of junk. The internet would cease to exist, as well as all the millions of transactions that cross the internet daily, making business in the modern world possible.

Worse than that, our electrical power grid would be destroyed. All of our electric power plants are computer controlled. Those computers would suffer the same fate as the rest of our electronics, becoming utterly useless. There is some controversy over whether nuclear power plants would be able to automatically perform their shutdown routines, as the information on how they operate is about as highly guarded as nuclear codes. If they didn’t shut down, it would be Chernobyl times 99.

But the power plants would not be the only part of the grid that would be affected. There are literally thousands of electrical substations as part of the grid. Each of these contains massive custom transformers which would be severely damaged or even destroyed by the pulse, shutting down the ability to transmit the power that the power plants produce to the end users.

Those transformers are all custom built and there are only seven manufacturers in the world that produce them. Average order time is a year. But even if they could get them ordered quickly, there just isn’t enough manufacturing capacity to fulfill those orders fast enough. The United States would be without electricity.

You might ask why our government hasn’t done anything about this. There are two reasons. One is that politicians tend to worry about things that are visible, this is not. No politician is going to be able to run for reelection on the strength of having protected the grid from EMP. Then there’s the second reason, which is money. To protect the grid from an EMP would cost over a trillion dollars.

So, should one of our enemies decide to lob a nuclear missile our way, fused to create an EMP, it would be the end of electrical power as we know it.

Is This a Real Risk?

There are currently nine countries in the world who own nuclear weapons, with a tenth (Iran) working hard to join that exclusive club. Of those ten countries, two, Iran and North Korea, have expressed intent to launch a nuclear missile at the USA. Iran can’t yet because they don’t have nuclear weapons and North Korea can’t yet because they don’t have a reliable missile.

But that’s not to say that those two enemies won’t be able to launch a nuclear strike or EMP strike against the United States next year. Both countries are hard at work in both their nuclear arms development and their missile development. So it’s only a matter of time until they have the capability. The question is, will they launch?

As it looks right now, the leadership of both countries would be willing to launch a nuclear strike against the United States. While that might change, we can’t count on it. Nor can we count on our government successfully stopping them. To do so, would probably require a preemptive strike, something that the United States government is historically unlikely to do. If either of those countries decides to hit us and uses normal security precautions to prevent our government from finding out, they will probably succeed.

What happens after EMP?

Should an EMP attack be successful against the United States mainland, we would be without electricity for probably the rest of our lives. Other than people who have some electric power generation in their homes and locally produced power generation after the attack, the country would go dark. Everything we depend on that uses electricity, would be unavailable to us.

What that means in the real world is that there would be no gas stations pumping gas, no stores selling goods, no water when we turn on the tap and no heating or air conditioning in our homes. It wouldn’t take long for the sanitary sewers to overrun and there would be nobody you could call to solve any of these problems.

According to the report by the EMP Commission, somewhere between 60 and 90 percent of the US population would die in the first 12 months after an EMP attack. People in the larger cities would have it worse, while smaller communities would probably pull together to help each other out. Ultimately, life as we know it would end and those of us who survived would need to rebuild our lives, our world and our nation as best we could.

Can this happen? Yes, it definitely can. That’s why this is the worst potential disaster we could face. It would be the end of the United States of America, as we know her today.