02 April 2011

North Korea Pursues the "Easy Apocalypse": EMP

The North is believed to be nearing completion of an electromagnetic pulse bomb that, if exploded 25 miles above ground would cause irreversible damage to electrical and electronic devices such as mobile phones, computers, radio and radar, experts say. _abcnews
A specialised EMP nuclear burst high above the atmosphere, could knock out continental-sized power grids. Much of the entire continental US and parts of Canada and Mexico could be temporarily sent to the dark ages with a single EMP-customised nuclear device detonated in orbit.
Given the heavy dependency of modern societies on electric power, it has been estimated that long-term loss of electric power over a wide area could result in loss of up to 90% of pre-event population. Such a high mortality rate could occur due to a combination of long-term basic infrastructure breakdown combined with the inability to bring significant aid into the area from the outside.

Both the US and the USSR conducted experiments to determine the effects of EMP from high altitude nuclear detonations:
A few hours after the sun rose in Kazakhstan on [a] cloudy October morning, the Soviet Union detonated a 300 kiloton thermonuclear warhead in space at an altitude of 290 kilometers (about 180 miles) over a point just west of the city of Zhezkazgan in central Kazakhstan. The test was generally known only as Test 184 (although some Soviet documents refer to it as K-3). It knocked out a major 1000-kilometer (600-mile) underground power line running from Astana (then called Aqmola), the capital city of Kazakhstan, to the city of Almaty. Several fires were reported. In the city of Karagandy, the EMP started a fire in the city's electrical power plant, which was connected to the long underground power line.

The EMP also knocked out a major 570 kilometer long overhead telephone line by inducing currents of 1500 to 3400 amperes in the line. (The line was separated into several sub-lines connected by repeater stations.) There were numerous gas-filled overvoltage protectors and fuses along the telephone line. All of the overvoltage protectors fired, and all of the fuses on the line were blown. The EMP damaged radios at 600 kilometers (360 miles) from the test and knocked out a radar 1000 kilometers (600 miles) from the detonation. Some military diesel generators were also damaged. The repeated damage to diesel generators from the E1 component of the pulse after the series high-altitude tests was the most surprising aspect of the damage for the Soviet scientists. _FutureScience
And those effects in Kazakhstan resulted from the detonation of a bomb not particularly efficient at producing EMPs. A custom-designed EMP nuke would have done a far more thorough and devastating job of it.

It is not a question of "if," but of "when" and "where" such an attack will occur. If it occurs over a modern nation which has not prepared for it, the loss of life is likely to be severe. In addition, the target nation would temporarily lose its ability to operate effectively, internationally. The widely dispersed nature of the US military suggests that that country would maintain significant retaliatory capacity, but the civilian infrastructure would require massive immediate aid and a lengthy re-building of destroyed infrastructure. During that time of re-building, it is likely that many millions (or tens of millions) of people would die from a wide range of causes linked ultimately to the attack. If you have not been paying attention, you would be amazed how quickly civilisation can unravel in the absence of a strong order-keeping entity.

Good introductory article on EMP from FutureScience

Wikipedia entry on EMP

Federation of American Scientists article on EMP

EMPact America EMP resource

"One Second After" website for novel based on EMP attack over most of US, and subsequent aftermath

If the damage to the electrical infrastructure from a coordinated EMP attack were widespread enough, restoration of widespread grid power could take years. Over that time period, many large cities would likely revert to barbarism without overwhelming military presence. With hundreds of cities involved, it is unlikely that the US military could preserve order in more than a few.

That is why any hint at development of EMP weapons by North Korea, Iran, Venezuela, etc. must be taken seriously. While it is true that any nation launching an obvious EMP attack against the US would probably be obliterated by retaliation, it is possible to launch a satellite containing an EMP weapon -- but with a different primary use. Such a "sleeper" satellite could orbit for years until it was felt strategically opportune, by its owner, to detonate it. By the time a case could be made against the true culprit, the US (or Europe etc) may no longer be functioning as a viable civilised society.

As you can imagine, preppers and survivalists have taken an interest in the EMP phenomenon, with an emphasis on how to prepare to survive such a widespread disaster. Here is one PDF essay on that topic from Prepper.info

You will need to use your imagination here. What would happen to your neighborhood, community, town, city, etc. if it were to lose power for several months, without significant outside assistance? How long would it take for the stores to run out of food and supplies, or for the fueling stations to run out of fuel? How would you feed yourself and your family, if civil disorder set in -- preventing a cooperative community effort to share resources?

Such weapons may be in orbit overhead, even now, waiting for a designated time to inflict chaos on a targeted continent. What should you do?

Taken from an article at Al Fin, The Next Level

More 7 April 2011: The threat of cyber warfare is much broader, and successful attacks are much more deniable and difficult to prove. Cyber attacks can target power grids -- especially "smart" grids -- and every other piece of critical infrastructure including water systems, phone and other telecom, and much more.

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Blogger Loren said...

Non-nuclear EMP weapons are purely localized threats. For a HEMP, you have to have a nuke, preferably a big thermonuke.

I know a few people who've done work with nuclear weapons stuff, and the general conclusion is that a N. Korean HEMP is pretty much impossible unless someone gives them some significant help(not as hard to imagine as you might think), mostly with a missile capable of getting a big enough device to the high altitude needed.

There's also debate over whether a HEMP would affect isolated devices. Things like cell phones have been designed to protect themselves against a fair amount of EM interference--power transformers are also supposed to be protected against solar flares, and any HEMP would have to overcome this protection as well.

Saturday, 02 April, 2011  
Blogger Benjamin Cole said...

What a cheery topic.

Saturday, 02 April, 2011  
Blogger al fin said...

Loren: Good points. Cell phones are of limited use without the network, however. Iran, North Korea, and presumably Syria and Venezuela are all receiving under-the-table help from their more powerful and accomplished friends.

Both North Korea's and Iran's leaderships have more than a bit of apocalypse infusing their rhetoric and posturing. They are both developing improved missile systems. Intercontinental ballistic and orbital launches are the goal.

Benjamin: Here's a cheery thought -- "Life is hard, and then you die."

It was once true for almost everyone on Earth, and could be so again if we fall asleep on guard duty.

Sunday, 03 April, 2011  
Blogger ee_ga said...

Well the government knows about the EMP threat yet the politicians are spending tax dollars on everything but preparing for and defending against it. We have known about this threat since the 50s, yet nothing has been done. Its not like I, as an individual citizen, can prepare the society of which I am a part for such a calamity.

Monday, 04 April, 2011  
Blogger al fin said...

ee_ga: Very true, and it is good that you know your limitations.

But just because one cannot do everything, does this mean that one should not do anything?

Rather than trying to change the world or an entire society, one should focus upon his own future and the futures of his family and loved ones.

Recovery from disasters is always faster if nuclei of competence are plentiful across the disaster area. Try to be at the center of a nucleus of competence.

Tuesday, 05 April, 2011  

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“During times of universal deceit, telling the truth becomes a revolutionary act” _George Orwell

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