what is an emp

What is an EMP: Quick Guide to Understanding Electromagnetic Pulses

You might have heard the term thrown around in movies or books, but have you ever wondered what is an EMP? An electromagnetic pulse, or EMP, is a short burst of energy that can cause widespread damage to electronic devices and systems, leaving our technology-dependent world vulnerable. This might sound like a plot for a science-fiction movie, but it’s actually a very real phenomenon with potential consequences that you should be aware of.

1. What is an EMP?

To help you get a better grasp on this topic, let’s first break down the science behind an EMP. It typically originates from a significant release of electromagnetic energy like a nuclear explosion, solar flare, or even specialized EMP weapons. These energy bursts can travel through the atmosphere, generating a powerful electric field that can damage or even destroy electronic devices and systems within its range(1).

Now that you have a basic understanding of what an EMP is and how it functions, it’s crucial to explore how this phenomenon could impact our world. The effects of an EMP can range from minor inconveniences to catastrophic damage, depending on factors such as altitude and intensity of the pulse. As you can see, an EMP is not just a science-fiction plot device, but a real-world concern that deserves attention and preparation.

Key Takeaways:

  • An Electromagnetic Pulse (EMP) is a brief burst of electromagnetic energy damaging electronic devices and power grids.
  • EMPs can be naturally generated from solar flares and lightning, or man-made from nuclear or non-nuclear devices.
  • The impact of EMPs can range from temporary disruptions to complete electronic system failure.
  • Power grids and modern vehicles are particularly vulnerable to EMPs.
  • Notable EMP events include the 1859 Carrington Event, the 1962 Starfish Prime, and a 2018 incident in Hawaii.
  • Potential EMP threats include nuclear EMP attacks, cyberattacks, geomagnetic storms, and lightning strikes.
  • Protection against EMPs can involve Faraday cages, conductive materials, surge protectors, and securing electrical networks.
  • Recovery from an EMP event may range from hours to months. Planning should involve alternative power sources and sufficient food and water supplies.
  • Preventing EMP damage can involve protective measures for electronic devices, surge protection for appliances, and shielded spare components for vehicles.

Electromagnetic Pulse

An electromagnetic pulse (EMP) is a short burst of electromagnetic energy that can have a big impact on electronics. Imagine you’re using your computer, and suddenly everything goes black – that could be the effect of an EMP.

These pulses can cause voltage surges, damaging or destroying delicate electronic components in their path. That’s why it’s essential for you to know about them, especially if you rely heavily on electronics in your day-to-day life.

Sources of an EMP?

There are several sources of EMPs, both natural and man-made. Here are a few examples:

  • Solar flares: The sun can emit powerful bursts of energy called solar flares, which can generate EMPs. When these flares reach Earth, they can cause disruptions to your communication systems and power grids.
  • Nuclear explosions: When a nuclear weapon is detonated, it releases an enormous amount of electromagnetic energy, creating an EMP. This can be a devastating side effect, knocking out power and electronic systems over a large area.
  • Non-nuclear devices: There are also EMP generators made by humans that don’t involve nuclear reactions. These devices use high-voltage capacitors and various methods to create a powerful electromagnetic pulse.

So, as you can see, EMPs can be generated through multiple sources, and you should be aware of them to protect your electronics and maintain your daily life. Just remember to keep your critical devices shielded, and stay informed about the latest developments in EMP research!

what is an emp

2. EMP Effects and Impacts

Impact on Electronics

When an EMP event occurs, it can cause a lot of damage to your electronics. The sudden burst of an electromagnetic field can induce high voltage in metal conductors, producing damaging electric currents that can potentially destroy your devices. Your electronic equipment, such as computers and communication systems, are especially at risk(2).

You might experience temporary disruptions or even complete failure in your electronics, depending on the strength of the EMP. Small electronic devices, like smartphones and laptops, are also affected as they contain sensitive components vulnerable to the electromagnetic onslaught.

Impact on Power Grids

Power grids can face severe consequences due to EMP events. The high voltage created by the EMP can overload transformers and other electrical systems you rely on daily. This might result in widespread blackouts and long-lasting power outages that could take weeks or months to recover from.

Furthermore, failure in the power grid can cause cascading effects on other critical infrastructures, such as water supply, telecommunications, and transportation systems.

Vulnerability of Vehicles

Modern vehicles depend on many electronic systems for their operation. An EMP event can damage these systems, causing issues with engine control, navigation, and safety features.

Although some vehicles might still function, the electronic field generated by the EMP could cause various malfunctions in your car’s electrical systems. In extreme cases, your vehicle could become entirely inoperable.

blackout from emp

3. Types of EMPs and Their Causes

Natural EMPs

You might be surprised to learn that EMPs can occur naturally. In fact, some of the most powerful EMP sources are found right in your own backyard, or more specifically, up in the sky. Two notable natural EMP sources are the sun and lightning(3).

The sun constantly emits radiation called solar flares, which can affect our planet’s electromagnetic field. These solar flares may produce EMPs that can potentially cause minor disruptions in some electronic devices. Don’t worry, though – these occurrences are relatively rare.

Then there’s lightning, which creates a localized EMP when it strikes. If you’ve ever experienced a power outage or disrupted electronics due to a nearby lightning strike, you’ve seen the effects of a natural EMP firsthand.

Man-Made EMPs

Moving on to man-made EMPs, these are typically caused by the intentional or unintentional actions of humans. Some examples include:

  • Electromagnetic pulses from nuclear explosions: When a nuclear weapon is detonated, it releases a colossal amount of energy, with a portion of that energy in the form of an EMP. This EMP can cause extensive damage to electronic equipment over a wide area.
  • Non-nuclear EMPs, or NNEMPs: Various devices have been developed to generate EMPs without using nuclear weapons. These NNEMPs are often intended for use in military situations, with the goal of disrupting enemy communications or disabling electronic equipment.
  • Asset security systems: Some high-security facilities use EMP systems to protect sensitive assets. By generating small-scale EMPs, these systems can disable unauthorized electronic devices, ensuring information and locations stay safe.
  • Industrial accidents: While not as common, industrial accidents can cause EMPs due to large electrical discharges or explosions. Though the effects tend to be localized, proper safety measures should always be taken to avoid any issues.

Remember, the critical thing is to be aware of both natural and man-made EMPs, as well as the potential effects they can have on your electronics. By staying informed, you can better prepare and protect yourself and your devices from potential harm.

emp blackout night

4. Famous EMP Events

Carrington Event

In 1859, the Carrington Event was the first-ever recorded solar EMP event. Imagine a massive solar storm that caused telegraph systems to fail, sparked fires, and created auroras visible as far south as the Caribbean(4). That’s the Carrington Event for you. It’s a good reminder of the potential impact of solar flares on modern technology.

Starfish Prime

Fast forward to 1962, and you’ve got the Starfish Prime event. The US military tested a high-altitude nuclear explosion, which created an unexpected and massive EMP. The test was in the Pacific Ocean, but the effects were far-reaching. Electrical systems 900 miles away in Hawaii were severely damaged. Streetlights malfunctioned, phone lines went down, and radio stations were disrupted(5).

Hawaii EMP Incident

Speaking of Hawaii, there was another notable incident in 2018. A brief but powerful radio signal disrupted broadcast stations and GPS devices across the state. Though initially thought to be an EMP from a nearby solar flare, it was later discovered that the origin was a US Air Force base conducting an exercise. It still highlights the potential issues posed by EMPs and the necessity for preparedness(6).

Remember, EMP events can happen naturally or be man-made, and their impacts can range from mild to catastrophic. Staying aware and being prepared is crucial in today’s technology-dependent world.

5. Potential EMP Threats and Scenarios

Nuclear EMP Attacks

You may have heard about nuclear explosions causing EMPs. A high-altitude nuclear explosion can release a burst of electromagnetic radiation that could damage or destroy electronic devices over a wide area. This would be especially concerning if it happened over a densely populated area, as it could lead to widespread power outages, communication failures, and other disruptions in your daily life.

Cyberattacks Related to EMP

Cyberattacks can also cause EMP-like disruptions. While not a direct EMP attack, hackers may target critical infrastructure, like power grids and communication networks, to create similar effects. In this scenario, you might experience temporary power outages or a loss of connectivity, as these targeted systems struggle to cope with the attack.

Geomagnetic Storms

A natural threat to your electronics comes in the form of geomagnetic storms. These occur when solar flares or coronal mass ejections hurl charged particles towards Earth. When these particles interact with Earth’s magnetic field, they can create intense geomagnetic disturbances. You could notice disruptions in:

  • Satellite communications and GPS signals
  • Radio communications
  • Power transmission lines

These storms can be both short-lived or long-lasting, depending on the intensity of the event.

Lightning Strikes

One more common threat to your electronics is lightning strikes. During a storm, lightning may cause a transient electromagnetic disturbance or electrostatic discharge near the strike point. This can result in:

  • Damage to streetlights, power lines, or other infrastructure
  • Temporary outages and disruptions to utilities

While lightning strikes are typically localized and pose minimal danger to large areas, they can still cause considerable damage to your electronic devices if they are directly hit or affected by the resulting surge in electricity.

Be aware of these potential EMP threats and scenarios to better understand the risks they pose to your electronics and daily life. Stay informed and take precautions to protect your devices and prepare for any disruptions caused by these various events.

what is an emp

6. EMP Protection and Shielding

Faraday Cages

Faraday cages are an effective method to protect your electronic devices from EMPs. These cages work by enclosing your devices in a conductive metal mesh, such as copper or aluminum, that distributes the EMP around the cage without allowing it to penetrate inside. You can even create your own Faraday cage by lining a metal trash can or a wooden box wrapped with aluminum foil to provide a secure enclosure.

Conductive Paint and Materials

Another way to shield your home or office from EMPs is by using conductive paint and materials. Applying conductive paint on walls, ceilings, and floors can help block out electromagnetic fields. Additionally, using materials with electromagnetic shielding properties, like metal screens or glass with metal mesh embedded, can offer robust protection for windows and other openings.

Surge Protectors

Investing in surge protectors is essential for safeguarding your electronics and electrical networks from EMPs. These devices can help prevent voltage spikes and power surges caused by EMPs from damaging your equipment. Be sure to choose surge protectors that are specifically designed to handle EMP-induced surges, and install them on your power lines, transformers, and other critical parts of your electrical network.

Securing Electrical Networks

Finally, to secure electrical networks from EMPs, consider taking the following steps:

  • Inspect and reinforce power lines, transformers, and other critical components of your electrical infrastructure.
  • Implement redundancy in your power supply system, like having backup generators and batteries, to ensure continuity in case of an EMP event.
  • Work closely with your local government and utility providers to develop a coordinated response plan in the event of an EMP attack or solar flare.

Remember, protecting your home, electronics, and electrical networks from EMPs is crucial in today’s world. Implementing these strategies and staying informed will help to safeguard your assets from potential damage caused by electromagnetic pulses.

7. EMP Recovery and Preparation

Recovery Times and Strategies

When dealing with an EMP event, it’s important to plan for recovery. You’ll likely see regional blackouts, which can affect water supplies and other essential services. Recovery times will vary depending on the cause and the electric field strengths involved. In some cases, it may be a matter of hours or days, while in more severe situations, such as nuclear tests or coronal mass ejections, it could take weeks or even months.

To prepare, have a plan in place for alternative power sources, such as generators or solar panels. Make sure you have an ample supply of non-perishable food and water that can last for an extended period of time. It’s also a good idea to stock up on basic supplies like medications and first-aid items.

Preventing EMP Damage

There are steps you can take to lessen the impact of an EMP. First, be aware of the potential causes – electrostatic discharges, nuclear explosions, or even high-altitude EMPs from events like solar storms. The frequency ranges of these threats vary, but knowing what you’re up against can help you take proper precautions.

For electronic devices or magnetic media, consider using Faraday cages or other protective measures to shield against EMP damage. These measures can prevent data loss and limit the potential for electrical malfunctions(7). Some modern cars may be at risk due to their reliance on electronic systems – storing a spare ignition system or electronic components in a shielded container can help ensure you’re able to get your vehicle up and running after an event.

In your home, you may want to look into surge protection for key appliances, like your refrigerator, to prevent electrical damage or loss of perishable food items. But remember, nothing can guarantee complete protection from an EMP event. Still, by taking these steps, you can better prepare yourself and mitigate the potential impact on your life.


What would an EMP do to a human?

An EMP would not directly harm a human as it is a burst of electromagnetic energy, which doesn’t interact with the human body’s biological processes. However, the secondary effects of an EMP event, such as disruption of medical services, power outages, and failure of transportation systems, could have severe consequences for humans.

What does an EMP bomb do?

An EMP bomb is a weapon designed to create a large burst of electromagnetic radiation that can disrupt or destroy electronic systems and devices over a wide area. It can lead to wide-ranging impacts such as power outages, disrupted communications, damage to infrastructure, and potential loss of critical services.

Has an EMP ever been used?

No EMP has been used in a military conflict or warfare scenario. However, EMP-like effects have been observed during nuclear detonation tests, such as the Starfish Prime nuclear test conducted by the US in 1962.


1. Department of Homeland Security. “Electromagnetic Pulse (EMP)/Geomagnetic Disturbance | Homeland Security.” Www.dhs.gov, 28 Mar. 2023, www.dhs.gov/science-and-technology/electromagnetic-pulse-empgeomagnetic-disturbance.

2. Kopp, Carlo. The Electromagnetic Bomb -a Weapon of Electrical Mass Destruction. 1996. https://www.airuniversity.af.edu/Portals/10/ASPJ/journals/Chronicles/apjemp.pdf.

3. Main, Douglas. “Doomsday Fear: Could an EMP Throw World into Chaos?” Livescience.com, 13 Aug. 2013, www.livescience.com/38848-emp-solar-storm-danger.html.

4. NOAA. “What Was the Carrington Event? | NOAA SciJinks – All about Weather.” Scijinks.gov, 15 May 2023, scijinks.gov/what-was-the-carrington-event/.

5. Magazine, Smithsonian, and Gilbert King. “Going Nuclear over the Pacific.” Smithsonian Magazine, 15 Aug. 2012, www.smithsonianmag.com/history/going-nuclear-over-the-pacific-24428997/.

6. Wang, Amy. “Hawaii Missile Alert: How One Employee “Pushed the Wrong Button” and Caused a Wave of Panic.” Washington Post, 14 Jan. 2018, www.washingtonpost.com/news/post-nation/wp/2018/01/14/hawaii-missile-alert-how-one-employee-pushed-the-wrong-button-and-caused-a-wave-of-panic/.

7. Klucas, Gillian. ““Conductive Concrete” Shields Electronics from EMP Attack.” News.unl.edu, 16 Nov. 2016, news.unl.edu/newsrooms/today/article/conductive-concrete-shields-electronics-from-emp-attack/.