Is an EMP Attack a National Threat? Govt. Report and Newt Gingrich Say Yes

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Starfish Prime, a high-altitude nuclear test conducted in 1962. Image courtesy of the US Congress EMP report in 2004

Imagine all electrical systems in our country ceasing to operate in a blink of an eye. If that happens, Americans must learn to live without their computers; no facebook and cell phones, so no long conversations with friends. But far worse than this would be the loss of power, aircraft falling from the sky, and cars instantly stopping on the freeways.

Sound like a horror flick?

The real horror is that this is no joke, and could actually happen. In a recent Republican presidential debate, former Speaker of the House, Newt Gingrich, stated that this possibility was a national threat and could destroy our total infrastructure. What was Newt talking about? The threat is called electromagnetic pulse (EMP) and is real – so real that a rogue country with a nuclear bomb could threaten our way of life and send America back to the dark ages.

The Chemistry of ElectroMagnetic Pulse, EMP

Imagine a nuclear bomb exploding 200 miles above you. An EMP is generated from that nuclear explosion. Many things influence the potential impact of the bomb blast, such as how high, how big, and the magnetic field in the area, but the principle is the same. When the bomb explodes, gamma rays are produced through fission, and sent hurling towards the earth. This first pulse, the fastest component of a nuclear EMP, is called E1.

The gamma radiation knocks electrons out of atoms in the higher atmosphere, which then begin to travel downwards. The Earth’s  magnetic field acts on the charged particles and produces an electromagnetic pulse which travels at the speed of light towards the Earth. For each initial gamma ray reaction, the cascading effect produces roughly 30,000 electrons. All this takes place within a fraction of a billionth to a few billionths of a second. And, it all happens simultaneously.

The second phase of the explosion is called E2. Both high-energy scattered gamma rays and secondary gamma rays, previous reactions with the nuclei of air molecules, are produced from the bomb blast and react as well. This pulse happens after the E1 pulse finishes, and could last for a duration up to 1 full second. This pulse is similar to lightning, and is considered as intermediate.

The last component, E3, is produced differently from the first two. Slow, lasting up to a thousand seconds or longer, it is low frequency, 1 hertz or less. Caused by complex reactions with the earth’s magnetic field, it is most like a natural geomagnetic storm caused by a severe solar flare.

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