Monday, April 30, 2012

Electromagnetic Pulse(EMP)/Solar Flare Review Spectacular

For those who have missed our earlier reviews, a summary can be found here.  As far as I know, nobody got sick during Pandemic Week, so I feel safer continuing our themed reviews. 

The EMP (Electromagnetic Pulse) apocalypse-in-progress novel is a relatively new phenomena.  The earliest popular novel associated with the effect is Streiber and Kunetka's Warday back in 1984.  A solar flare is a very similar phenomena, that is generated by the energy from a flare erupting from the sun.   Its effects are generally modeled after the the Solar Storm of 1859.

To simplify greatly, an electromagnetic pulse is a high energy (microwave, or otherwise) burst that is known to be variously disruptive to electronic devices and electrical systems.  We know that they work on a relatively small scale with various EMP-cannon, and EMP-bombs being used to disrupt electrical systems.  But note, these tactical weapons are as large or larger than the conventional devices they replace, and are not generally more effective, they are just less lethal.

The real harum scarum discussion starts with the use of a nuclear weapon set off high in the atmosphere to wipe out the electronic devices and electrical utility systems on a continental scale.

Note that not everyone buys into this scenario, and the detractor’s math is more precise than the proponents hypothesis.  The argument is not that pulse is not created, but that negative feedback loops greatly limit its area of effect.

Mario Rabinowitz, Electric Power Research Institute

From the abstract:
This paper primarily considers the potential effects of a single high-altitude nuclear burst on the U.S. power grid. A comparison is made between EMP and natural phenomena such as lightning. This paper concludes that EMP is no more harmful to the power grid than its counterparts in nature. An upper limit of the electric field of the very fast, high-amplitude EMP is derived from first principles.

The resulting values are significantly lower than the commonly presented values. Additional calculations show that the ionization produced by a nuclear burst severely attenuates the EMP.
From the conclusion:
Based upon the analyses presented in this paper and in Refs. [7-8], it appears highly improbable, if not impossible that the EMP from a single nuclear burst could blackout this nation's power grid. It would be practically impossible for the EMP to cause widespread damage to the U.S. transmission line system. With the exception of isolated cases, it appears highly unlikely that EMP could produce extensive damage to the U.S. distribution grid. A single nuclear device exploded at high altitude will not render vital electrical services inoperable across the entire United States as has been suggested in many media references.

Concurrent multiple bomb bursts will not have an additive TEMP effect, and will even interfere to produce less EMP than a single burst.

As I have noted previously, the EMP effects within the novels seem to derive much of their results by copying earlier novels, rather than looking into the research.  Warday was first and came out before a whole lot of in-public thought had been given to the problem.  The follow on novels all seem to have rather similar effects to WardayTypically all vehicles electronic systems are wiped out, even though the laboratory research shows that over 80% of vehicles re-stared by simply re-turning the ignition key.  It should also be noted that the sun is much more powerful than a hydrogen bomb, so some of the limitations noted for an EMP-strike might not apply.

As I noted in an earlier post (quoting myself):

The Official Report goes into details as to the immediate effect on vehicles. Automobiles that were turned off showed no damage, automobiles that were running cut off 10% of the time, but were immediately able to restart after coasting to a stop. In the case of trucks, one of the thirteen tested did have to be towed [p113]. While obviously disruptive, this is a far cry from the thousands immediately stranded on the highways. Further, it notes that the effects on most electronic medical devices would be limited.

The list of EMP and solar flare novels is relatively short.  Warday, in 1984,  features an EMP attack (along with more normal nuclear strikes), and was very popular in its day.  But the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991 put a stop in the interest in nuclear war related survival tales.  By the time David Crawford (writing as halfast) picks up the thread in his online version of Lights Out, the theme has switched to EMP-vengeance by relatively small actors in the Middle East.  On the Solar Flare, end of matters, Larry Burkett's Solar Flare, is the first novel dealing with this phenomena that I am aware of.  O fcourse , the solar flare has an advantage that no human enemies are required.

In fiction, the value of either type is that it gets you to your collapse quickly.  Typical of these books, you’ve listened to your last FM radio Top Forty hit by the end of the first chapter.  Pandemics can also be used to get you there, but if you really want mayhem on the streets, you don’t want to get rid of your people too fast.  I have even seen a YA- zombie novel with an EMP agent- how cool is that? Ready Mix Zombies.

The one wrinkle  of late, has been the traveling disaster show.  Since EMPs/solar flare novels knock out everyone’s means of transportation, it stands to reason that some people will be stranded.  This allows the “stranded” to travel some great distance home, and view the progressive collapse of society in along the way.  This apocalypse-in-progress traveling road show has a lot of potential, and goes all the way back to Earth Abides (if not Mary Shelley’s Last Man), but is often hard to pull off.  The “hero” generally wanders around from one odd encounter to another with much of the action seeming rather forced and contrived.
Before we get started, I want to mention the two novels (both EMP) that we have already reviewed.
A lot of people put David Crawford's (aka Halffast) Lights Out  in their top 5 of prepping/survivalist adventure books. 

The other one is Terry DeHart’s The Unit, which also has some follow up tactical-sized nukes thrown into the mix as well.

Crawford's was extremely long in the way that only serialized online novels can be.  DeHart's was very uneven, and a little surreal at times.  But both of them in their own way seem to stick with you.
One Book I decided not to read is Amy Cross' The Grid: lack of time, and it looked to be rather similar in tone and quality to David Alexander's Death Pulse which we will be discussing.


Matt said...

I've admittedly grown tired of the buzz surrounding this. All the books and all the bloggers that offer a "how to" on defeating the effects of an EMP tell a slightly different story from each other and few if any have any credentials to back up their opinion on said effects and preventative measures.

I finally just asked my brother-in-law, which is what I should have done to begin with.

Aside from having the top level of amateur radio license, which at least is more than most of those yakking about an EMP, he's also finishing up a PHD in EE with an emphasis in radio waves and works for a particle physics laboratory.

I won't mention his recommendations just so as to avoid having 20 different opinions to follow his being posted here.

I simply don't worry about everyone's opinion anymore and now, if I read a book about EMP, it's simply for pleasure.

russell1200 said...


I always thought that the authors of these collapse novels (and not just the EMP-type) were juicing up their stories to make them more interesting.

I have finally come to the realization that they actually think that their completely over-the-top scenarios are plausible. Mind you it’s not the an eventual collapse that is implausible, just what they think is going to happen.

If I had to summon up what is likely to be most peoples experience in two words it will likely be boring and nasty. There won’t be convenient neighbors showing up with supplies, there won’t be NATO armies, or bandit armies to play commando against, it is highly unlikely that anyone is going to be enjoying themselves –it won’t be a cozy.

What is the most common start to these novels? The disaster strikes and the heroes/heroines are somehow able to run out and get first dibs on a bunch of food, etc. Really? How about reality. They run out and can get their hands on an additional two days worth of food, which can be added to the four days (if you count the cocktail onions) in their pantry. There is really no place for them to go. So they sit and wait for news of help, and starve to death in short order.