The Science Behind the Terror: What an EMP Bomb Would Do and How It Works

As technology evolves, so does warfare, and the more advanced our world gets, the more advanced our weapons get. Gone are the days of trenches, bayonets, and musket balls. These days, we have bioweapons and weapons that target our electronics.

The number one weapon when it comes to knocking out electronic systems is an electromagnetic pulse bomb. Whether you’ve heard of them before or not, you should be aware of just what these weapons can do. Read on to learn more about the EMP bomb and what it’s capable of.

What Is an EMP Bomb?

Electromagnetic pulse bombs (EMPs for short) aren’t bombs in the traditional sense of the word. They don’t destroy buildings or streets or kill people. But that doesn’t mean they aren’t just as deadly in their own way.

EMPs use electromagnets to send out an electrical pulse that is capable of destroying electronics for miles around. If you think that doesn’t sound scary, imagine how hard life gets when the power goes out. We rely on electronics for everything from hospital life support to vehicle operation, and taking those devices out can cause a lot of damage.

How It Works

The first thing you need to know when we start talking about EMPs is how electronics work. We know, that stuff seems pretty basic. But it’s the foundation of what makes EMPs so dangerous.

As the name suggests, electronics work by directing streams of electrons – or electricity. This electric current generates magnetic fields, which is why sticking a magnet to your computer or phone is such a bad idea. Disrupting those magnetic fields and the electric streams tied to them can do serious damage to a device.

That weakness is what EMPs rely on; they use electromagnets to generate a huge burst of magnetic energy. This sends a huge current of electricity flowing through every electronic device in range, frying the circuits in the device. An EMP doesn’t just disable electronics – it completely destroys them.

Nuclear EMPs

The idea for EMPs actually got developed when nuclear bombs were in testing. When a nuclear bomb goes off, it sends out a huge blast of a number of things. Fire, smoke, radiation poisoning, and a titanic wave of force all make up the explosion.

But there was an additional factor that no one counted on when they were developing nuclear bombs. There is also a wave of electromagnetic force that issues from the explosion. And while it doesn’t make much difference at the explosion site (all the electronics there are vaporized anyway), that wave can take out devices outside the blast radius.

The military actually started testing this effect and the various factors that can influence it in the 1960s. They discovered that the altitude at which the explosion happens can impact the nature of the electronic pulse. This led to the development of a high-altitude electromagnetic pulse (or HEMP).

HEMP explosions take place hundreds of miles above the Earth’s surface, and their effects can be devastating.

The Range of an EMP Bomb

How big a range an EMP bomb can have depends on a number of factors, including the explosion’s altitude. As you might expect, the higher an explosion is in the atmosphere, the larger an area it can cover. Remember when you played with the hose as a kid and you held it up in the air, the water would cover a larger area of the ground.

But as it turns out, it isn’t only the height off the ground that affects an EMP’s reach. The further up into the atmosphere the bomb gets, the more it becomes affected by Earth’s magnetic field. The magnetic field actually helps to spread the effect of the bomb over a much larger area.

The gamma rays that explode out of an EMP bomb hit the atmosphere and eject a bunch of electrons. Those electrons then get caught up in the magnetic field and flung further away. And then, on top of all of that, we have the curvature of the Earth to account for.

The fact that the electrons are moving through a dome onto a curved surface gives them a greater reach. Put simply, rather than having to just radiate out in a straight line, these electrons get pulled along a curved surface before they make their way to the ground. All this means that the range of effects from an EMP bomb can be staggering.

So exactly how far can these things reach? One test of a small EMP bomb in the 1960s caused damage in Hawaii, more than 800 miles away from the test site. Calculations predict that if an EMP bomb were to go off 250 miles above North Dakota, its effects would hit nearly the entire United States, with only the furthest coastal regions remaining unaffected.

Things EMPs Can Affect

There are a few obvious things an EMP will impact; we know it’s going to take out laptops, internet, television and power lines, but what else can it affect? An EMP will affect anything that runs off of wiring. This includes most appliances and, most distressingly, cars.

Vehicles use electronic systems for everything from ignition to navigation. And not only would an EMP knock out your GPS, but it might also actually knock out the satellites that the GPS uses. Some of the tests in the 1960s caused damage to low-orbiting satellites.

You also have to think about the behind-the-scenes operations that rely on power. Water sanitation goes out the window along with the power, and with that comes disease. Waste maintenance systems also go offline, which exposes the public to a whole variety of dangerous materials.

Impact on a Society

So let’s say someone sets off that EMP bomb 250 miles above North Dakota tomorrow. What would happen, exactly? Sure, being without Facebook is annoying, but what would be the worst that could happen?

Let’s paint a picture of the scene here: no one in the majority of the United States has power of any sort. This means every house without EMP protection is without lights, heat and air, refrigeration, telephones, internet, or even vehicles. After a few days, food will start to rot, and some people may start dying of exposure depending on the season.

People will have already begun dying, though, because hospitals will be without power as well. No life support, no lights to do surgery by, no defibrillators to restart people’s hearts, and no ambulances to go take care of injured people. They also don’t have food, because by this point, anything not shelf stable has gone bad.

As in any time of crisis, crime rates will increase, but there won’t be any way to stop looters. Police will be left without cars, and the military bases are out of luck, too. Every military base that isn’t on a coast will be completely without electricity.

And worst of all, no one will be able to coordinate disaster relief efforts with anyone outside the affected area, because there will be no digital communication. Without email, phones, or even cars, we will be back to the old way of delivering messages. People will have to walk or ride horses back and forth to communicate across long distances.

Military Uses

As scary as the idea of an EMP is, there is an argument that it’s a good weapon for a military to have in its arsenal. For one thing, unlike traditional bombs, EMP bombs don’t kill people (at least not immediately). In a war situation, that may seem like a more merciful option, especially stacked up against the carnage of nuclear bombs.

But EMP bombs can also have a sneakier use that leads to less destruction of society. Smaller EMP bombs can be useful in creating localized blackouts. And unlike regular bombs, walls, or even the ground, doesn’t have any ability to stop their effects.

What this means is that the military could use an EMP to disable a bunker like the one Osama bin Laden hid in for so long. We have a hard time finding and neutralizing those bunkers using traditional warfare means. With EMPs, if we know where the bunker is, we can set off a pulse over the top of it and disable all their equipment (including doors) without ever having to lose a single soldier.

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The threat of an EMP bomb going off over the United States is a scary idea; we don’t realize how much we depend on electronics until we’re faced with the idea of living without them. And there’s no question that a well-placed EMP bomb could cripple us. But they also have their military uses, and they could be considered a more merciful option in warfare.

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