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An EMP is the acronym for Electromagnetic Pulse. They’re also known as transient electromagnetic disturbances. It occurs when there’s electromagnetic energy that comes in a short burst. These types of events can occur through natural means—lightening, a solar flare or CME (coronal mass ejection)— or can be manmade—a nuclear blast or solar weapon. The occurrence of this phenomena is the result of a burst of electromagnetic energy that comes from the almost instantaneous acceleration of charged particles.
While the biggest worry is the damage to the grid, electrical equipment and other types of devices, such as cell phones, these bursts of power have the potential to damage other things, including airplanes and buildings.
There was a solar storm in 1859 that was noted by astronomer Richard Carrington. He saw a huge flash that covered a large area of sunspots. The flash quickly disappeared, but the phenomena didn’t end there. That night people reported that northern light activity lit up the sky so brightly that it was almost like daylight. In 1859, technology wasn’t nearly as advanced as today, but they did have telegraphs. The EMP sent sparks flying from the machines and even severely shocked the operators. Even if the telegraph machines were disconnected, sparks still flew from the electricity induced into the lines by the solar flare. This incident was named the Carrington Event.
When lightening causes the EMP by producing a surge of electricity through cables or wires, we can protect our electronic devices with a surge protector. Solar flares and CMEs are both explosions on the sun. They can occur together or separately, but they’re not the same thing. A flare is a burst of energy and x-rays. Solar flares come with a limited warning, since they travel at the speed of light, within eight minutes they can reach earth. CMEs are a cloud of charged particles thrown out into space. It takes three days to reach Earth.
Manmade EMPs come from exploding a nuclear bomb or EMP weapon in the ionosphere. That’s where there are highly charged particles. It’s the area that’s between 30 to 500 miles above the earth that vary in size by conditions. The particles surge downward to create huge electrical currents that would play havoc with power grids, electrical equipment, and transformers. Starfish Prime and Test 184 in 1962 are two examples where damage occurred when the US and the Soviet Union were testing nuclear warheads.
EMPs are put into three categories, E1, E2, and E3. The most intense is the E1 category. These come from nuclear blasts and EMP weaponry and last just seconds. E2 EMPs are slower, like lightning bolts and the easiest type to protect against. E3 are the slowest and may last days, these are normally from CMEs from the sun.