It sounds like something out of a movie. A nuclear weapon detonates at high altitude, generating a burst of electromagnetic energy that devastates the United States–destroying electronics, collapsing communications, halting transportation, and shutting down all electrical power. Unfortunately, the threat of an electromagnetic pulse (EMP) strike is all too real, and it’s time America’s leaders wake up to the reality.

But a nuclear weapon isn’t the only way an EMP can be generated. Even unusually powerful solar activity could produce catastrophic destruction in the United States. No matter how it’s generated, the chaotic effects are the same. First, the electromagnetic shock can disrupt electrical devices. The second effect is similar to lightning—a power surge that would burn circuits and immobilize electronic components and systems. The third is a pulse effect that flows through electricity trans­mission lines, damaging distribution centers and fusing power lines. Any of these can cause irreversible damage to an electronic system. And the United States would effectively be sent back to the 19th century, to a world without cars, cell phones, computers, or any other electronics.

If history is any guide, an EMP would be catastrophic. In 1859, British astronomer Richard Carrington observed an unusually large solar flare. Later, the flare reached earth. Telegraph operators were knocked unconscious. Their machines caught on fire as the EMP effect from the flare surged through the lines. When this event occurred, only a small portion of the world was electrified. A solar flare of this magnitude today might have a much more devastating impact.

“An event that could incapacitate the network for a long time,” stated one participant in a U.S. National Academies of Science study, “could be one of the largest natural disasters that we could face.” In the film 33 Minutes: Protecting America in the New Missile Age, Dr. William Graham, chairman of the Congressional EMP Commission, explains what that disaster would look like:

Medical services wouldn’t be available because they need electric power. Telephones wouldn’t work. The traffic lights would stop working. Big traffic jams. Transportation would be shut down. Electronic fund transfers wouldn’t work so you wouldn’t get your paycheck. You wouldn’t be able to use your credit card. Food stocks would run out very quickly. Everything we know about life today that makes it convenient and efficient would be shut down.

On August 15, 2003, 55 million people received a brief object lesson in what life would be like after an EMP event when a major blackout occurred throughout the northeastern United States and Canada. For the most part, services were restored within a day. That would not be the case after an EMP event. Heritage’s James Carafano explains in a new paper the potential impact on the United States–and the world:

The result of a massive EMP event could be devastating. Communications would collapse, transportation would halt, and electrical power would simply be nonexistent. Not even a global humanitarian effort would be enough to keep hundreds of millions of Americans from death by starvation, exposure, or lack of medicine.

Nor would the catastrophe stop at U.S. borders. Most of Canada would be devastated, too, as its infrastructure is integrated with the U.S. power grid. Without the American economic engine, the world economy would quickly collapse. Much of the world’s intellectual brain power (half of it is in the United States) would be lost as well. Earth would most likely recede into the “new” Dark Ages.

Yet despite the threat—and the fact that six national commissions and major independent U.S. government studies have independently concurred with the significance of the danger—Congress has merely deliberated it but has not taken substantive action. Meanwhile, the Administration and federal agencies remain mostly ambivalent.

Carafano recommends actions the U.S. government can take to guard against an EMP attack: funding comprehensive missile defense to intercept and destroy a missile bound for the United States; developing a National Recovery Plan and a plan to respond to severe space weather emergencies; and more research on the EMP threat to ensure that the United States fully understands the scope of the danger and can prepare cost-effective countermeasures.

That’s why it is time to make August 15 National EMP Awareness Day to wake up America’s leaders to the looming threat. An EMP strike should be recognized as a clear and present danger—one that could be devastating if it finds the nation ill-prepared.

On August 15, 2011, Heritage is hosting a panel event on the EMP threat from 11:00 a.m. to 12:30 p.m. ET. Click here for more information or to watch the event online.

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