Solar Flares, Coronal Mass Ejections, And Electromagnetic Pulses

by David Morris on March 8, 2012

Welcome to the March 9th Urban Survival Newsletter, brought to you by the Urban Survival course…a 12 week course that will teach you practical and pragmatic strategies for preparing for breakdowns in civil order after disasters, regardless of where you live.

This week, we got a reminder of the fact that we’re in the middle of an upswing in solar activity.  It’s been awhile since I’ve talked about solar flares, Coronal Mass Ejections (CMEs), and Electromagnetic Pulses (EMPs), and I want to touch on them again today. You’re going to want to read today’s article so that you know what they are, and what you can do to prepare yourself for them. There’s a lot of talk about CMEs and EMPs, and most of it simply causes people to be unnecessarily scared.

I want to start off by saying that, while these threats have the ability to partially or completely destroy the power grid and immediately render some or all electronics completely destroyed, they shouldn’t cause you to worry or stay up at night. But, I’m getting ahead of myself…let me start of by explaining what EMPs and CMEs are—When a solar flare happens on the Sun, sometimes some of the energy breaks free of the Sun’s gravitational field and it’s called a coronal mass ejection (CME).  If that energy reaches Earth, it can cause an electromagnetic pulse (EMP.)  We’ll talk about all three, but I’m going to start with EMPs.

You might remember Saddam Hussein threatening to use chemical weapons against both the US and Israel during the first and 2nd Gulf Wars.

You might also remember that we responded to the threat by promising to “respond with overwhelming force and extract a very high price should he be foolish enough to use chemical weapons on United States forces.”

Many thought that this meant dropping a nuke on Iraq and turning the country to a big pane of glass.

Wile this was definitely a possibility, it’s much more likely that our response would have been for us to use an EMP.

An EMP is an electromagnetic pulse which, in this case, would have been caused by detonating a nuclear bomb 100-300 miles above the Earth’s surface.

Buildings wouldn’t fall down, Geiger counters wouldn’t go off, and people wouldn’t die of radiation poisoning, but the EMP WOULD completely destroy the electrical grid and most unshielded electronic items in Iraq. In essence a wave of energy would emanate out from the blast in the upper atmosphere and cause power line transformers and integrated circuits in electronic devices to burn out or “fry.” In some cases, this would be permanent and in other cases it would be temporary.

An EMP attack like this is the basis for the book, “One Second After” part of the TV series, “Jericho” as well as an episode of “24″ and several other fictional accounts. It makes for GREAT fiction, but interestingly enough, it’s seldom wargamed in Washington, because the far reaching events completely scrambles standard operating procedures as well as command and control.

Where this gets interesting is that in addition to China and Russia having the ability to attack the US with an EMP, North Korea, Iran, and any terrorist organization with deep pockets can do it as well.

In it’s simplest, most unrefined form, an EMP attack could be done with one of the many small nukes missing from the former Soviet Union placed on a SCUD rocket and launched 12 miles off the East coast from a container ship sitting in international waters. There’s even a Russian arms dealer who sells missile silos that look, from the outside, just like a shipping container that can go on cargo ships, trains, or semis.

It probably wouldn’t get up to the optimal altitude and wouldn’t knock out the entire country, but it wouldn’t need to…our economy is so fragile right now that any hiccup, let alone a major attack, would most likely bring down many fragile sectors of our economy, as well as be the final blow to many of our country’s insolvent banks.

On the other hand, an ICBM with a properly configured nuclear warhead that detonated 250 miles over Lebanon, Kansas would partially or completely knock out unprotected electronics and the electrical grid from coast to coast.

How long would it take to recover?  Well, it depends on how you define recovery.  One of the casualties of an EMP attack would be the transformers that step up and step down voltage along power transmission lines.  The power grid as we know it may never recover if several large transformers in the same region failed simultaneously.  The transformers used in high voltage transmission weigh from 100 tons up to 300 tons for one particular transformer manufactured by Siemens.  They take a long time to manufacture, they’re expensive, there’s global demand, and they’re very difficult to transport. In the meantime, we’d have to figure out how to power everything from pumping fuel, water, and waste to implementing alternatives to electronic banking and electronic communication.

It’s somewhat easy for some people to dismiss EMPs.  On one hand, there’s a tendency to discount threats that are so huge that you don’t have any control over them. EMPs definitely fall into this category. They’re such a game changing event that most government agencies don’t even plan for them because they figure it would be next to impossible to actually execute a plan after an EMP.

On the other hand, many people simply don’t appreciate how much some people hate the US, our freedoms, our wealth, and our support of Israel.  They don’t know us, but they want to kill us.  They want us to live the same miserable lives that they live rather than to have individual liberty.

Things play out a little differently on a family level. While it may not be possible to quickly execute a plan after an EMP on a city, state, or national level, it’s much easier to effectively respond as a family and/or neighborhood. I’ll get into this more in a minute…

Well, even if you or one of your relatives are in this group who don’t want to face the threats we face from other countries, we’ve had several recent events that make the threat of EMPs very difficult to ignore.

You see, besides nuclear blasts, EMPs can be caused when solar flares (like this week’s X5)  happen on the sun that are big enough to cause Coronal Mass Ejections (CMEs).  CMEs are huge bubbles of electrified gas that are big enough and traveling fast enough that they’re able to overcome the gravitational pull of the Sun and go out into space. Since there is only one small section of the Sun that faces the Earth at a given time, most CMEs don’t head towards Earth. That’s not to say that all CME’s eject perpendicular to the Sun…just that there are a LOT of options of places for CMEs to go besides directly towards Earth.

CMEs dissipate/spread out considerably between when they leave the Sun and reach the Earth, and most of their energy gets absorbed in our atmosphere.

Recently, we’ve had a series of harmless wake up calls reminding us that solar flares/CMEs (Coronal Mass Ejection) DO happen, and DO hit Earth.  Most of our recent ones that have hit the Earth were tiny…the biggest effects most people saw was an interruption of satellite TV and pretty Northern Lights, but last February, China had significant communications problems as a result of a CME.

If or when the sun has a large solar flare that causes a large coronal mass ejection to come our way, it could be like a series of hundreds of EMPs going off every few minutes for days at a time, affecting every country on the globe.

Has it happened?  Yes.  In 1859, Earth experienced a CME so strong that telegraph wires shorted out and started fires from coast to coast.

Where a nuclear EMP or small CME would only damage electronics over a region, a powerful CME would affect the entire planet.

Far fetched?  Not really.  Unlikely?  400 years of data says an increase in CMEs IS very likely.  In fact, here is the chart of solar activity since 1610 from NASA.  I link to it at the bottom of this article.  You’ll see that there’s a peak every 11 or so years.  We were at the bottom of the current cycle in 2008 and are currently on the upswing.  The red arrow points to what some experts believe our next upswing will look like…fairly weak in comparison, but strong enough considering our dependence on electronics.

So, while the worst case scenario may not be likely, it IS likely that we will experience several solar flares of varying sizes over the next 1-5 years.

Right now, we also have a particularly active area of the Sun, called region 1302, that, because of the Sun’s rotation, is coming into direct alignment with the Earth.

The solar flares could simply cause pretty Northern Lights and bad shortwave propagation, they could cause regional blackouts like what happened in Canada in 1989, it could knock out satellites, interrupt GPS, phone, and satellite TV communication, or a major CME like the 1859 CME could knock out electronics and our electrical grid.

One major difference from 1859 is that our infrastructure is MUCH more interdependent and fragile than it was then.  Most of the world wasn’t affected by telegraph lines going down, but most of the world WILL be affected by air conditioning, cars, refrigeration, heating systems, communication, and banking simultaneously going down.

So, how do you prepare for this?  Well, it depends on where you’re at in your process of preparedness.  Some of the simple things that you can do is to make sure that your house has at least one solid ground.  In most areas, this means driving a 1/2″ copper stake 10 feet into the ground, but it could mean burying/driving copper as far as 40 feet into the ground, continually watering your ground rods, or periodically adding minerals to the soil near your ground rod.

Some people put copper mesh between their studs and sheetrock in certain rooms of their house.  Others bury metal ammo cans or 55 gallon metal drums with electronics in them.

I added a second ground rod to our house after we moved in and I put it at the end of a gutter runout that we don’t collect.

If you have a metal shed, you can ground it.  If you have a metal safe, you can ground it.  You can also create mini poor-man’s Faraday cages out of aluminum foil or mylar.

It’s VERY important to note that these improvised methods may or may not work. The strength of a pulse will depend on several factors concerning the blast.  The strength when it reaches you is going to depend on how far you are from it, the atmospheric conditions that the pulse has to go through, the construction of your house, how much dirt/concrete/metal the pulse has to go through to reach your items, whether they’re plugged in or not, AND (perhaps most importantly) the random nature of a large scale event.

What I mean by “random nature of a large scale event” is to think about the effects of a forest fire going through a developed area. It’s not uncommon to have three houses of identical construction in close proximity where 2 burn down to a pile of ash on the slab and the third one have no damage whatsoever. Earlier this year, Personal Liberty had a tornado headed towards their office…it split before it hit the building, went by on both sides, and then combined back into a single funnel on the other side. In other words, you just can’t discount or account for random outcomes in large scale events.

On aluminum foil, most Faraday cages are made of copper…sometimes simply copper mesh. Aluminum has 60% of the conductivity of copper, so it’s still a very good conductor. The electrical engineers that I’ve talked with about this have had two major reasons why they think that aluminum foil makes a good field expedient Faraday cage.

1. The amount of shielding needed for an EMP blast depends on the size of the EMP, the efficiency of the EMP (whether it was purpose built to be an EMP or a “normal” nuclear weapon detonated at high altitude), your distance from the EMP, AND atmospheric conditions. In other words, aluminum foil probably wouldn’t work if a purpose built EMP went off directly overhead, but it might work great if you were 1000 miles away from it, if it wasn’t a purpose built EMP, or if it was a small blast.

2. It’s a guess as to whether or not aluminum foil will work as a Faraday cage in an EMP attack. We are fortunate in that we haven’t experienced enough EMPs to have a large enough dataset to make definitive statements on what will work and what won’t work in the real world. That being said, aluminum foil doesn’t cost much compared to full-on Faraday cages and still gives people a lot of potential bang for the buck. It’s a case where everyone can keep aluminum foil and wire on hand, but most people have more pressing things to spend money on than certified Faraday enclosures.

With an EMP, it’s unlikely that the general public will have any warning of an attack, but with a CME, we’re getting better and better at identifying CMEs and that means that we’ll have between 17 hours (as in 1859) and 3-4 days (as in August, 2010) warning to unplug, shield, and possibly even bury sensitive equipment.

Hold on a second!

Before you go off and spend a bunch of time and money preparing for one specific potential event, make sure you have all of your fundamentals in order.  What I mean is that instead of preparing specifically for an EMP/CME, you’re much better off taking steps that will help you prepare for ALL causes of breakdowns in civil order.

I’m talking about having months or years of food on hand, a way to supply yourself and your family with water, shelter, fire, security, and medical skills. These basics will serve you well regardless of what kind of a disaster strikes.

With a well thought out preparedness plan, you can be ready for disasters ranging from unexpected short term unemployment to short term natural disasters to catastrophic events like a collapse of the dollar to EMPs and CMEs, so focus on the fundamentals and you’ll be ready for WHATEVER disaster happens.

This is exactly why I focus SO MUCH on the core fundamentals of survival and preparedness in the preparedness course. If you haven’t signed up for these yet, I want to encourage you to click on the links and check them out:

Survive In Place:

What are your thoughts on EMPs caused by CMEs and nuclear blasts? How about the period of increasing solar activity that we’re headed into? Have you done any shielding/hardening to protect items from EMPs? If so, what did you do? Share your thoughts by commenting below.

Stay Safe & God Bless!

David Morris

Here are some more resources you might want to check out to learn more about solar flares, sun spots, and coronal mass ejections.

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{ 14 comments… read them below or add one }

Vote -1 Vote +1MP
March 10, 2012 at 8:16 pm

Another interesting thought I just had falls on two different things. First, look at how cell phones, radios, and TVs tend to suck with reception or transmission when inside buildings with steel frameworks and roofing and concrete. The deeper the device is inside the building the less the radio waves are able to leave or enter. Which then brings me to the second thing. Maybe a test can be tried, take a couple of FRS radios, put one inside an ammo can/garbage can, etc, on a block of wood, etc in order to keep it from touching the can and turn it on. Afterward, have someone take the other radio and transmit from a short distance away, or even right by the can, and see if the radio inside the can picks up the signal. You can even try grounding the can, whatever you feel like. If the radio inside the can picks up the transmission, it means that the can prob won’t stop a higher wattage bolt from an EMP. Just a thought to try.


Vote -1 Vote +1Dennis
March 11, 2012 at 3:24 pm

Just a note about vehicles that would run after an emp. I guess that it would depend on where you live-rural or city. But if you have a vehicle that is running after an emp it seems to me you just painted a big bulls eye on you. If people will kill for a can of beans think what will happen as you are touring around the area. They will do anything for a running vehicle. You really wouldn’t want to drive it around. If you are in an isolated area in the country you could get away with it. They would probably kill for a bicycle. Also if you live rural your transportation will leave tracks and lead right to you. Besides that where and why are you going anywhere? There wouldn’t be anything to buy.
I watch “I Survived” on tv and it seems that in many instances the victims are attacked by neighbors and people that live close by. I live in a rural area and was warned by the locals when I moved in that the majority of thefts come from people that you let onto your land. You can’t really trust anyone. If they know what you have they will come for it and don’t need a disaster for an excuse.
I wish someone would investigate and report on Faraday cages from the position of, I really know what works and what doesn’t. There are too many conflicting ideas out there. You don’t really know who is correct.


Vote -1 Vote +1Morrinton85
March 11, 2012 at 7:08 pm

I thought old microwave ovens were supposed to be great Fa. cages? am I wrong? or a small dry wooden box inside an ammo box ?


+1 Vote -1 Vote +1JR
March 11, 2012 at 11:28 pm

Forgive me if this was already stated, but I thought of some questions on “protecting” items and what might be rendered useless in in EMP.
1- I have a safe, holds items like money, important documents, firearms, ammo, etc. It has a digital lock powered by a battery. Will an EMP kill it…and now I can’t get to those items?

2- Will all utilities stop? Electricity is a given…until repairs are made by a city that’s overburdened…going to be a long wait. What about running water? It’s the same city that uses powered grids to operate the pumps that send running water to homes right? So that means no running water? And how about gas? How do they function? Will they stop? If you have a gas generator connected to your house when the power fails….will that still work? I’m guessing the city/company that sends gas will be out of commission too so that means even back up generators on NG will not operate? (And LP will last only days so don’t go there.)

Does anyone have any thoughts on these items?


-2 Vote -1 Vote +1Ronin
March 12, 2012 at 12:59 pm

1. yes… saw, drill, or torch

2. Potentially. Yes. Right. Perhaps. Depends. Usually with electricity. Perhaps. No. Right.


Vote -1 Vote +1Reggie Brian
March 12, 2012 at 4:32 am

A Faraday cage is useful for static or electrostatic charges, but an EMP causes a magnet phenomenon which is really a different thing. A simple way to tell if your “magnetic blocking” device is doing what you want it to, is to put an ordinary compass inside it. If the compass still points to the north, then your enclosure does not block magnetics.

You can take that same compass and walk past a mocrowave oven while it is in operation and watch the needle deflect around the magnetron. This shows you that the metal enclosure is blocking most of the 2450 MHz radio part of the magnetron’s output, but zero of the magnetic field. These are two different things, and the magnetics are not even attempted to be blocked, as they are not harmful to human tissue. It’s why they use it in MRI (magnetic resonance imaging) machines.

While preparation is a good thing, you are well-advised to seek accurate information about exactly what you are trying to protect yourself against. Tin foil hats are transparent to magnetics.



Vote -1 Vote +1udaman
March 12, 2012 at 5:02 pm

My question: Will the EMP affect electronics that are currently being used or all electronics unprotected by some sort of cage? I also have a safe with an electronic and have been concerned about the same situation. Just when you will need your guns, ammo, money or whatever, you will not be able to get to them.


Vote -1 Vote +1Ed Phillips
March 12, 2012 at 8:49 pm

Does anyone know how EMP’s affect Solar Panels and a Battery Back-up System. Please let Me know if at all possible. Thanks. Ed in Southern Calif.


Vote -1 Vote +1Bob
March 19, 2012 at 8:43 pm

Hi Ed,
If the solar panels do not have computer chips in them, which some do not, they may work even better with a solar flare.


Vote -1 Vote +1JR
March 13, 2012 at 10:12 am

Regarding safes with electronic opening components;
1-ok…so if I can’t swap my electronic component that opens my safe, can I protect it by wrapping it with multiple layers of foil or another substance (copper mesh?)
2-is it the wiring in the componant that can fail so it’s useless? OR
3-the battery will fry and just replace the battery?


Vote -1 Vote +1David Morris
March 13, 2012 at 3:11 pm


I’m going to answer your questions in reverse order…

3. & 2. The integrated circuits will fry, if anything fries.

1. Despite the catch-all answers that people try to provide, there is no solid answer to this. The impact of an EMP depends on where it happens in relation to you, atmospheric conditions, the construction of your house, whether your safe is below ground in a basement or upstairs, and the random nature of large scale events. Personally, we have both mechanical and electronic safes. I have researched my electronic safes, just like a high-end criminal would, to know how to get into them in the event of an EMP. In the meantime, I don’t want the pain-in-the-butt of having stuff hanging off of or wrapped around my safe. I simply accept the fact/risk that the safe will be fried and everything in it will be temporarily inaccessable in the event of an EMP in exchange for the daily convenience of easy access to my safe.


+1 Vote -1 Vote +1John Leone
March 13, 2012 at 10:31 pm

My electronic safe has a backup key. If the electronic lock doesn’t work, there is a hidden keyhole that takes an 8″ long key. I thought that most electronically accessed safes came with secondary access.


Vote -1 Vote +1Randall
June 15, 2012 at 7:08 pm

Remember the water, without it our lives are very short. See General Ecology for a good purifier (Seagull 4) and First needs portable. These units are great. Get familiar with water purification as it will be a master link in the chain of survival.


Vote -1 Vote +1Ravin
July 13, 2012 at 8:49 pm

An EMP will induce electric currents in conductive materials such as wire, aluminum foil sheet, electronic circuits. This is why exposed electronic circuits will end up getting burned out from an emp. Since no one has tested and published test results we can only assume that a grounded metal conductive box or tool shed with metal conductive floor can protect from some emp’s as long as your electronics that your trying to protect are not touching the metal exterior. The equipment needs to be isolated from the conductive exterior of your protective box. On another note if a large emp ever occurs over the states we are most likely going back to the days of old when there wasn’t any electronics or even electric. The small electronics on a pv panel can burn out but the panels themselves should be ok. Be prepared with hand tools and skills.


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