May 29, 2017

The Difference Between an EMP and a Solar Flare

The Difference Between an EMP and a Solar Flare

EMP and solar flares are often spoken of as if they are the same thing. While the end result is similar in that we’re left in the dark, they are actually different threats. Why does it matter? Well, for one, there are actions that can be taken to help protect against a solar flare. Later this week, I’ll be discussing EMP as a clear and present danger to the United States.

Electro Magnetic Pulse

Congress commissioned a group to study the threat of EMP in 2001 and has since re-commissioned it. You can read the EMP Commission Report for full details, but here is one section that described EMP well, located on page 9.

“The electromagnetic pulse generated by a high altitude nuclear explosion is one of a small number of threats that can hold our society at risk of catastrophic consequences. The increasingly pervasive use of electronics of all forms represents the greatest source of vulnerability to attack by EMP. Electronics are used to control, communicate, compute, store, manage, and implement nearly every aspect of United States (U.S.) civilian systems. When a nuclear explosion occurs at high altitude, the EMP signal it produces will cover the wide geographic region within the line of sight of the detonation.”

To be clear, the threat of EMP is totally manmade. An EMP is only caused by a nuclear explosion in the ionosphere and will impact the area within its line of sight. A faraday cage could be used to shield and protect against the effects of an EMP. There are arguments over how effective it would be and how it needs to be made. Personally, I believe that a faraday cage could be an effective method but I also believe it would need to be grounded.


Space Weather; Solar Flares and Coronal Mass Ejection

A very quick and simplistic explanation is that these are two different ways that the sun emits energy. A large eruption produces a flash, called a solar flare. A coronal mass ejection is an eruption of plasma into a large ball of energy. For more in depth information on these topics and on space weather, you can visit this NASA page on Solar Storm and Space Weather – Frequently Asked Questions.

Here is a short video that describes these topics much better than I could.


What Does This Mean for Earth?

The earth has seen solar flares for millennia. For example, there was a very large solar flare in 1859 that disrupted telegraph service, causing the lines to catch fire in some places. There was a blackout in Quebec in 1989 attributed to a solar storm, leaving 6 million people without power.

For a better understanding of this, here are two podcasts from Off the Grid Radio. There are transcripts of these podcasts for those who would prefer to read.
This Off The Grid Radio; Episode 10; (Transcript) is an Interview with John Kappenman, President of Storm Analysis Consultants. John Kappenman is someone who has studied space weather and has testified before Congress on the danger it poses. Mr. Kappenman discusses how solar weather is a very real threat to the grid, mainly to the large transformers.

He explains that:

“event that is almost incomprehensible because we don’t have a lot of relevant experience with it on today’s infrastructure. The severity of the storm that we’re talking about here, we think has a capacity to create widespread massive damage to the power grid especially large high voltage transformers that could cause maybe a 4 to 10 year sort of damage to the power grid and inability to restore that power grid intact over a very long period of time.”

The reason it could take 4-10 years to recover is, as Mr. Kappenman goes on to explain, that the United States currently relies on manufacturers overseas who produce these transmitters. And that:

“Also huge devices on the order of 270 tons each, so they cannot be airlifted. They have to be delivered by slow boat and enormous land logistics problems to locate them to the sites where there need to be replaced.”

The host, Bill, asks:

“So another question that people asks us constantly is does this have the potential to produce its own EMP and fry any electronics. Could a storm be one that’s 10, 20, 30 times more powerful than some of the lightweight stuff we’ve seen? Can that create an EMP and mess electronics in your home up even if you’re not connected to the grid?”

Mr. Kappenman responds:

“Well, I’d say that’s highly unlikely but I have to also caution that we don’t know the full extremes of what mother nature can do either. We certainly have been made aware of the ever more sensitive microelectronics can be impacted by radiation dosages that are also coming in during these severe space weather events and we know that systems like GPS may not function at times during severe space weather events as well. So there is some uncertainties out there that probably haven’t been fully understood and revealed yet.”

The end result is essentially the same. We’re without electricity. In Off the Grid Radio: Episode 31; (Transcript), Mr. Kappenmen is back and explains more of the problem with the grid and transmitters. He also goes into what society would look like if the power just ceased flowing.

Mr. Kappenman explains how our leaders could have done something and chose not to.

“In the last Congress, in I think May or June of last year, the House of Representatives did unanimously approve a bill called the Grid Bill, House Resolution 5026. This bill would have set in motion efforts to harden the power grid and make it more resilient against these sorts of threats that exist in today’s power grid. It would also deal with the cyber security threat, electromagnetic pulse threat and severe space weather, geomagnetic and solar storm threat that we’re talking about. The Senate was not able to act on that bill in the last Congress. As a result, it did not become law, it did not pass. I’m uncertain how the new Congress will view this and what measures they will take. I think some form of this bill will be re-introduced in Congress and further evaluation will be done in formulating a bill that hopefully would get the quick approval of both the House and the Senate.”

To my knowledge, the federal government has still not acted. In fact, some states and cities have begun to take action on their own.

You can sign up to receive Solar Flare alerts here from Flare Alert.

Later this week, I’ll cover how the threat of a nuclear or EMP attack has just increased.

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  1. wow…if you still have you head in the sand at this time….I feel very sorry for them!!

    • I think most non preppers would be in shock if they knew how vulnerable our grid is to so many different threats.

  2. Rev. Dr. Michael E Harris says:

    Twenty years ago, I worked in a spacecraft manufacturing facility. During ‘solar flare season’, we had to have engineers in the control rooms 24/7 to shut down systems in the probes to avoid damage.

    We only did this for the spacecraft (e.g., scientific probes) that we controlled. The owners of the other spacecraft we built had to do something similar.

  3. EMP or Solar Flare the problem is not that only that the grid goes down but that all nuclear power plants only have two to three weeks before there generators run out of gas.

    Then there will be radiation for 100 miles from each nuclear power plant for 100’s of years, the country will be 75% died zone.

    Remember your car will not work so it will not be easy to run from the 100 mile zone.

  4. What I’ve been wondering about is what if they were able to pass that grid bill and harden the grid in time, and we got an EMP after that, that would mean that the power plants are up and running and can keep them from a meltdown, but what about the lights, the hot water heater, the fridge and stove in regular homes, those would still not work correct (unless you made your house a giant faraday cage)? what about hospitals and water facilities? wouldn’t it destroy all of their electronics? same with transportation those would still be destroyed correct? What if the vehicle wasn’t turned on at the time of the pulse would it still run? what about unplugged appliances (whether in a faraday cage or not) would those be affected?

    • If they hardened the grid against solar flares, it would offer some protection against an EMP. But I think the damage would still be so severe that it would be considered a lost cause. You’re right, it wouldn’t protect home owners either.

  5. I’m curious: Is the scenario in the book, One Second After, realistic for what life would like after an EMP?

    • I think One Second after did a decent job in terms of what life would look like without power. I’m not so sure about the roving band of cannibals.

      I personally think Lights out did a much better job capturing what life would be like after an EMP.

  6. Rev. Dr. Michael E Harris says:


    Having worked in the defense/aerospace industry for four decades, I I know what happens to electronics due to an EMP. First, it would only take three air-burst detonations to generate EMPs that would cover the continental US (i.e., the lower 48).

    Think power generation — all power plants, etc., even gas and/or diesel generators without electronics will die when gas and diesel production ends (3-4 days).

    No power, no vehicles with electronics, no fuel, no food, no interstate commerce, no anything. Bill Forstchen is an old friend and known for meticulous research.

  7. While EMP from a nuclear device has a similar effect as a Solar flare, there are two big differences: 1) the flare is a global event that could kill ALL grid & electronics on Earth; 2) the nuclear event leaves most of the planet intact but the war that will probably follow could devastate the planet for many many years.

    Last Monday, a flare large enough to fry the grid erupted from our Sun. Fortunately, it was not directed at Earth. The threat is real & immediate. Move at least 100 miles from nuclear plants as they will fail and the waste fuel will burn. Be prepared for a long recovery.

  8. Rev. Dr. Michael E Harris says:

    I remember an incident in my youth (during the height or depth of the Cold War). Our pastor tried to explain what might happen if a nuclear bomb went off. My take-away from the discussion was that I would rather have a bomb go off over my head than be only a few tens of miles away.

    With the scenario in “One Second After”. I would much rather die in a nuclear blast than try to survive in a post-EMP world. This is not really a negative comment–without all my meds, I would not last long anyway.

  9. Carl Rooker says:

    I wonder if you were thinking of me when you mention “grounding” the Faraday cage. I have done so, just in case.

    Good post Chris.

    • Chris Ray says:

      I think our conversation from the forum may have helped firm up my thinking on the subject, but I didn’t think of you when I wrote on it here.

  10. I hope my old 70’s Olds will still run! Only problem: if I have the only running car, I am a bit of a target, even from the law enforcement, aren’t I? So, even if I have a running car, I am afraid to take it onto the road and risk losing it or worse yet, losing my life – just for the sake of transportation. I don’t think that things are going to be as civil as it is portrayed in any of the books. I have read them all and I think the mentality of society will be so devoid of any kind of normalcy and decency, that I choose to keep low. Someday when all the crazies are gone, I would bring it out if there was still gas that was usable from the tanks of others cars. It would depend on how long it all lasted. I am thinking years at least.

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