By Ian O’Neill
“We’ve been EMP’d!” your commanding officer screams over the noise of incoming gunfire. “Electronics are down!”
This may sound familiar if, like me, you’re a fan of “Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 3” — a hugely popular first-person video game based in a fictional near-future when the U.S. goes to war with Russia. But if you’ve been following the GOP presidential campaign recently, you might think one or two of the candidates are out of touch with the not-so-fictional near future.
In particular, it seems Newt Gingrich has been playing too much “Call of Duty.”
Gingrich has been a long-time worrier about the threat of an attack on the U.S. from a rich terrorist organization or rogue nation — such as North Korea or Iran — that could cripple the nation, killing “millions” of citizens. But how could such a dastardly deed be accomplished?
Citing the specter that has been hanging over us since the Cold War, he believes the U.S. is vulnerable to an electromagnetic pulse — or EMP for short.
A nuclear weapon could be detonated above North America, reasons Gingrich, and the resulting electronic interference would render the nation’s power grid, satellites, computers etc., useless. Death and mayhem would ensue. It would be a bit like “Mad Max,” but with less ’70’s hairdos.
“Without adequate preparation, we would basically lose our civilization in a matter of seconds,” he said during a 2009 conference.
The situation is apparently so dire that Gingrich co-wrote a doomsday book on the topic, called “One Second After.”
Although game developers take the effect of EMP damage for granted, what are the realities of a space-based nuclear detonation?
Supporting Gingrich’s argument, the impact of high-altitude nuclear tests during the Cold War proves that detonating nuclear bombs is a bad idea all-round.
In 1962, the U.S. detonated a 1.4 megaton nuke 200 miles above the Pacific Ocean to, you know, see what would happen.
Although situated 900 miles from the blast site, Hawaii felt the impact from the famous “Starfish Prime” explosion. Streetlights were knocked out, telephone communications were blocked and household alarms were triggered.
Beautiful equatorial auroral displays also lit up the sky. The event was nicknamed the “rainbow bomb.”
The nuclear blast had caused all kinds of upper-atmosphere turmoil that generated rapid and powerful changes in the Earth’s magnetic field, producing a pulse throughout the atmosphere below. The resulting induction of electrical currents shorted unshielded electrical supplies, like Honolulu’s streetlights.
Radiation also surged above the atmosphere, causing indiscriminate damage to a number of satellites. The world’s first commercial communications satellite Telstar was also badly bruised by the incident.
In the same year, a similar test by the Soviets — using a smaller warhead over a populated region of Kazakhstan — generated an amplified EMP effect due to the stronger geomagnetic field at that latitude, causing a power station to fail and catch fire.
Some of the effects of an EMP are analogous to a geomagnetic storm, when the solar wind and coronal mass ejections (CMEs) interact with the Earth’s magnetosphere. Although not as localized as a nuclear explosion, there are worries that an intense solar storm could generate huge currents across the Earth’s atmosphere, shorting entire power grids.