Back in 1991, edgy German director Wim Wenders made a movie, “Until the End of the World.” There’s a subplot — one of many in the complicated flick — in which people on Earth are menaced by an out-of-control satellite that is threatening to fall from orbit. In the end, the failing satellite instead is shot down. The resulting massive, high-altitude nuclear explosion, however, fries unshielded satellites, communications networks, phones and computers all over the planet, instantly forcing our gadget-obsessed species to go electronic cold turkey.
Sound far-fetched? Think again. Wenders’ plot twist was based, albeit loosely, on the actual concept of electromagnetic pulse (EMP) weaponry.
As an article from the Federation of American Scientists web site explains:
In theory, such an artificially-induced magnetic storm could wreak the sort of havoc that Wenders depicted in his film, at least over a wide swath of the planet. As the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty Organization web site notes,
The first scientist to predict the potentially disruptive electromagnetic effects of a nuclear bomb blast was physicist Enrico Fermi, who was one of the leaders of the Manhattan Project, the U.S. effort to create the first atomic bomb during World War II. British scientists who conducted nuclear tests in the early 1950s noticed that they disrupted electronic equipment, a phenomenon that they called “radio flash.” According to this 1964 paper on the effects of EMP by NASA scientist Wilmot N. Hess, with the advent of space rocketry in the late 1950s, both the U.S. and the Soviet Union began experimenting with exploding nuclear devices hundreds of miles above the Earth’s surface to create artificial magnetic fields. Hess writes that at least seven such tests were conducted. The largest was the Pentagon’s July 9, 1962 Starfish Prime test, in which a 1.4 megaton thermonuclear device was launched on a Thor rocket to about 680 miles above the Earth. On the way down, the bomb was detonated about 250 miles above Johnson Island in the south Pacific.
Starfish was what alerted military scientists to the potential of EMP weapons. The blast produced an electromagnetic pulse that was so much bigger than expected that it threw instruments out of whack, making it difficult to get accurate measurements. In Hawaii, 900 miles away, telephone service was disrupted, burglar alarms went off, and most bizarrely, 300 streetlights went dark in Honolulu, according to a 1989 report on the event from Sandia National Laboratories.
But high above the Earth, Starfish demonstrated even greater potential for havoc. In a bizarre planning snafu, Telstar, the first satellite designed to relay television broadcasts, had been scheduled for launch the day after the Starfish test. As Bell Laboratories electrical engineer James Early described in this 1990 article, the bomb blast
The effects of Starfish, however, were puny compared to the havoc wreaked by Test 184, a Soviet nuclear test conducted on October 22, 1962, at the height of the Cuban Missile Crisis showdown between the U.S. and U.S.S.R. The Kremlin cold-bloodedly decided to test the effects of an EMP on a heavily populated, developed area in Kazakhstan. As this Futurescience.com article by Jerry Emanuelson details, the 300-kiloton blast 180 miles over the region knocked out a 600-mile long underground power line running from Astana to Almaty, and ignited another fire in a power plant in the city of Karagandy by frying a shielded, buried electrical cable. According to Emanuelson, the E3, a component phase of the pulse, was more than twice as intense as that from a solar flare that crashed the entire Quebec electrical grid in 90 seconds in 1989.
Most people didn’t hear about any of this until the early 1980s, when the again-escalating arms race between the U.S. and Soviets stimulated a slew of newspaper articles and TV shows warning about the various potential horrors of a nuclear confrontation. While acknowledging that an EMP attack wouldn’t kill millions of people and obliterate cities like a straightforward nuclear missile attack, prophets of doom envisioned that it might leave us helpless to combat invading Soviet soldiers, creating a horrific scenario similar to the 1984 John Milius movie thriller “Red Dawn“. Nuclear scientist Edward Teller warned in a 1983 New York Times article that
But even after the fall of the Soviet Union caused fears of a superpower confrontation to give way to the more diffuse fear of terrorists and small rogue nuclear nations such as North Korea, fears of a paralyzing EMP attack continued to haunt defense planners. In a 2004 report, a commission of experts assessed the threat of an EMP attack to the U.S., and sketched out a scary picture of how today’s U.S., which is far more dependent upon electronic gadgetry than it was decades ago, would be affected.
Frightening, huh? The report also suggested that other countries may have battle plans in place to use EMP against the U.S., should they ever come into conflict with us.
The report also suggested possible measures for protecting the U.S. against an EMP effect, or at least reducing its potential impact. U.S. power grids and computer networks, for example, could be decentralized to prevent cascading breakdowns, and plans could be laid to quickly repair systems and get them back online in the event of an attack. But none of that sounds very reassuring. That may be one reason why the U.S. is pressing ahead with something that may serve as an effective deterrent — missiles and/or drone aircraft that would use microwaves instead of nuclear bombs to create devastating EMP surges, a lot more quickly and efficiently.
Explorer‘s “Electronic Armageddon” airs Tuesday, June 15 at 10P et/pt.