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Introduction to the CME & the EMP and how to protect against them

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CME stands for Coronal Mass Ejection, EMP stands for Electro-Magnetic Pulse.

Both of these are large emissions of electromagnetic energy that can and have affected electronics on Earth…the power grid, communications, vehicles, the internet, etc.

So why is this important and why should you be concerned with it?  Because it has happened before on more than one occasion:

  • In September of 1859, amateur astronomer Richard Carrington witnessed this.  One evening telegraph communications around the world began to fail…the telegraph lines acted as antennas.  There were reports of sparks coming from telegraph machines and of operators getting shocked.  A massive solar flare with the energy of multiple atomic bombs sent electromagnetic energy towards Earth.  The resulting geomagnetic storm was called the “Carrington Event” and was the largest on record to have ever struck the planet.  Some telegraph links were even able to be used without batteries as there was enough energy in the air to power the equipment.
  • In July of 1962, the US conducted a high altitude nuclear test called “Starfish Prime”.  A 1.44 Megaton warhead was detonated at a height of 250 miles over the Johnston Atoll in the Pacific Ocean.  Electrical damage including burning out hundreds of street lamps and setting off burglar alarms in Hawaii, about 900 miles away.
  • In 1989 a CME hit Quebec and shut down its hydro-electric power station for 9 hours.

Fast forward to modern times where everything is computer controlled and operates on a much lower voltage and you can see the reason for concern.

To understand how this all works and to protect our equipment from it, we need to look at the mechanics:

  • A CME is a large wave of electromagnetic energy that is emitted from the Sun.  Emissions happen all the time and the Earth’s magnet field protects us from many of them.  However, if the emission is strong enough and directed towards earth, the energy can get through and damage electronic devices.
  • An EMP is basically the same thing but manmade in the form of and EMP generator or a nuclear bomb detonation.

We also need to know what electromagnetic energy and radio waves are.

  • A radio frequency is energy in the form of an electro-magnetic wave.  It is alternating current (AC) electricity that oscillates (cycles back and forth) at a fixed rate.  This rate is its frequency measured in hertz (Hz).
  • Here’s an example:  Your car stereo has numbers for the station like 97.5 in the FM mode.  This is the radio station’s frequency in MHz (Megahertz)AM 600 would be 600 KHz (Kilohertz).  HAM radio, cell phones, 2-way radios, etc. all operate on different frequency bands.  Since frequencies can be selected, electronic equipment can be designed to transmit and receive on exact frequencies and talk to each other.  Equipment is tuned to specific frequencies.
  • When a radio AC signal is amplified with power and attached to an antenna, it radiates from that antenna in an electromagnetic form (transmission). It is flying through the air as electromagnetic energy. When that signal hits a receiving antenna the electromagnetic energy is induced around the metal antenna and converts back into an electrical AC signal…just at a lower level. It is then decoded by the receiving equipment. Antenna length is proportional to the frequency being used. Broadcast AM antennas are very long and Wi-Fi antennas are very short. The higher the frequency the shorter the antenna.

Now to the CME and EMP.  When either of these occurs they generate a huge amount of energy on all frequencies from DC to light…radio waves and light are part of the electromagnetic spectrum.  Since all frequencies are generated, all electronic devices are susceptible to the waves and if the level is strong enough the electronics can be destroyed.

Our world is full of antennas and wires and this makes electronics susceptible.  When a CME or EMP happens, the released energy goes into everything with wires attached:  power cords, antennas, battery leads, control cables, automobile computers, etc.

Our power grid is the most at risk.  All of the power wires running across the country act as antennas.  So do the phone lines, cable TV cables, and everything else with exposed wiring.  All equipment connected is in danger.  When a CME or EMP strikes, the majority of electrical damage comes from too much voltage on the power lines and antennas.  Most wireless devices powered up can also be damaged.

So how do we protect against this at home and on the move?

  • For home:  Shielding our power input to our homes via in-house surge protectors and filters or unplugging equipment when not in use.
  • Mobile:  Physical shielding such as a faraday cage around our gear.

Being in the communications business, I have witnessed what lightning can do to a tower site.  This is the closest thing I have seen to an EMP. Here are some pics of a tower shack that got hit by lightning. Lightning did not hit the tower. It hit the telephone/power pole about 50 feet away. The lightning followed the phone line underground and into the shack. The air inside superheated and the building exploded.

I also have access to high power radio equipment and have done experimentation with faraday cages.  I took a 100 watt mobile radio that will transmit an easy 50 miles in open terrain and talked to a portable 5 feet away.  I shielded this portable inside a microwave oven, metal popcorn tin, metal trash can, etc.  The only thing that would completely shield all RF was properly wrapped multiple layers of aluminum foil.  This is a cheap and easy shielding for all of your electronic devices that go in a bug out bag.

I hope this information is helpful.  There is only a small chance of this happening but there still is a chance.  EMP weapons are a real thing and our solar system is acting a little crazy right now.  It’s always wise to be prudent.  I’d hate to be without my flashlight, 2-way radios, MP3 player, and the like.

J – The Practical Pitstop



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