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Back in early November 2017, rumors swirled on social media about an upcoming military radio drill that would cause nationwide blackouts. While a power grid failure never happened, some believe that future drills could have grim consequences.
On October 31st, 2017, two Muskegon sisters went live on Facebook to warn the masses that the U.S. Department of Defense (DOD) would be launching an Electromagnetic Pulse (EMP) Drill starting November 4th and ending November 6th, 2017. In the video, the sisters falsely claimed that the communications drill would cause the national power grid to go out for several days, prompting widespread panic on social media platforms across the web.
Following the announcement, there was more than one million searches for this topic on U.S. federal government websites within a 24-hour period. The terms “drill,” “EMP,” and “electromagnetic pulse” were commonly searched for. As you can probably guess, the claim was bogus and a widespread power outage never happened. While the drill didn’t have any ill effects, some believe that future EMP drills launched by the Department of Defense could result in unexpected power and communication outages across the grid.
Could a global blackout actually occur? Here’s what you need to know about EMP drills.
What spurred the speculation about a nationwide power grid failure was a brief announcement released by the official Department of Defense about their planned exercise. The announcement read:
“This exercise will begin with a national massive coronal mass ejection event which will impact the national power grid as well as all forms of traditional communication, including landline telephone, cellphone, satellite, and Internet connectivity.” — Army MARS Program Manager Paul English
As the message did not explicitly state that the exercise was a stimulation, many believed that that there would indeed be an impact that would affect the national power grid, causing phones, internet, and other grid-powered devices to stop functioning. In reality, the exercise had no impact on real life and was indeed, just an exercise that would simulate a massive power outage.
If it wasn’t for the rumors, the average citizen would not even know the exercise was taking place.
So, what is the Department of Defense EMP drill really? According to the DOD, it’s merely a simulation of a “very bad day.” The exercise begins with a massive national coronal mass ejection event that will have a direct and substantial impact on the national power grid. This event will affect all forms of traditional communication, such as landline telephones, cell phones, internet connectivity, and satellite. The DOD also practices solar storm scenarios, which are also just simulations.
The purpose of an EMP drill is to be prepared for events that we hope will never happen but have the potential to be earth-shattering if they do. Through training and the coordinating of existing capabilities, such as amateur radio, those involved in the exercise can work to create viable solutions that could help mankind power through if a traumatic event should ever occur on earth.
During the drill, radio operators communicate with one another to test how various communication systems connect without the use of the power grid. This allows problems to be identified early on so that they can be remedied before a real event occurs. In 2017, the exercise was performed by the Army Military Auxiliary Radio System (MARS) who conduct these types of tests on a routine basis. These MARS exercises also involve other groups, including the DOD, the Army, and volunteers.
Up until this 2017 event, not much had been said about EPM, or electromagnetic pulse. So, what exactly is it anyways? In short, EMPs are a part of nuclear arsenal weapons. A nuclear weapon can cause substantial damage in several ways, including through heat, blast, or radiation. When high-energy gamma rays combine with molecules in the air at a rate of 15 to 30 miles altitude, electrons are produced which drop down onto earth’s magnetic field. This creates an electromagnetic pulse, also known as E1.
An electromagnetic pulse can affect earth’s magnetic field at varying intensities based on the type of bomb and its size, as well as the latitude and altitude of the detonation. In addition to E1, a nuclear weapon can also produce other pulses known as E2 and E3. An E2 is an EMP that results from high-energy neurons, while a E3 is an EMP produced when a nuclear fireball expands and pushes on earth’s magnetic field.
The effects from any of these EMPs can be traumatic. An E1 pulse can produce very strong, transient electrical currents that could have a direct impact on the power grid. While smaller devices like laptops and smartphones may go unbothered, longer cables could experience a massive surge of up to 10,000 or more volts. This type of surge could cause significant panic among civilians.
It is not well-known the exact damage an EMP could cause, which is why the DOD performs these drills and simulations. By performing EMP exercises, the Department of Defense can better understand the impact of an EMP and how to best address the events that could result from such an event.
While the Department of Defense does not anticipate a complete power grid failure anytime in the near future, there is always a possibility that one could occur. Would you be prepared if there was a long-term power outage? For most people, the answer to this question is no.
You may have experienced a short-term power outage in the past. Maybe you lost power for a few hours, or possibly even a few days. Most people can deal with a power outage in the short-term by using flashlights, eating up food in their pantry, and finding alternative ways to entertain themselves. However, most people are not prepared to deal with this type of living for an extended period of time.
There are a few ways you can prepare yourself if a power grid failure should ever occur.
In addition to an EMP, the power grid could go down for other reasons. Tornados, hurricanes, and snowstorms can cause enough damage to take down transmission lines, causing a power grid failure in a specific area. Cyber-attacks, earth quakes, and other natural disasters can also result in blackouts. In some cases, human error is to blame for power grid failures. In 2003, a software “bug” caused a power outage which effected more than 10 million people in Canada and over 45 million in the U.S.
While there is nothing you can do to stop an EMP or similar event from happening, you can be prepared for if it ever does happen. Having the right tools, equipment, and food stock in your home or bug-out location can prove invaluable if you are ever in a situation in which there is a wide-spread power outage.