When Americans think about the threat from foreign missiles, it’s nearly always the catastrophic effect of a conventional nuclear blast that comes to mind. We think of the doomsday scenarios that have played out in so many movies and TV shows: a nuke explodes over a large city -- leveling buildings, crushing houses and creating a swath of destruction.
But that’s not the only threat that can come from a missile fired from a rogue nation, or one that has fallen into the hands of terrorists. We could also fall victim to the devastating effects of an electromagnetic pulse. With an EMP, almost everything powered by electricity would be effectively wiped out -- not physically, but practically. They would simply cease to work.
Imagine the havoc this could cause. Your cell phone? Useless. The same goes for your TV, radio and computer. Your car might still run, but good luck driving on roads with no working stoplights, accessing your GPS devices for directions, or buying gasoline from pumps that won’t pump. We’d be in the dark, literally -- plunged into the early 19th century in a matter of seconds.
Sound like science fiction? It’s understandable that some people would think so, especially anyone who has seen the flashy EMP attacks dramatized in shows such as “24.” Unfortunately, it’s all too real. Why? Because an EMP isn’t an altogether new, high-tech weapon. It’s the same nuclear blast we’ve come to fear as a potential destroyer of our cities. It’s just used in an alternate way.
The difference: the location of the blast. In a conventional nuclear attack, the bomb is timed to explode close to the ground. The resulting radiation blast wreaks great physical damage. But with an EMP, the same kind of bomb is set to explode high in the air. When that happens, the blast doesn’t level a city. But it does knock out the power grid, leaving the residents that have come to depend on it largely helpless.
And who among us doesn’t depend on electricity? What a chaotic, dangerous mess this weapon could leave in its wake. Everyday life would grind to a halt. Almost every feature of 21st century life that we’ve come to rely on, from fully-stocked grocery stores to fire and ambulance services, would be gone in an instant.