How an EMP Disaster would Endanger Our Lives

I don’t think this particular TEOTWAWKI disaster will happen in the short-term. But nuclear proliferation is making it seem inevitable, in the long run. North Korea has nuclear bombs and missiles. They apparently don’t have a nuke small enough to fit on a missile, nor a missile with enough range to hit the U.S. But they continue to advance in capabilities. Iran has medium range missiles, and they have been trying to make nuclear weapons for many years now. Eventually, some rogue nation is going to get enough missile range and a powerful enough nuclear bomb to cause an EMP.

EMP is very hard to defend against. If North Korea extends its missile range to include Hawaii — well, it’s a relatively small target for the crude ballistic missiles of North Korea. But with EMP, you don’t need to hit a target, just get the missile high in the atmosphere anywhere in the general vicinity above your target. The results could be devastating to our high-tech society.

Smart phones, laptops, iPads, cable DVR boxes, video game consoles are all just versions of computers, and all are susceptible to EMP. And more and more products in modern life are becoming computerized. Your wind-up watch will work, but your Apple watch will not. Your late-model car probably can’t function without its built-in computer chips. The modern landline phone system is packet-based; it works much like the internet, and depends entirely on computers. And the entire electrical grid will likely be knocked out for months, perhaps years. Life as we know it will change very dramatically.

Transportation will be devastated by EMP. Modern cars cannot function without computer chips to control the engine. Gasoline distribution requires electricity. As we saw after Superstorm Sandy, gas stations were shut down until power was restored. No transportation means people cannot get to the resources they need, and the resources cannot be brought to them, at least not easily. Travel away from the EMP affected area will be difficult also.

Most serious, though, is the possibility that EMP will knock out modern infrastructure for providing food and water.

No more water from the tap means you can’t survive in the city. There is not enough water in “nature” (whatever that means in a city setting) for the high population density. The same will be true in the suburbs. Not enough rain falls on your 1/4 acre lot per year to provide for your family. Rural residents might be able to find water, but they will need to purify it, and at that point the equipment to do so will be scarce and very expensive. There will be a mass exodus from the cities affected by EMP, for lack of water and food.

Suppose that the EMP affects only a portion of the U.S. Most of our food production resources could be unaffected. So the nation is still producing food. But the residents of the affected area will not be able to obtain that food. They will quickly run out of money. Most businesses cannot function without electricity, water, computers, and various supplies. And a food give-away would be chaotic and mostly ineffectual. Plus, the government will be slow to respond.

In rural areas, people will need to grow their own food. If the entire population decides to feed itself by foraging, hunting, and fishing, the area will be depleted of those food resources in a short time. Without irrigation and much in the way of fertilizer, crop yields will be low. Land not previously used for crops will need to be utilized, and agricultural machinery will be lacking. I estimate that at least 4 acres of land will be needed, per person, to feed the population — and then only if the land is used efficiently. Cities and suburban areas will not have enough land.

In fact, the entire United States might not have enough arable land to feed our population without modern agriculture. At 321 million persons and 4 acres of land per person (due to reduced crop yields and the lack of mechanized agriculture), we would need 1.284 billion acres of arable land. The U.S. currently has 383.3 million acres of arable land. That’s 30% of what we would need.

Arable land is defined as: land used for annual crops, temporary meadows for mowing or for pasture, land under market or kitchen gardens, and land temporarily fallow. It excludes land used for tree crops (nuts, fruits); but those crops do not produce many calories per acre per year.

Now we could convert land that is not currently considered “arable”, including lawns, fields owned by private or government entities, and undeveloped areas. But that type of conversion to agricultural use is difficult without machinery. You have to till the soil by hand, and amend it with fertilizer (which will be hard to obtain). There is enough undeveloped land in the U.S. But it would take years to convert enough of it for crops use.

Another problem is land versus population distribution. Much of our cropland is in rural areas of the nation. So where we have a high population density, there is little cropland. And where we have large amounts of cropland, we have relatively few people. Without mechanized agriculture, the rural population cannot continue to grow food for the nation. Without efficient means of transportation, any food grown cannot be distributed to population centers. And if we move people to where the food is, there are not enough homes for them to live in.

Modern agriculture uses machinery to grow vast amounts of food from relatively few workers. When a nation grows food mainly by manual labor, at least half the workforce needs to work in agriculture. In the U.S., about 3% of the workforce is in agriculture. If an EMP (or other disaster) forces us to switch to manual labor agriculture, we will not have the workforce. Even if people are willing, most have no knowledge or experience in growing food.

So if EMP strikes this nation, loss of internet, computers, and smart phones will be the least of our problems. Thirst and starvation will be the main issues.

– Thoreau

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