Do you know what a Coronal Mass Ejection (CME) is? Most of you probably do and I don’t want to bore you to death explaining it so let’s just say that the sun tosses plasma our way at times. Once in a great while, it throws a really big one directly at Earth and the next time this happens, you can kiss your high dollar, modern electronic equipment goodbye!
The last time a major event happened was in the 1800’s (look up the Carrington Event to read about it). The energy was absorbed by telegraph lines across the entire northern hemisphere, starting fires and even seriously shocking a few telegraph operators. Fortunately, the telegraph was the highest tech communications on the planet at the time so the damage was not that great.
We had a minor event in the 80’s that took the northeast power grid down for a bit but a CME at the level of the 1859 Carrington Event today would burn out every microprocessor, every solid state device and most satellites! This –will– happen again, it’s not a matter of if but when. It is estimated that it could take up to a decade to produce the transformers required just to bring the electrical grid back online and I think that’s probably overstated but it would certainly take a number of years. Because of the labor involved (these large transformers are hand made to order) not to mention the price and availability of copper, we simply don’t have extras sitting around.
As if we didn’t have enough to worry about eh?
In addition to a CME, we have EMP weapons too. These are not real high tech to build and can do as much or more damage than a CME can, expect them to be first strike weapons in any major war and it won’t be long before terrorist nations have them if they don’t already. It is believed that North Korea has already designed and tested them so if that is true, we can expect that technology to already be in the hands of the Iranians as well.
We take it for granted that our instant, worldwide communications will be there when we wake up every morning but what if that wasn’t so? Without communications of any kind, no Internet, no TV, no radio, what would we do? Well, it would certainly not kill us but it would be a big problem well beyond a minor inconvenience. Those with the ability to at least get news of the region and the world or even better, set up their own communication systems, would definitely have an upper hand even if it was just the peace of mind in having a little knowledge of what is going on.
In this article I will discuss a few topics including…
1. What you can do to protect your electronic equipment.
2. What type of equipment can survive a CME/EMP.
PROTECTING MODERN ELECTRONICS FROM A CME/EMP
I am an engineer who has been working in the electric motor industry for 25 years, I have also been a licensed amateur radio operator (ham radio) since childhood although I’ve let my license drop due to time constraints. I have enough knowledge about this subject to tell you that some of the articles I have read about shielding semiconductor equipment to withstand a major CME/EMP event is absolute BS!
Home made Faraday cages or wrapping your electronics in aluminum foil and storing them in a metal trashcan with a lid might protect them from a minor CME event or a near lightning strike. However, it will not save them from a major CME and it will certainly not save them from any EMP which generates a shorter duration but a much higher spike in current.
You may not want to hear this but if there is a major CME event or an EMP, your semiconductor equipment is toast and there is nothing you can do about it. Unless you are extremely wealthy or have access to a cave at least 100 feet underground, you can forget about shielding. It takes a lot of concrete, many layers of lead and a sophisticated grounding system to shield against a major event, so much so that even our military has a very limited number of hardened facilities due to the high cost of construction. You can either believe that or stay in denial but that’s the facts.
It never hurts to try so by all means, if you want to attempt to protect your emergency electronics with these home made solutions, go for it! Tin foil, metal garbage cans and a lot of praying is inexpensive and may pay off, it certainly won’t harm your electronics storing them in this manner. I recommend that you go heavy on the praying though because that is probably better protection than a home made Faraday cage.
SO WHAT KIND OF EQUIPMENT WILL SURVIVE A CME/EMP?
Late 60s and earlier tube equipment will survive and a good general coverage, shortwave receiver should be at the top of everyone’s communication list.
There are shortwave and commercial AM radio stations all over the world with tube transmitter equipment in mothballs. The radio techs have known about the potential for CMEs long before you ever heard of them and you would be surprised at the thousands of shortwave and commercial AM radio stations that keep their tube transmitters in working order for just such an event. These will be the first forms of communications brought back online and I suspect many would be operational and broadcasting within days after an event. That may very well be the only forms of communication for many years after a serious event except for the military and prepared amateur radio operators. Get a good 1.5-30 mhz communication receiver if you buy no other radio equipment, it could become your lifeline to the world!
Be careful when you buy radios made during the period of transition between tubes and transistors (late 60’s to early 70’s) because some of them contain “solid state tubes”. These are not really vacuum tubes at all but semiconductors made to plug into a vacuum tube socket and do the same thing more efficiently. Although they use less power, they are semiconductors and will burn out in the event of an EMP/CME.
Good general communications receivers from the tube era are Hallicrafters and Hammarlund and although these are probably the most common available today, there were many other brands that work well also. You can typically buy these in good working order on ebay for around $100 to $300 and if in good condition, they work as well today (or 100 years from now) as they did the day they were built. These are not sub-standard radios! At the end of the tube era there was some very good, very high tech equipment out there and much of it still works better than some of the high dollar, latest and greatest on the market today. Radio technology did not make any great leaps forward in the last 50 years, semi-conductors just made our equipment smaller with lower power requirements.
Listening to the HF (shortwave) bands requires some knowledge of the subject to do it successfully. If you bought a good general coverage receiver today and put a ten foot length of wire on it for an antenna, you would pull in local AM stations and probably a handful of high power shortwave stations with no problem. In a crisis though and certainly in the time period following the crisis, there will be far fewer stations on the air and they will be more difficult to hear.
Your antenna is the key to hearing anything and antenna theory is a huge part of any radio operation. I can not stress this enough, the best equipment with a bad antenna is absolutely useless. Any shortwave book is going to have a chapter or two on building antennas and I would recommend some study beyond that. Wire can be had from any stripped down electric motor so all you need is the knowledge to use it with great efficiency. There is a vast array of knowledge on the Internet about shortwave antennas so spend some time learning or if nothing else, buy a book on shortwave listening and a book on antennas. If the power grid goes down you will have plenty of time to study up and make your radios work even if you can’t find the time to do it next week.
Learning morse code might be required for intercepting local and national communication between ham radio operators. It might be a good idea to buy a book on learning morse code so if and when you need to, you can learn how to use it. Remember, there won’t be an Internet to obtain knowledge from on a moments notice and your local library, if operational at all could be a long journey or in a dangerous place.
We have digital TV nation wide now and what that did is assure that every single station will be wiped out of existence in the event of a serious EMP/CME event. Television is somewhat more sophisticated than radio and I don’t know how many stations out there actually have functional, analog tube transmitting equipment. No doubt there are some but the numbers are probably few and I doubt there would be much of an effort to bring them back online. If you have an old tube era TV that works and the room to store it conveniently, I wouldn’t throw it out but it’s unlikely you will ever have use for it. These are boat anchors and museum pieces now.
Don’t confuse operating a ham radio station with listening to shortwave broadcasts, it’s a whole different aspect of radio. Amateur radio (ham radio) was founded on the principle of preparedness in the event of a disaster. Then and still now, amateurs all over the world practice their art for that reason and often hold outings and field days to do so. Yes, it is a hobby but most amateur radio operators take their hobby very seriously and providing communications in the event of an emergency is still at the top of their priority list.
You don’t just plug in a ham rig and start chattering. Without a background in amateur radio you will likely not even be able to get on the air with your rig so if you are seriously thinking about it, an amateur radio study course and license is in order. It is not difficult to learn the basics and in fact, obtaining a novice license has been dumbed down to the point of questionable usefulness these days. You don’t even have to learn morse code anymore for some licenses.
Speaking of morse code, it would be wise to learn it anyway because it’s likely going to be the most common method of communication for hams directly following an event. Simple CW (continuous wave or morse code mode) cuts through interference when AM, SSB and FM modes will not work. The equipment is easier to build and maintain as well as having the potential for much longer range with lower power requirements.
In a nutshell, money you spend on ham radio equipment is going to be wasted if you don’t have the knowledge to use it so take the time to learn about amateur radio or don’t bother investing money into station equipment.
Don’t forget the lowly CB radio. Again, you can still find high end, tube era base stations on ebay cheap and a pair of them would be a very good investment. Just about anyone can operate these and although the short range of a few miles is a handicap, they are perfect for communicating within a community or between neighbors. Remember that they also require a decent antenna and the higher frequency (27 mhz) utilizes a fairly short, specialized antenna that is a bit more difficult to construct correctly from scratch. An inexpensive base station CB antenna along with some coax would be a good item to buy and stash away with your radios.
One last thing while talking about tube era communication equipment… Buy some extra tubes for your device while you still can! They may last for years but once they go out, if you don’t have a replacement, you are finished. While currently still readily available, they probably will not remain that way forever.
IS GETTING ON THE AIR A WISE THING TO DO?
After discussing how to get on the air we need to talk about if you really -want- to be on the air.
Don’t get me wrong, you absolutely need a good communications receiver and the knowledge to operate it. However, while listening to gather information and stay sane in a time of crisis is a good idea, transmitting could have some very bad consequences.
Amateur radio operators (hams) have been called upon by the local, state and federal government many times for emergencies and this would be no different. Most non-vital military VHF/UHF equipment would be down so it is safe to say that any known ham operators with functional equipment would be drafted into service as a high priority. Do you really want that kind of attention?
If you don’t have a license, it would be very unwise to operate a pirate station in the ham or shortwave bands. Direction finding and triangulation equipment is WW2 era technology, it takes little knowledge to locate you quickly and easily. If you were really, really lucky you could get a visit from your local ham organization to confiscate your equipment or draft you into service. If you are unlucky you could have guys with machine guns come to confiscate your equipment or draft you into service. If you are really, really unlucky, you could have a gang of bandits show up because they are going to know that if you have communications equipment, you probably also have food, water and weapons… Think about it.
CB radios are a little safer in that they only have about a five mile radius instead of the hundreds or thousands of miles that a ham station has. None the less, five miles is a long way in some environments and it’s even easier to pinpoint a location, two mobile receivers can locate you very quickly. Even if you are out in the sticks it would be prudent to keep radio broadcasts to a minimum for security reasons.
In conclusion, I hope I have been able to help some of you with your plans for emergency communications. Let’s hope you never have to implement them but you know the Boy Scout motto… Be Prepared!