Electromagnetic pulses in history
An electromagnetic pulse attack could cripple Britain’s infrastructure, MPs have warned. Here are examples of how the phenomenon has disrupted life.
By Matthew Holehouse
22 Feb 2012
The first recorded damage from an electromagnetic pulse came with the solar storm of August 1859, or the Carrington Event. It was the largest solar storm in recorded history. Sunspots and flares could be seen on the sun. It was followed by a huge geomagnetic storm. The Northern Lights could be seen across the world, and were bright enough to read a newspaper by. Telegraph systems in Europe and North America threw sparks, set light to paper and gave their operators electric shocks.
A similar, but milder, storm occured in March 1989. It knocked out power supplies in Quebec, jammed radio signals and weather satellites and caused aurora as far south as Texas – leading some to believe a nuclear attack was underway.
The phenomenon of electromagnetic interference was noticed during the early nuclear tests in the Cold War. British scientists attributed instrumentation failures to what they dubbed ‘radioflash’.
Its potential as a weapon was first realised by the US military. In the Starfish Prime test in 1962 a 1.44 megaton warhead was donated 250 miles into space. The pulse knocked out street lights and damaged telephones on Hawaii.