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Canada and the United States are vulnerable to cataclysmic threat that could “topple the pillar of civilization,” according to Dr Peter Pry, head of the EMP Task Force on National Homeland Security, an advisory board for the US Congress.

Dr Pry talked about the dangers of potential electromagnetic pulse (EMP) attacks in a recent trip to Toronto, and of the importance of protecting infrastructure against this possibility. The effects of such an attack could be devastating, utterly decimating affected populations. A well-planned and well-executed attack would pose a “mortal threat to the West,” according to Pry.

Dr Pry has been a studying the dangers of EMP for decades, starting with his doctorate in strategic studies. He became a leading expert in the field after working as an analyst for the CIA, where he was the central figure charged with the issue.

The scientific community first became aware of the secondary effects of nuclear detonations following a 1962 experiment where a nuclear missile was set off at an altitude of 400 km above Hawaii, in what became known as Starfish Prime. Following the test, researchers found that undersea cables were damaged and light were knocked out, prompting the discovery of the devastating effect. Nuclear explosions release super-energetic radio waves carrying many thousands of volts that fry any piece of electronics in their path.

While most of us are worried about nuclear explosions near us, on the ground, knowledge of what nuclear weapons can do if detonated at a high enough altitude frightens some researchers even more. The higher the altitude, the wider the range EMP waves can reach, the bigger the radius of devastation.

“If you can come up 300km in the centre of the USA, it will cover all the states and the edge will hit Canada. All with one bomb,” Pry said.

There would be zero deaths from an explosion at this altitude, but the entire electrical grid would be toast.

“When the EMP field is created over the whole country it’s being injected into all your pipelines, all the railroad tracks, all the power lines, all the energy lines,” said Pry. “Naturally, it will cause everything electronic to collapse. This thing threatens the very existence of our electronic civilization. And we are an electronic civilization – everything depends on electronics.”

To take the North American example, an EMP attack would bring the continent into blackout within hours. Even if generators survived the initial attack, most only have enough fuel for a few days. Restoring the power grid – transformers and any other major device – would take months.

Food supplies would last only for a couple months, and with no proper distribution network many would starve.

“We estimated that given the current fact that the grid is unprotected, if something like this were to happen we could lose up to 90% of the population in a year… 9 out of 10 north Americans could die as a consequence.”

If you think this is all far fetched – think again.

In April 2013, a North Korean satellite orbited the Earth over the centre of the United State. “It went over us at the optimum altitude for putting an EMP field down over all 48 contiguous United States,” said Pry. “So North Korea actually practised a satellite EMP attack.”

“It went over us at the optimum altitude for putting an EMP field down over all 48 contiguous United States,” explains Pry. “So North Korean actually practised a satellite EMP attack.”

Luckily, protecting against EMP attacks shouldn’t be too hard. All it would take is a (relatively) small investment, and the will to do it. Pry, who has been advocating this issue since information on EMP was declassified by the US government in 2004, says that it would take a law to require electricity providers to install giant surge protectors at all electrical transformer stations, and other critical electrical infrastructure.

“They’re counting on us to be taken by surprise,” Pry said. It’s our duty to make sure they don’t.