The high temperatures and energetic radiation produced by nuclear explosions also produce large amounts of ionized (electrically charged) matter which is present immediately after the explosion. Under the right conditions, intense currents and electromagnetic fields can be produced, generically called EMP (Electromagnetic Pulse), that are felt at long distances. Living organisms are impervious to these effects, but electrical and electronic equipment can be temporarily or permanently disabled by them. Ionized gases can also block short wavelength radio and radar signals (fireball blackout) for extended periods.
The occurrence of EMP is strongly dependent on the altitude of burst. It can be significant for surface or low altitude bursts (below 4,000 m); it is very significant for high altitude bursts (above 30,000 m); but it is not significant for altitudes between these extremes. This is because EMP is generated by the asymmetric absorption of instantaneous gamma rays produced by the explosion. At intermediate altitudes the air absorbs these rays fairly uniformly and does not generate long range electromagnetic disturbances.
The formation EMP begins with the very intense, but very short burst of gamma rays caused by the nuclear reactions in the bomb. About 0.3% of the bomb’s energy is in this pulse, but it lasts for only 10 nanoseconds or so. These gamma rays collide with electrons in air molecules, and eject the electrons at high energies through a process called Compton scattering. These energetic electrons in turn knock other electrons loose, and create a cascade effect that produces some 30,000 electrons for every original gamma ray.
In low altitude explosions the electrons, being very light, move much more quickly than the ionized atoms they are removed from and diffuse away from the region where they are formed. This creates a very strong electric field which peaks in intensity at 10 nanoseconds. The gamma rays emitted downward however are absorbed by the ground which prevents charge separation from occurring. This creates a very strong vertical electric current which generates intense electromagnetic emissions over a wide frequency range (up to 100 MHZ) that emanate mostly horizontally. At the same time, the earth acts as a conductor allowing the electrons to flow back toward the burst point where the positive ions are concentrated. This produces a strong magnetic field along the ground. Although only about 3x10^-10 of the total explosion energy is radiated as EMP in a ground burst (10^6 joules for 1 Mt bomb), it is concentrated in a very short pulse. The charge separation persists for only a few tens of microseconds, making the emission power some 100 gigawatts. The field strengths for ground bursts are high only in the immediate vicinity of the explosion. For smaller bombs they aren’t very important because they are strong only where the destruction is intense anyway. With increasing yields, they reach farther from the zone of intense destruction. With a 1 Mt bomb, they remain significant out to the 2 psi overpressure zone (5 miles).
High altitude explosions produce EMPs that are dramatically more destructive. About 3x10^-5 of the bomb’s total energy goes into EMP in this case, 10^11 joules for a 1 Mt bomb. EMP is formed in high altitude explosions when the downwardly directed gamma rays encounter denser layers of air below. A pancake shaped ionization region is formed below the bomb. The zone can extend all the way to the horizon, to 2500 km for an explosion at an altitude of 500 km. The ionization zone is up to 80 km thick at the center. The Earth’s magnetic field causes the electrons in this layer to spiral as they travel, creating a powerful downward directed electromagnetic pulse lasting a few microseconds. A strong vertical electrical field (20-50 KV/m) is also generated between the Earth’s surface and the ionized layer, this field lasts for several minutes until the electrons are recaptured by the air. Although the peak EMP field strengths from high altitude bursts are only 1-10% as intense as the peak ground burst fields, they are nearly constant over the entire Earth’s surface under the ionized region.
The effects of these field on electronics is difficult to predict, but can be profound. Enormous induced electric currents are generated in wires, antennas, and metal objects (like missiles, airplanes, and building frames). Commercial electrical grids are immense EMP antennas and would be subjected to voltage surges far exceeding those created by lightning, and over vastly greater areas. Modern VLSI chips are extremely sensitive to voltage surges, and would be burned out by even small leakage currents. Military equipment is generally designed to be resistant to EMP, but realistic tests are very difficult to perform and EMP protection rests on attention to detail. Minor changes in design, incorrect maintenance procedures, poorly fitting parts, loose debris, moisture, and ordinary dirt can all cause elaborate EMP protections to be totally circumvented. It can be expected that a single high yield, high altitude explosion over an industrialized area would cause massive disruption for an indeterminable period, and would cause huge economic damages (all those damaged chips add up).
A separate effect is the ability of the ionized fireball to block radio and radar signals. Like EMP, this effect becomes important with high altitude bursts. Fireball blackout can cause radar to be blocked for tens of seconds to minutes over an area tens of kilometers across. High frequency radio can be disrupted over hundreds to thousands of kilometers for minutes to hours depending on exact conditions.