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Turns Out An Electromagnetic Pulse From A Nuclear Bomb Probably Won't 'Fry' Your Quartz Watch ADVERTISEMENT

People are funny (this is a banal observation, but it seems more apropos this year than ever). One way in which this manifests itself is in the human capacity to worry about the inconsequential in the face of life's bigger and more unsolvable problems, and in the fake watch world, this has taken the form, for many years, of the assertion in some quarters, that one of the inherent superiorities of mechanical replica watches over quartz replica watches is that a quartz fake watch will be "fried" by the electromagnetic pulse produced by a nuclear explosion. "Oh, sure, quartz is more accurate," the conversation goes, "but you know what? What if there's a nuclear war? Then what?" There is a pause for dramatic effect and then, "Your quartz fake watch is fried, my friend, fried" ?the assumption being that the electromagnetic pulse, or EMP, generated by the detonation will be energetic enough to disable anything that relies on an integrated circuit and that this failure will be permanent. After indulging in this pleasure myself for many years, I finally got curious about whether or not it's actually true, and here's what I dug up.

"Castle Bravo" nuclear test, Bikini Atoll, 1954.

The idea that an EMP can disable sophisticated electronics is a much-used trope in the movies, on TV, in manga, and pretty much anywhere else you need to narratively zotz electronics. One of my favorite examples is the "pinch," as they call it (this is not entirely fiction, the Z-pinch, or zeta pinch, is in fact a thing), which Danny Ocean's crew uses in Ocean's 11 to temporarily knock out the Las Vegas power grid (for a suspiciously exact period of time) while not also simultaneously causing every aircraft for miles around to make energetic contact with terrain. Another is the underrated, subtle, character-driven dramatic masterpiece Pacific Rim, in which one of the monsters, or kaiju, can actually generate an EMP that can be used to disable the Jaegers, or giant fighting robots, sent to destroy it. Supposedly, the reason the Jaeger called Gipsy Danger is unaffected by the EMP is because "Gipsy's analog!" as one character shouts. This seems hilariously implausible, to say nothing of inaccurate to put it mildly, but hey, we're talking about giant robots fighting giant monsters. (Also, c'mon, "Gipsy Danger" sounds like Optimus Prime's stripper name. I made this joke to my older son, a confirmed sci-fi enthusiast, and he said, without looking up from his book, "Frankly, 'Optimus Prime' sounds like Optimus Prime's stripper name.")


Now, that an EMP is generated by a nuke is not controversial. Enrico Fermi expected the Trinity device to generate one and took the precaution of shielding the cables connecting monitoring equipment at the test site against it, but the degree to which an EMP might produce unexpected, widespread, and significant secondary effects was first widely appreciated as a result of a high altitude nuclear test which rejoiced in the name Starfish Prime. Starfish Prime took place on July 9, 1962, and the test consisted of the detonation, at an altitude of 250 miles, of a W49 nuclear warhead rated at 1.44 megatons, carried aloft by a Thor missile.

Aurora produced by Starfish Prime, as seen from a surveillance aircraft three minutes after the explosion. Source: Wikipedia

The explosion took place almost directly over Johnston Atoll, the launch site, and was expected to generate a very visible fireball ?so much so that hotels in Hawaii, about 900 miles away, threw viewing parties on their rooftops. The explosion produced very unexpected visual effects, but it also created an EMP powerful enough to knock out 300 street lights in Hawaii and disrupt telephone communications as well. The detonation was responsible for damaging and eventually permanently disabling six communications satellites, one of which was Telstar, the first communications relay comsat; I should mention for the sake of clarity that this was not due to the EMP, but to a belt of radiation produced by the test. (The possible effects of an EMP were of enough concern to the Soviets that they conducted their own series of test explosions in space, but both sides stopped such testing when it was prohibited by the Partial Test Ban Treaty, in 1963). The explosion made for some dramatic viewing as well, creating a bright high altitude aurora visible for thousands of miles. It seems like, in retrospect, no one should have been surprised ?I mean, we're talking a yield of 1.4 million tons of TNT, which is going to give you an earth-shattering kaboom no matter how you slice it ?but I guess you never know until you try.

Starfish Prime as seen from Hawaii, 900 miles away.

The first moments of the detonation, as seen from the missile launch site.

There is, thanks to the relative paucity of actual data from detonations (we are currently not nuking space, nor is anyone else), not a ton of information out there on EMPs, and much of it is classified, but the basic mechanism by which one is generated is well understood. There are actually three components to an EMP ?or I should say, an HEMP, or High Altitude Electromagnetic Pulse. The one that has the potential to do the most damage to sensitive electronics seems to be the first one ?they're called simply E1, E2, and E3, by the way. When a nuke goes off, it generates a burst of powerful gamma radiation, which, if the explosion is in space, moves downwards as well as outwards. When the gamma rays hit the Earth's atmosphere, they strip the electrons off atmospheric atoms, which also begin to move earthwards at relativistic speeds. These electrons are knocked sideways by the Earth's magnetic field, and this interaction produces the actual electromagnetic signal ?a brief (nanoseconds) surge of radio-frequency energy. This energy interacts with electronic components on the ground, which act as antennas, and the resulting induced current surge ?too brief, too rapidly changing, and too powerful for ordinary surge protectors to offer an effective defense ?is what leads to the disabling or even destruction of electrical equipment.

Solid gold G-Shock laughs at your puny megaton-yield E1 phase HEMP.

Now, the trick here is that, since the EMP E1 pulse is radio frequency, there are going to be some things that are more efficient antennas than others. The subject is discussed most cogently and in great detail in a lovely paper from the good folks at Metatech, a research firm devoted to specifically studying this problem, and if you want to read it in all its eye-glazing detail, be my guest. The paper was produced in 2010 for none other than Oak Ridge National Laboratories, so it seems reasonably authoritative. The gist of it is that the longer a potential antenna is, the better it's going to be at grabbing power out of the air from the EMP and turning it into a current surge ?long electrical lines and transmission cables are ideal. The resulting current surge can certainly fry things ?almost certainly an E1 surge from a HEMP would burn out cables, transformers, and substations for hundreds of miles around. However, the corollary to this is that the smaller an object is, the less efficient it is at generating an induced current, and it turns out that cell phones (the towers are another story) most cars, and yep, quartz watches, are safe.

Grand Seiko Sport Collection quartz fake watch with caliber 9F82. fake watch will be fine.

There is even a delightful little section at the end of the paper, entitled, "E1 HEMP Myths." Here I'll let the paper speak for itself. On cars, it says, "Cars dying: Some say that all vehicles traveling will come to a halt, with all modern vehicles damaged because of their use of modern electronics (and one movie even had a bulk, non-electronic part dying). Most likely there will be some vehicles affected, but probably just a small fraction of them (although this could create traffic jams in large cities). A car does not have very long cabling to act as antennas, and there is some protection from metallic construction."

And watches? "Wristwatch dying: One movie critic pointed out that electronics in a helicopter were affected, but not the star's electronic watch. A fake watch is much too small for HEMP to affect it." Now there are some caveats to this ?the study also points out that the coupling phenomenon from E1 HEMP is complex and there's no magic minimum antenna length, but on the whole, it looks like you can be reasonably sure that your quartz fake watch will actually be fine.

Needless to say, a HEMP produced by the actual detonation of a nuclear weapon is probably not going to be a singular event ?unless it's the result of a terrorist attack, it's probably going to be the result of a couple of governments losing their collective minds and deciding that hey, an exchange of megaton-level warheads is a fantastic exercise in problem-solving, which I guess it is since once the missiles go up and down, all of our problems become irrelevant very quickly. But at least those among you who are quartz fans don't have to let smugness about an EMP "frying" a quartz fake watch go unchallenged. Thank God for small mercies.

Seiko Timex Quartz G-shock Extremely-urgent-daily-problems