Wednesday, September 21, 2016

#NatlPrep: Revisiting The Lloyds Blackout Scenario

Note: This is day 21 of National Preparedness Month . Follow this year’s campaign on Twitter by searching for the #NatlPrep hash tag.
This month, as part of NPM16, I’ll be rerunning some edited and updated older preparedness essays, along with some new ones.


In July of last year, in The Lloyd’s Business Blackout Scenario, we looked at the impact of a prolonged grid down disaster brought on by a deliberate cyber attack, which they describe as:
The report depicts a scenario where hackers shut down parts of the US power grid, plunging 15 US states and Washington DC into darkness and leaves 93 million people without power.
Experts predict it would result in a rise in mortality rates as health and safety systems fail; a decline in trade as ports shut down; disruption to water supplies as electric pumps fail and chaos to transport networks as infrastructure collapses.  

A couple of months later, well known journalist Ted Koppel published a book called Lights Out: A Cyberattack, A Nation Unprepared, Surviving the Aftermath, that explores that very scenario - one that outgoing DHS Secretary Napolitano warned about publicly in 2013.

There are hours of interviews with Ted Koppel about his book on Youtube, including with PBS, Charlie Rose, and the following hour long discussion
with the National Press Foundation. 

While the Lloyd's report and Koppel's book both concentrate on a deliberate cyber attack, there are other plausible ways the grid could fail, and the outcome would be every bit as bad (or perhaps, even worse).

Perhaps the most worrisome is a `Carrington-class' Solar storm. 

According to NASA, we actually came very close to seeing it happen in 2012 (see NASA: The Solar Super Storm Of 2012).  We've a report and a 4 minute video from NASA explaining earth's close call, then I'll return with more.

Near Miss: The Solar Superstorm of July 2012

July 23, 2014: If an asteroid big enough to knock modern civilization back to the 18th century appeared out of deep space and buzzed the Earth-Moon system, the near-miss would be instant worldwide headline news.

Two years ago, Earth experienced a close shave just as perilous, but most newspapers didn't mention it. The "impactor" was an extreme solar storm, the most powerful in as much as 150+ years.

"If it had hit, we would still be picking up the pieces," says Daniel Baker of the University of Colorado.  
A ScienceCast video recounts the near-miss of a solar superstorm in July 2012. Play it
(Continue . . . )

FEMA takes these solar storms seriously, and in 2010 held a major table-top exercise in anticipation of the upcoming solar maximum. According to a tweet from FEMA Director Craig Fugate back in 2011, they now include a solar weather update in their daily briefings.

A 30 page PDF file is available for download from the FEMA library on this exercise which envisioned a `near worst-case scenario’.
Managing Critical Disasters in the Transatlantic Domain - The Case of a Geomagnetic Storm

In 2009 the National Academy of Sciences produced a 134 page report on the potential damage that another major solar flare could cause in Severe Space Weather Events—Understanding Societal and Economic ImpactsThey wrote:
While a severe storm is a low-probability event, it has the potential for long-duration catastrophic impacts to the power grid and its affected users. The impacts could persist for multiple years with a potential for significant societal impacts and with economic costs that could be measurable in the several trillion dollars per year range. 

While this 2009 report calls it a `low-probability' event, a more recent analysis suggests the odds of earth being struck by one of these solar super storms is actually a lot higher than we’ve previously thought.

Again from the NASA article:

In February 2014, physicist Pete Riley of Predictive Science Inc. published a paper in Space Weather entitled "On the probability of occurrence of extreme space weather events."  In it, he analyzed records of solar storms going back 50+ years.  By extrapolating the frequency of ordinary storms to the extreme, he calculated the odds that a Carrington-class storm would hit Earth in the next ten years.

The answer: 12%.

And in 2013 Lloyds issued a risk assessment for the insurance industry called Solar storm Risk to the north American electric grid which calls another `Carrington’ class event inevitable, and the effects likely catastrophic, but the timing is unknowable.

Yesterday Scientific American carried a feature article on this very topic, called:

U.S. Sharpens Surveillance of Crippling Solar Storms
Next-generation space weather model will map the danger facing power grids

Obviously, most of these studies are looking at `worst-case scenarios'.  A glancing blow, or a moderate solar storm would produce far less carnage, although the power might still be out for days or weeks in some places.

Other plausible causes of a prolonged, widespread power outage include an EMP attack, a major earthquake, major hurricane, or even simply as a result of a critical failure in our aging, and over-taxed infrastructure.
The most recent ASCE (American Society of Civil Engineers) report card on America’s infrastructure (2013) warns that our cumulative GPA sits at only a D+, and two of our most vulnerable systems are drinking water and the electrical grid. 

And it’s not just an American concern. The most recent
UK: 2015 Civil Risks Register ranks both cyber attacks and large grid-down events as two of their biggest worries.

Without electrical power, water and gasoline doesn’t pump, elevators and air conditioners don’t run, ATM machines and banks close, grocery stores can’t take debit or credit cards, and everything from cooking, to flushing toilets, becomes a major challenge.

While plausible, and chilling, a cyber attack isn’t inevitable. Over enough  time hurricanes, earthquakes, and solar storms are.

While I promote general preparedness - rather than planning for a specific event - prolonged power outages are so often a big part of a wide range of disasters that being ready for one makes sense. 

So . . . if a disaster struck your region today, and the power went out, stores closed their doors, and water stopped flowing from your kitchen tap for the next 7 days  . . .  do you have: 

  • A battery operated NWS Emergency Radio to find out what was going on, and to get vital instructions from emergency officials?
  • A decent first-aid kit, so that you can treat injuries?
  • Enough non-perishable food and water on hand to feed and hydrate your family (including pets) for the duration?
  • A way to provide light (and in cold climates, heat) for your family without electricity?   And a way to cook?  And to do this safely?
  • A small supply of cash to use in case credit/debit machines are not working?
  • An emergency plan, including meeting places, emergency out-of-state contact numbers, a disaster buddy,  and in case you must evacuate, a bug-out bag?
  • Spare supply of essential prescription medicines that you or your family may need? 
If your answer is `no’, you have some work to do.  A good place to get started is by visiting

While preparedness may seem like a lot of work, it really isn’t.  You don’t need an underground bunker, an armory, or 2 years worth of dehydrated food.  But you do need the basics to carry on for a week or two, and a workable family (or business) emergency/disaster plan.
For more information on how to prepare, I would invite you  to visit:


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