Riblet#32: Suspend Disbelief and Understand your Dependencies

Over the past 20 years, it has often been difficult to get companies to take planning and preparation for a potential pandemic seriously. It was too remote a possibility. 

It could be said that it is only human to treat such low probability/high impact events in this way, and to avoid spending money that perhaps the directors felt was needless or wasteful, especially if they had had no experience of such an event (countries with experience of SARS were far better prepared for C-19). A notable exception was provided by American vice-president Dick Cheney who felt that a 1% chance of Pakistani scientists helping Al Qaeda develop a nuclear weapon was worth spending billions on war and homeland security – he said: “We have to treat it as a certainty in terms of our response.”

A geomagnetic storm put the power out in Quebec in 1989.  It wasn’t a big one but it gave the province pause for thought about such events.  A really big geomagnetic storm (a “Carrington Event” – named after the amateur astronomer who observed and recorded it) hit the Earth in 1859 and resulted in massive displays of the Northern and Southern Lights.  It also caused havoc on telegraph communications; some machines caught fire, some operators were electrocuted, and yet some lines continued to function without their batteries owing to the induced current from the storm.  It is estimated that there is a one-in-ten chance of a Carrington Event hitting the Earth at some time in the next ten years, and eventually, it is practically certain.

A Carrington Event is where 100m tonnes or so of charged particles are thrown off by the sun in what is called a coronal mass ejection. Induced currents would bring down electrical grids on Earth and knock out satellites.  Transformers that step voltage down between long-range transmission and distribution to homes and businesses would be destroyed.  It takes between six and twelve months to replace these transformers and few countries have the capacity to produce them.  Also,  they are not the kind of thing that you stockpile.  The result would be long-term inability to pump water, to heat and light cities, to communicate.

In the meantime, we appear to be increasing our dependency on electricity, with plans in the UK for example, to make all new cars electric by 2040.  Small-scale local supply and back-up generators may be one mitigation for the risk of loss of the electrical grid.

Whilst the risk of a Carrington Event seems remote, it highlights the world’s increasing dependency on centrally-produced electricity – and it may benefit companies to consider what other risks that presents.

Data Source:The Economist magazine article “What’s the worst that could happen?”  (June 27th); http://www.history.com; Wikipedia

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