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[ISN] Apocalypse Soon?
Forwarded from: William Knowles <wk@xxxxxxx>
At the core of the major blackouts is the lethal combination of Nature
and the human preoccupation with economic "efficiency"
The major blackouts in New York and London, in Denmark and now
throughout Italy, in conjunction with the overall stress caused to
power grids in Europe because of the long, hot summer, illustrate
real-case scenarios for chaos. Yet are these mere warnings of a
possible major catastrophe set to hit the on-line world in the near
This past Sunday all of Italy found itself groping in the dark. A
major blackout had cut power to some fifty million people, paralysing
transport networks. Although the blackout occurred when businesses
were not likely to be open and industries running, it nevertheless
caused major problems, especially in Rome. The Italian capital
happened to be running a program called "white night" in where museums
were open all night long free of charge to the general public; extra
public transport was provided to the various events.
As a result, more people were out and about then usual. Moreover, as
the weather was also bad, many ended up spending the night in
underground tunnels and train stations; some were even caught in
The Italian blackout also caused problems in other countries as well,
such as Hungary. Two Hungarian power blocks were shut down, but the
Paks nuclear plant was able to handle the surge and avoided the
blackout from spreading in Hungary. By noon everything was back to
All this comes at a time when many industrial countries are facing
similar problems. On August 15th, unprecedented chaos broke out as the
result of a major blackout along the eastern coast of the US and
Canada. Dozens of major cities were paralysed for hours and tens of
thousands were trapped in subway tunnels. Two weeks later, London also
suffered a similar situation as a forty minute blackout brought
city-life to a standstill. As in New York, many became trapped in the
tunnels of the underground.
The mid-August blackout wasn't the first of its kind in US history. In
November 1965 30 million people were without power on the east coast
and in Canada. Prior to this year, the last major blackout was in
1996. The worst, at least from a socio-political perspective, occurred
on July 13th, 1977, when a lightening strike left 8 million New
Yorkers without power. Within a few hours thousands of shops were
robbed, vandalised, and set on fire. Damage was in the area of 60
As a result of these blackouts in the US -- and their after-effects --
attempts were made to deal with future problems. Six thousand power
stations were subsequently linked together in order to circumvent and
compensate for a blackout. The only problem was that a major blackout,
especially during the heavy loads of the summer, threatens to cause a
domino-effect and handicap the entire system. The likelihood of such a
major blackout happening was high given the fact that more than half
the power stations are in private hands and, in the interest of
turning a handsome profit, upgrades to the system have been held back
due to cost-cutting measures.
In order to play down the seriousness of the situation, experts stated
that the major blackout in the US didn't pose a threat to the economy.
The biggest area where losses were felt was at the motor industry
centered in Detroit. Air transport also had a difficult time as many
international flights were affected. However, other areas came through
unscathed. The New York Stock Exchange, for instance, survived thanks
to its own backup generators.
The blackouts bare the Achilles Heel of our our "information society"
As for the major blackout in Italy, the country-wide power outage has
shown how vulnerable are those which depend on power from outside
sources (apparently, a problem in Switzerland was the cause of the
Italian blackout). But although people like to consume a lot of
energy, few are willing to have the sight and, in some cases, the
relative danger, of a power plant (especially if it's nuclear) nearby.
It also illustrates the inherent weakness of globalisation and
modern-day economics in which production and distribution networks are
highly integrated and overly centralised.
Because of the chaos caused by major blackouts in New York, London and
now all of Italy, many western countries have been re-evaluating their
power grid systems. Most, however, continue to take a complacent
attitude to the present state of affairs. In Hungary, for example,
authorities stress that in the case of a major blackout the metro
system in Budapest would still be able to run for about an hour.
According to experts, it's unthinkable that a situation like what
happened in the US, UK, or Italy in terms of a paralysed underground
network would occur in the Hungarian capital. The metro system gets
its power from several points, they argue, and in the case of a major
blackout backup generators automatically provide enough power for
metro cars to make it to the nearest station. To date, there hasn't
been a case yet of the metro not running due to a power failure.
It would be foolhardy to believe, however, that because of such good
fortune a problem isn't likely to happen. What is more, it lays bare
the Achilles Heel of our digital era as our "information society" is
wholly dependent on the electricity grid. Without electric power,
public transport can't run, businesses can't operate, and people can't
communicate. Whereas in the pre-digital days people were still able to
go about their business during a blackout, albeit not very easily,
it's near impossible nowadays as simple over-the-counter transactions
are all handled by "smart" machines and computers. And as everyone
gets use to living in a "cashless" society, when the ATMs don't work
and your wallet is empty then you are really cashless.
Ironically, at the core of the problem is not terrorism or some
metaphysical enigma, but the lethal combination of Mother Nature and
the human preoccupation with economic "efficiency". Both the major US
blackout and the one which affected all of Italy were caused by a
fallen tree branch.
Precursor to a massive on-line blackout?
Already, there have been signs that present-day power grids are unable
to cope with a little outside pressure. The effects of the long, dry,
and hot summer is a case in point. Throughout Europe there was cause
for concern. Indeed, at the time of the major US blackout, Hungary's
largest hydro-electric plant at Ikervar on the Raba river introduced
water rationing measures. Out of the five turbines, which generate a
total of 2,200 kWH of energy, only the smallest was still running. At
full capacity, the power station provides enough energy for three
thousand people; by mid-August, it was running at a tenth of its
normal capacity. Elsewhere, such as power plant at Gyongyos creek, the
turbines were shut down because of low water levels.
At the end of the day, while it may be easy to explain such
occurrences on exceptional circumstances, be they freaks of nature or
the will of God, there is no escaping the fact that the present
predicament is the result of our doing, exacerbated by the process of
globalisation. Our increased use of energy in conjunction with moves
by governments to "privatise" or "liberalise" everything that once had
belonged to a community or society as a whole has led to a
dilapidation of public infrastructures. In terms of the the energy
sector, governments have given over a key element public
infrastructure over to giant corporations which, in turn, have failed
to invest in alternative energy sources and to upgrade the systems.
All this is a precursor to a massive on-line blackout which will see
the Internet handicapped by a privatisation process which had handed
over a public commodity to large business interests who are foremost
concerned with securing a profit rather than dealing with technical
questions and details such as scaling the infrastructure to meet
reminder of just how vulnerable the Internet really is. The interest
of big business in securing "cyberspace" as a new place to shop and
advertise has been pursued at the expense of network stability and
interoperability. During the heyday of the "Internet revolution" the
main concern was to get as many people on-line as possible with little
regard for such technical issues such as bandwidth and the Domain Name
System (DNS). More time and energy was diverted instead to issues such
as the rights to a domain name and trademarks than the threat of a
limited number IP spaces.
Hence, in many ways the problems inherent in electricity grids are the
same as those which afflict computer networks. While much ado has been
made of the evil nature of hackers, worms, and viruses, the Internet
has suffered greatly from non "terror" related problems. The Internet
has crawled to a halt on a number of occasions due to technical
failure and simple network overload, as in the case of the Mars probe
when everyone rushed on-line to see what was happening.
Not only this, but as with electricity and our insatiable thirst for
energy, the mere dynamics of technological expansion is a major
contributor to the problem. Satellites play an increasingly crucial
role in transmitting information around the planet, with space
becoming an essential part of telecommunication infrastructure. Over
the last few years, a number of problems have started to emerge whose
cause is loosely termed "space debris". Much of this man-made: the
remnants of rockets, satellites, and space stations. Some of the
problems, however, are also of natural origin: meteors and solar
radiation, for instance. In fact, ESA (European Space Agency) and NASA
scientists have warned that the earth is about to face a decade long
galactic dust storm (cf. www.cordis.lu; record control number 20688).
They estimate that the amount of galactic dust entering the solar
system is three times higher than during the 1990s. It's believed that
the sun could be responsible for the increase, which threatens to play
havoc with our space-borne machinery.
Already accidents have started to occur. In May 1988, a satellite
operated by PanAmSat spun out of control because of "sky static".
Pager traffic was wiped out, credit card transactions halted, and
media stations (TV and radio) were knocked off the air. In 1997 AT&T's
Telstar 401 satellite was destroyed, knocking out thousands of
television sets and telephones.
In light of the impressive catalog of minor disasters which have thus
far occurred, some (like Antony Milne in his book "Sky Static: The
Space Debris Crisis") conclude that it's inevitable that eventually
something catastrophic will occur. But we don't have to look so high
in the sky for such catastrophes: a more down to earth example, like
the ice storm which hit eastern Canada in 1999, did an impressive job
in crippling all aspects of social life: both on-line and off.
While accidents do happen, it's another story altogether when the
scale of these accidents are exacerbated by negligence and even
ignorance, coupled with an interdependence which turns a local problem
into a regional, national, or even an international one. When all this
is combined with the fact that western society has prematurely put
most of its vital functions in terms of commerce, bureaucracy, and
even access to basic information on weak and dilapidated energy and
communications network infrastructures, it's a recipe for disaster.
"Communications without intelligence is noise; Intelligence
without communications is irrelevant." Gen Alfred. M. Gray, USMC
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