Entries Tagged "natural disasters"

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Frank Furedi on Worst-Case Thinking

Nice essay by sociologist Frank Furedi on worse-case thinking, exemplified by our reaction to the Icelandic volcano:

I am not a natural scientist, and I claim no authority to say anything of value about the risks posed by volcanic ash clouds to flying aircraft. However, as a sociologist interested in the process of decision-making, it is evident to me that the reluctance to lift the ban on air traffic in Europe is motivated by worst-case thinking rather than rigorous risk assessment. Risk assessment is based on an attempt to calculate the probability of different outcomes. Worst-case thinking ­ these days known as precautionary thinking’ — is based on an act of imagination. It imagines the worst-case scenario and then takes action on that basis. In the case of the Icelandic volcano, fears that particles in the ash cloud could cause aeroplane engines to shut down automatically mutated into a conclusion that this would happen. So it seems to me to be the fantasy of the worst-case scenario rather than risk assessment that underpins the current official ban on air traffic.


Worst-case thinking encourages society to adopt fear as of one of the key principles around which the public, the government and various institutions should organise their lives. It institutionalises insecurity and fosters a mood of confusion and powerlessness. Through popularising the belief that worst cases are normal, it also encourages people to feel defenceless and vulnerable to a wide range of future threats. In all but name, it is an invitation to social paralysis. The eruption of a volcano in Iceland poses technical problems, for which responsible decision-makers should swiftly come up with sensible solutions. But instead, Europe has decided to turn a problem into a drama. In 50 years’ time, historians will be writing about our society’s reluctance to act when practical problems arose. It is no doubt difficult to face up to a natural disaster — but in this case it is the all-too-apparent manmade disaster brought on by indecision and a reluctance to engage with uncertainty that represents the real threat to our future.

Posted on April 29, 2010 at 6:40 AMView Comments

This Week's Movie-Plot Threat: Fungus

I had been wondering whether to post this, since it’s not really a security threat — there’s no intelligence by the attacker:

Crop scientists fear the Ug99 fungus could wipe out more than 80% of worldwide wheat crops as it spreads from eastern Africa. It has already jumped the Red Sea and traveled as far as Iran. Experts say it is poised to enter the breadbasket of northern India and Pakistan, and the wind will inevitably carry it to Russia, China and even North America — if it doesn’t hitch a ride with people first.

“It’s a time bomb,” said Jim Peterson, a professor of wheat breeding and genetics at Oregon State University in Corvallis. “It moves in the air, it can move in clothing on an airplane. We know it’s going to be here. It’s a matter of how long it’s going to take.”

Posted on June 19, 2009 at 2:03 PMView Comments

A Solar Plasma Movie-Plot Threat

This is impressive:

It is midnight on 22 September 2012 and the skies above Manhattan are filled with a flickering curtain of colourful light. Few New Yorkers have seen the aurora this far south but their fascination is short-lived. Within a few seconds, electric bulbs dim and flicker, then become unusually bright for a fleeting moment. Then all the lights in the state go out. Within 90 seconds, the entire eastern half of the US is without power.

A year later and millions of Americans are dead and the nation’s infrastructure lies in tatters. The World Bank declares America a developing nation. Europe, Scandinavia, China and Japan are also struggling to recover from the same fateful event—a violent storm, 150 million kilometres away on the surface of the sun.


It is hard to conceive of the sun wiping out a large amount of our hard-earned progress. Nevertheless, it is possible. The surface of the sun is a roiling mass of plasma—charged high-energy particles—some of which escape the surface and travel through space as the solar wind. From time to time, that wind carries a billion-tonne glob of plasma, a fireball known as a coronal mass ejection (see “When hell comes to Earth“). If one should hit the Earth’s magnetic shield, the result could be truly devastating.

The incursion of the plasma into our atmosphere causes rapid changes in the configuration of Earth’s magnetic field which, in turn, induce currents in the long wires of the power grids. The grids were not built to handle this sort of direct current electricity. The greatest danger is at the step-up and step-down transformers used to convert power from its transport voltage to domestically useful voltage. The increased DC current creates strong magnetic fields that saturate a transformer’s magnetic core. The result is runaway current in the transformer’s copper wiring, which rapidly heats up and melts. This is exactly what happened in the Canadian province of Quebec in March 1989, and six million people spent 9 hours without electricity. But things could get much, much worse than that.

Posted on March 26, 2009 at 12:44 PMView Comments

Evaluating Risks of Low-Probability High-Cost Events

Probing the Improbable: Methodological Challenges for Risks with Low Probabilities and High Stakes,” by Toby Ord, Rafaela Hillerbrand, Anders Sandberg.


Some risks have extremely high stakes. For example, a worldwide pandemic or asteroid impact could potentially kill more than a billion people. Comfortingly, scientific calculations often put very low probabilities on the occurrence of such catastrophes. In this paper, we argue that there are important new methodological problems which arise when assessing global catastrophic risks and we focus on a problem regarding probability estimation. When an expert provides a calculation of the probability of an outcome, they are really providing the probability of the outcome occurring, given that their argument is watertight. However, their argument may fail for a number of reasons such as a flaw in the underlying theory, a flaw in the modeling of the problem, or a mistake in the calculations. If the probability estimate given by an argument is dwarfed by the chance that the argument itself is flawed, then the estimate is suspect. We develop this idea formally, explaining how it differs from the related distinctions of model and parameter uncertainty. Using the risk estimates from the Large Hadron Collider as a test case, we show how serious the problem can be when it comes to catastrophic risks and how best to address it.

Posted on February 2, 2009 at 1:26 PMView Comments

UK National Risk Register

The UK has made public its previously classified National Risk Register.

The National Risk Register is intended to capture the range of emergencies that might have a major impact on all, or significant parts of, the UK. It provides a national picture of the risks we face, and is designed to complement Community Risk Registers, already produced and published locally by emergency planners. The driver for this work is the Civil Contingencies Act 2004, which also defines what we mean by emergencies, and what responsibilities are placed on emergency responders in order to prepare for them. Further information about the Act can be found on the UK Resilience website.

Seems like the greatest threat to national security is a flu pandemic.

Posted on August 13, 2008 at 11:05 AMView Comments

For a Safe Night's Sleep

This is just insane:

The Quantum Sleeper Unit is a high-level security system designed for maximum protection in various hostile environments

Quantum Sleepers can also be fitted to provide protection from destructive forces of nature such as tornados, hurricanes, earthquakes and floods.

The Quantum Sleeper is the ultimate in protection, entertainment and communications, ” ALL ROLLED UP IN ONE.”

Posted on April 1, 2008 at 1:10 PMView Comments

Spending Money on the Wrong Security Threats

This story is a year and a half old, but the lessons are still good:

Kim Hyten, emergency management director in Putnam County, said he didn’t realize homeland security grants can now be used to prepare for tornados. As a result, Putnam County is using its grant money to prepare for something else.

“Weapons of mass destruction,” Hyten said.

That’s right — weapons of mass destruction. This year, Putnam County spent most of its $58,000 homeland security grant to buy dozens of gas masks, boxes full of chemical suits, a plutonium-detecting gamma and neutron ray radiological monitor and, for good measure, this rural county about fifty miles west of Indianapolis also ordered plenty of weapons of mass destruction test strips.

But asked whether weapons of mass destruction are a concern, Hyten replied: “The weapons of mass destruction — I don’t believe this county has ever, when we did our terrorism protection plan, ever looked at that we’d be a targeted site.”

Posted on February 19, 2008 at 7:18 AMView Comments

Sidebar photo of Bruce Schneier by Joe MacInnis.