Thursday, August 30, 2012

Our fragile Infrastructure

There is an excellent editorial by Matt Gurney at the about the fragility of our infrastructure and how the best laid plans of governments and men go oft awry when reality proves more complex than anyone had planned for. Gureny argues that our infrastructure is more complex than anyone can possibly understand or imagine; that failures are inevitable; that restoration can be difficult; that recovery can take days, weeks or even months. We should all be prepared with supplies to care for our own needs, without power or water, for several days.

Here are some of the highlights from the editorial ...

Sometimes, huge and complicated systems (or even systems of systems) are brought down by fantastically tiny glitches that happen to strike at exactly the wrong place at the wrong time. [...] And so it was during the Northeast blackout of 2003, which cut electrical power for 55 million people in the United States and Ontario. That was eventually traced back to a combination of a computer glitch
and unusually hot weather causing power lines in Ohio to droop and make contact with tree branches that hadn’t been properly pruned. That was all it took to shut Toronto and New York City down.

[...] defending against this sort of thing is extraordinarily difficult. The systems that sustain our economy and civilization are too complex to be easily managed, or even understood by the trained professionals who run them. Returning to the 2003 blackout, the investigation into it revealed that even as the situation spiralled out of
control, utilities operators in Ohio had no appreciation that their electrical grid had become unstable and little understanding of how, as transmission wires overloaded and generators automatically shut down, the problem would ripple throughout their electrical system.

[...] Emergency preparedness is a good thing for governments to focus on. But [...] there’s ample evidence that governments are simply incapable of adequately tackling the complexities of disasters confined to even a single building. If something big ever happens — and sooner or later, something always does — we should all expect to be on our own for days, or longer. The systems we’ve built to support ourselves are just too complicated to repair any faster than that.

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