May 17, 2011 – This will be the century of disasters. In the same way that the 20th century was the century of world wars, genocide, and grinding ideological conflict, the 21st will be the century of natural disasters and technological crises and unholy combinations of the two. It’ll be the century when the things that we count on to go right will, for whatever reason, go wrong. Late last month, as the Mississippi River rose in what is destined to be the worst flood in decades, and as the residents of Alabama and other states rummaged through the debris of a historic tornado outbreak, physicists at a meeting in Anaheim, Calif., had a discussion about the dangers posed by the sun. Solar flares, scientists believe, are a disaster waiting to happen. Thus one of the sessions at the American Physical Society’s annual meeting was devoted to discussing the hazard of electromagnetic pulses (EMPs) caused by solar flares or terrorist attacks. Such pulses could fry transformers and knock out the electrical grid over much of the nation. Last year the Oak Ridge National Laboratory released a study saying the damage might take years to fix and cost trillions of dollars. And yet in the coming century, these or other black swans will seem to occur with surprising frequency. There are several reasons for this. We have chosen to engineer the planet. We have built vast networks of technology. We have created systems that, in general, work very well, but are still vulnerable to catastrophic failures. It is harder and harder for any one person, institution, or agency to perceive all the interconnected elements of the technological society. Failures can cascade. There are unseen weak points in the network. Small failures can have broad consequences. Most importantly: We have more people, and more stuff, standing in the way of calamity. We’re not suddenly having more earthquakes, but there are now 7 billion of us, a majority living in cities. In 1800, only Beijing could count a million inhabitants, but at last count there were 381 cities with at least 1 million people. Natural disasters will increasingly be accompanied by technological crises—and the other way around. –Slate
Fragile system already on the brink of collapse: Electrical transformers explode in Fort Worth, Texas on May 10, 2011 after a severe thunderstorm.
“America’s electrical network weaves through more than 211,000 miles (340,000 km) of high-voltage power lines that are knitted together by an aging hodgepodge of substations and transformers that have the tendency to blow if they are barely spooked by the sight of a lightning bolt.” –The Extinction Protocol, page 298
Videos by (c) Brian Luenser and Sheilaaliens—– story contributed by Alex, Mahati