Sunday, October 27, 2013

"American Blackout" on NatGeo: this scenario is more likely from a massive solar storm or EMP than cyber attack

The National Geographic Channel aired the docudrama film “American Blackout” Sunday, October 27, 2013.  The basic link is here  The film simulates a 10-day blackout. Much of the narrative comes from handheld videocams of the ficitious characters affected, in the style of “Paranormal Activity” or even “Cloverfield”.

Within an hour or so, a blackout starts on the East Coast and spread to most major cities.  Media stations use generators to stay on the air, and soon the government claims this was the result of a cyberattack. 

One obvious question is why the entire power grid could be vulnerable to hackers.  My point is that it should not be possible, in terms of topology, to reach Dominion Power’s grid controls from this laptop with my Internet connection.  It is true that I can look at their outage map, so that capability implies the existence of a mathematical path to the control systems.  

A much more likely cause of a major blackout could be a major solar storm (with coronal mass ejections) or a terrorist electromagnetic pulse attack (EMP).  A high altitude nuclear blast could blanket the entire country with EMP pulses (which would actually come in several waves).  But smaller, non-nuclear weapons effective in small areas are possible and are in use overseas by the Army today.

Various situations are presented, some of them obvious, as people stuck in elevators. Later, the documentary consists to the countryside, where a property owner chases off another man seeking help with a rifle.  This is not the time for radical hospitality.
By day 4, the federal government takes over supplies, and rations gasoline.  Riots and looting have broken out in some cities.  The fact that so many people own weapons becomes significant, in varied ways.
Water systems in cities quickly fail, as baclup systems fail.
People on upper floors of high rise skyscraper buildings, often rich, are in a heap of trouble. In the second half of the film, there is a building fire and no help available.  In other buildings there are home invasions. 
Ham radio operators begin to spread right wing messages.
This new film should not be confused with a 2006 film by the same name about voting rights.
President Obama appears as himself in the film and has to ask for international aid.
By day 10, some service is restored, but for others service is months away.  And they don’t know how to stop a repeat.  Then, in the last moments, the power comes back on, at least in some areas.    
The NatGeo website does warn that there other ways this scenario could happen, as with EMP, Carrington-style solar storm, or even general grid vulnerability and carelessness in industry oversight.  Again, the vulnerability is possible only because we have become “dependent” on  electricity and technology.
Is this film going to be followed up as a television series (like “Revolution”)?

Wednesday, October 02, 2013

PBS Nova: "Inside the Megastorm" on Hurricane Sandy

PBS Nova aired a one-hour documentary about Superstorm Sandy, called “Inside the Megastorm”.  The link is here
The documentary tracked the sudden formation of the Caribbean low Oct. 22 that would become Sandy, and by Oct 24 or so, the alarms were raised.
Sandy became a monster because of high pressure around Greenland blocking a normal path, and another low associated with a dipping Jetstream bringing down a strong cold front.  The setup was a little bit like “The Perfect Storm” in late October 1991, as in Sebastian Junger’s book and 2000 movie, and leading to the Halloween Blizzard in Minnesota.
The film explains how a warmer world means a wavy jetstream, which can mean fewer hurricanes but stronger ones when they come, and more likely to occur out of season.  It also explains that warmer oceans mean higher seas.
The documentary traced the advance of the storm toward New York, and the destruction of Breezy Point in Queens.  It also explained how the power in lower Manhattan went out for at least four days because salt water shorted out cables on the West side near a ConEd plant (I thought that happened on the East Side).
As a whole, much of New York City, especially Brooklyn, Queens, Richmond, and the lower part of Manhattan, is a very low elevation, and lower than comparable areas in many other mid-Atlantic cities like Washington, Baltimore, Philadelphia, and Richmond, which straddle the Fall Line.   When you are in NYC and walking the streets you really don’t notice this.  I live at about 330 feet elevation.   I snows more here in winter than it does at river level three miles away.  Can I be complacent?  Not against a mega-tsunami from the Canary Islands Cumbre-Vieja volcano if it goes and slides into the ocean in an earthquake.  

The documentary presented one drowning on Staten Island. 
I visited the New Jersey coast, Staten Island, and southern Long Island areas in March 2013.