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  • The White House Is Prepping for Solar Storms…Are You?

    We are constantly at threat of disaster, and unfortunately, they don’t all originate here on Earth. No, I’m not talking about alien invasions (although I’m sure those would be important to prepare for, too). I’m talking about our mild-mannered yellow dwarf star, also known as the Sun.

    Our sun is a wonderful thing. It gives us light, warmth, and helps grow our food. But it’s also the source of extreme power and, if unleashed on us here on Earth, could cause major problems to our power grid.

    Actually…that’s already happened.

    Magnetosphere_rendition - NASA Solar wind striking Earth's magnetosphere - via NASA

    Usually, our magnetic field just deflects solar wind. If it comes at us strong enough, however, it can break through our magnetic force field. In 1989, a solar surge knocked out power in Quebec, Canada for nine hours, effectively collapsing Hydro-Quebec’s electricity transmission system. Other electrical utilities in the U.S. also encountered problems due to the solar storm.

    But 9 hours without power? That’s a long time! And that solar storm wasn’t even as big as they come. According to experts on the Space Studies Board, all we need is one massive solar surge and we’d have economic damages of up to $2 trillion!

    For a bit of perspective, with that much money you could buy all the sports leagues in the United States. We’re not talking just NFL. We’re talking MLB, NBA, NHL, and NASCAR, too! Then, if you felt like it, you could buy them all again, and still have lots of money left over. Oh, and that includes teams and rosters. Yeah. $2 trillion is a lot of money.

    But don’t worry, the White House has a plan to counter this nasty space weather. According to a Yahoo! article, a strategic plan has been put into place to prepare for damaging solar eruptions. Alright, so there’s not much we can actually do to prevent this kind of solar attack, but there are steps being taken to minimize the damage.

    Sun Doing Things - NASA via NASA

    Just like any good disaster, if we can predict it, we can be better prepared. Such is the case with solar storms. The NOAA Space Weather Prediction Center is constantly monitoring the sun, so we can know when the next blast is heading our way. This will give us 12-15 hours’ notice, so the proper agencies can be alerted, thus allowing them time to take the proper precautions. Still, that’s not a lot of time, but it’s certainly more than we’d get from a tornado or an earthquake. We’ll take what we can get.

    NOAA also has what they call a space tsunami buoy floating out nearly a million miles from Earth, floating gently between us and the sun. When the space buoy gets pummeled by solar wind, we have 15-60 minutes before the storm hits Earth. That’s when we know how big the storm will be, too. Again, not much time, but at least it’s something.

    The White House has also enlisted two dozen other national agencies and departments to step up to this celestial threat. Engineering standards will rise, risk will be better understood, and there will be all around better planning for response and recovery. And it’s not just us. The European Space Agency is also working on developing a warning network. After all, we’re stronger when we work together.

    But that’s all fine and good for the government. But while they’re scurrying around trying to get the grid back up and running for you, how are you and your family holding up?

    You don’t have to be living in the city where your power plant is located to be effected by a solar storm. Once the grid goes down in one area, it can go down for many, many other parts of the country. This is why it’s so important to have emergency backups. Do you have emergency lights? What about alternative power supplies? The power outage in Quebec lasted 9 hours, and that wasn’t even the biggest solar storm we can expect (although it was certainly one of the largest so far).

    Power Outage with CandlesIf the grid goes down for an entire day – or two, or three – will you have a way to cook for your family? Will you have lights so your children can be comforted? These are some things to think about. When it comes to solar storms. The thing about the sun beating away at our planet is that we are all at risk. When it took out the power plant in Quebec, parts of New York and other areas in New England were also affected.

    If you already have emergency power and lighting, make sure you take time to check it over a few times a year, just to make sure it’s still in good working condition. If you don’t…well, there’s no better time than the present to start getting your gear together. Check out our power and lighting options to get started.


    How are you preparing for solar storms?



  • Does Cyber Security Give Us a False Sense of Security?

    Cyber SecurityImagine if hackers, in the guise of copper thieves, broke into power company facilities and deposited malware on their computers. Through those computers, hackers get into others, including those from other companies. Over a three-day period, these computers – key to keeping the power flowing – send suspect commands, forcing shutdowns, causing overloads and endangering the flow of electricity from hundreds of entities spread over thousands of miles. Power companies can’t communicate effectively because the malware might have infected e-mail and teleconferencing software. Power is restored, but only at a limited capacity, days to weeks later.

    Actually, the North American Electric Reliability Corporation imagined this in a 2011 exercise, and continues to practice similar scenarios.

    Journalist Ted Koppel, the anchor of Nightline for 25 years, also imagined this in his non-fiction book “Lights Out: A Cyberattack, a Nation Unprepared.” The book discusses the possibility of a cyber attack that leaves millions without power for weeks or months. His scenario includes cities running out of resources in days, the possibility of mass evacuations and the prospect of widespread civil disorder.

    In an interview with the University of Utah, he said a cyber attack on the power grid is very likely.
    “When I posed that question to former Secretary of Homeland Security Janet Napolitano, she put the likelihood at 80 or 90 percent,” he said.

    cyber security

    About once every four days, part of one of the nation’s power grids is hit with a physical or cyber attack, according to a USA Today story published March 24. The story described an attack on Pacific Gas & Electric’s Metcalf substation in northern California. Attackers cut underground fiber-optic lines and fired more than 100 rounds of ammunition at the substation’s transformers. Though no one lost power, damage was more than $15 million.

    Utilities aren’t the only sector facing cyber and physical attack.

    Fiber-optic cables, the backbone of high-speed Internet access, run for hundreds of miles under sometimes-sparse landscape. Fourteen times in the last year, someone has attacked cables in northern California. The latest attack, on September 15, affected Internet access to Livermore, home to the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory.

    “Everything from phone calls to computer transactions, emails, and even the security cameras feeds watching the cables themselves travel down the plastic or glass fibers as pulses of light,” according to the story.

    Sixty-six percent of Americans bank online, according to a September survey from the National Cyber Security Alliance and ESET, an IT security company. Sixty-one percent shop online. Seventy-four percent do social networking, and 28 percent use the Internet to work from home.

    Although the Internet is designed to route around damaged areas, slowdowns and stoppages can happen.

    During and after the September 11, 2001 attacks, disruption to Internet service in lower Manhattan “cascaded to degradation of service in the Greater New York City area,” according to a 2009 U.S. Department of Homeland Security report. Fortunately, national Internet access remained intact.

    On the bright side, people can do some things to mitigate damage.

    First, have a small cash reserve. Ann House, coordinator of the Personal Money Management Center at the University of Utah recommended keeping several hundred dollars in small bills with an emergency kit.

    cyber security Stock up on food and water before a disaster hits.

    Second, have a food and water storage. Koppel’s book described a nightmare scenario in which “Supermarket and pharmacy shelves are empty in a matter of hours. It is a shock to discover how quickly a city can exhaust its food supplies. Stores do not readily adapt to panic buying, and many city dwellers, accustomed to ordering out, have only scant supplies at home. There is no immediate resupply, and people become desperate.”

    Third, keep electronic devices charged and have a way to provide a small amount of power for personal needs. Check out our small generators and other power supplies here! Or, keep a full gas tank and charge devices in the car – being aware that in a major power outage, most gas station pumps won’t work, according to Koppel.

    Fourth, keep copies of important information readily accessible and not just stored on the computer.

    The Federal Emergency Management Agency recommends storing important documents on a cloud-based service or an external hard drive or thumb drive in a fireproof, waterproof box.

    Important documents include government-issued ID papers, prescriptions or warranties for medical equipment, insurance paperwork, rental or mortgage agreements and photos or movies of each room in the house. FEMA provides an Emergency Financial First Aid Kit to help identify records to keep safe at home.


    Disaster_Blog_Banner - Cyber Security

  • Lights Out: Cyber Attack on Our Grid More Than Likely

    A former secretary of homeland security believes there is an 80-90% chance that a cyber-attack on our grid will happen.

    Lights Out Book Cover - cyber attack via Penguin Random House

    Ted Koppel, renowned broadcast journalist and anchor for Nightline for 25 years, recently published a book about the lack of preparedness in American when it comes to cyber-attacks and our power grid. The book is called “Lights Out: A Cyberattack, A Nation Unprepared, Surviving the Aftermath” and is a culmination of his investigative reporting regarding the safety of our power grid and the possibility of falling victim to cyber attacks.

    His results were less than comforting.

    Yesterday Ted Koppel was interview on KUER, a radio broadcast out of the University of Utah. In that interview, he spoke of how it is hard to convince people about certain things if they believe otherwise, even if their beliefs aren’t true. For many, they don’t believe a major cyber attack on our power grid is likely, so they don’t believe contrary reports, and therefore don’t prepare ahead.

    Koppel brought up the recent government hack by China in which 22.1 million government official records were stolen. That’s a big deal, and yet he said “we kind of just shrugged and moved on.” If China can do that, they can certainly remove our power.

    Now, Koppel doesn’t believe China will go to that extreme, but there are surely other nations and extremist groups out there that would.

    cyber attack via WBUR

    If our power grid does get attacked and we are left without power, we might be left to our own devices for weeks or even months. If this is the case – and all evidence suggest that it will be – we will need food, water, medicine, and other necessities to last us as long as we’re left in the dark, if not longer.

    As a nation, are we ready? According to Koppel, “we really aren’t prepared in any sense.” He calls us a “reactive society,” meaning we do not tend to be preventive in our actions, but rather decide what to do after an event, not before. When the grid goes down, it will be too late to prepare, no matter how fast we react.

    While we like to think the government will step in and lend us aid, that way of thinking could lead to some very uncomfortable months following a disaster of this scale. There won’t be enough supplies stocked up by government agencies to see all of our needs. After all, there are just under 320 million people in the United States. Caring for all of them would be quite an undertaking, and quite frankly, it’s not one the government seems to feel responsible for.

    And should they? During an emergency, your best bet is to be personally prepared. Even if the government had help coming, it could still take days or weeks to reach you, despite their preparedness.

    Koppel continued this discussion of preparedness by pointing to the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (LDS Church). The LDS Church, Ted Koppel found, recommends its members to have at least three to six months’ supply of food and water, and not just for a potential grid failure. This storage is to be proactive for anything that comes along, including job loss, disability, and other natural disasters - which includes a cyber attack on our grid. Koppel praised the LDS Church for their preparedness mindset, and said that they “stand as an example of what can be done.”

    The LDS Church isn’t providing these emergency supplies to the members, but each individual family is responsible for their own stewardship. You, too, can take the responsibility on yourself to prepare for your needs and those of your family. It takes some planning and budgeting, but it is very doable.

    Ted Koppel concluded his interview by saying there is value in the act of preparation itself. We need to be ready for all kinds of disasters, and each subsequent step we take will only leave us better off when something does come. Finally, he believes it is harmful to not talk about the dangers we may face. Preparing in advance is discussing plans, solutions, and potential issues we may not be able to prepare for once a disaster happens.


    What are your thoughts on a cyber-attack on our grid? What are you doing to prepare?


    Disaster_Blog_Banner - cyber attack

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