Backup power generator sales have surged in the wake of Hurricane Sandy and other big storms. Go-it-alone solutions are moving faster than needed electric grid upgrades.
The first-ever auction for solar energy development in two of Colorado’s four Solar Energy Zones was a quick one – unfortunately, no solar developers bid on the parcels.
A catastrophic, prolonged failure of the electrical grid—the sort of event whose effects are depicted in National Geographic Channel’s upcoming American Blackout, which premieres Sunday—may seem like just apocalyptic science fiction to some viewers. Unfortunately, though, the possibility of such a breakdown is all too real. (See related interactive: “Survive the Blackout.”)
Government and utility industry officials are so concerned, in fact, that in November, they will stage a massive emergency drill, called GridEx II, that will involve thousands of utility workers, business executives, National Guard officers, FBI antiterrorism experts and government officials from the U.S., Canada and Mexico. They’ll practice responding to a simulated failure of large parts of the electrical system across North America. (See related quiz: “What You Don’t Know About Electricity.”)
The scenario envisioned by GridEx II is a particularly scary one, in which terrorists or an enemy country stages a combination of cyber attacks and physical attacks that destroy or render inoperable crucial power facilities and take down large sections of the grid. As a May 2013 Congressional report noted, sophisticated cyber saboteurs may already be probing our vulnerability to a massive blackout. U.S. utility companies already come under frequent attack from Internet hackers who continually try to infect utilities’ computer networks with malware and search for security flaws. One company alone told congressional investigators that it was hit with an astonishing 10,000 attacks in a typical month.
If hackers managed to penetrate utility companies’ electronic defenses, they might be able to give instructions to key pieces of equipment that would cause them to fail. In a 2006 study, researchers at the Department of Energy’s Idaho National Laboratory demonstrated that an attacker could instruct an electrical generator’s turbine to spin wildly out of control until smoke began pouring out, as this video illustrates. Since then, we’ve seen a real-life example of how such vandalism easily could be ratcheted up to a massive scale. In 2010, a piece of malware called Stuxnet destroyed as many as 1,000 centrifuges in an Iranian nuclear fuel-processing plant, in an attack that some suspect was launched by U.S. and/or Israeli clandestine agencies.
No wonder that former federal counterterrorism advisor Richard Clarke has warned that such an “electronic Pearl Harbor” could cause devastating damage and thousands of deaths across the nation. A 2012 National Academy of Sciences report concurred, envisioning that attackers using a combination of hacking and physical sabotage could cripple the U.S. power grid and cause cascading failures of equipment that could take months to fix.
“We are woefully unprepared for any large-scale geographic outage that might take place over an extended period of time,” explained Joel Gordes, research director for the U.S. Cyber Consequences Unit, an independent group that assesses the danger of such attacks and what it would take to thwart them. He said that while some generators and transmission lines probably would survive such an attack, they might not be able to muster enough juice to reboot the grid, which experts call a “black start.” And if critical equipment is damaged beyond repair, it might be necessary to transport replacement units long distances—an undertaking that would be difficult, if communications systems were also seriously damaged by the attack.
U.S. Secretary of Energy Ernest Moniz said the Energy Department had recently created a new internal cyber council, spanning four offices. “We believe this is an area of increasing focus,” he said at a Center for Strategic and International Studies on Thursday. “Our energy infrastructures are coming under increasing and more sophisticated cyber attacks, and we have to stay ahead of that.”
Besides a cyber attack, experts have envisioned other scenarios for a grid collapse.
EMP (electromagnetic pulse) attack: In this scenario, terrorists or an enemy nation would detonate a nuclear weapon at a high altitude above the U.S., releasinga burst of radiation that would interact with the Earth’s magnetic field and atmosphere—including the ionosphere, the thin upper layer filled with free electrons, which facilitates radio communications. As a result, a powerful electrical current would radiate down to the Earth and create additional currents that would course through manmade electrical circuits as well. Electrical infrastructure and electronic devices would receive severe shocks, causing severe, widespread damage. A 2004 Congressional commission warned that such an attack could cause “unprecedented cascading failures.” But even a localized EMP attack could cause a lot of damage. A 2008 Congressional Research Service report predicted that an attack on the Washington DC-Baltimore region that only damaged 10 percent of communications systems and the electrical grid and 20 percent of electronic devices would still require a month of recovery time and inflict as much as $34 billion in economic losses.
Solar flare: Not all of the threats to the grid are from human enemies. A solar storm, which would spew a surge of radiation across the 93million-mile distance between the Sun and our Earth, causing an electromagnetic pulse similar to the one that a high-altitude nuclear blast would trigger–except that it might be even bigger, and have even more devastating effects. While we’ve known the destructive effects of solar weather on Earth’s electrical infrastructure since the 19th century, the first really clear-cut warning came in 1989, when a moderate-intensity solar storm caused northeastern Canada’s Hydro-Quebec power grid to fail, leaving millions of people without electricity for nine hours. Yousef Butt, a scientist at Center for Astrophysics at Harvard University, argued in a 2010 article in the online journal Space Review that the likelihood of a devastating EMP from a solar storm is greater than that from an intentional EMP attack. (See related story: “As Sun Storms Ramp Up, Electric Grid Braces for Impact.”)
Grid failure: There’s also the possibility that the grid simply could break down on its own. (See related photos: “The World’s Worst Power Outages.”) That’s because of a crucial design flaw: when one part of the grid breaks down, it can cause a phenomenon called “cascading failure,” in which the whole grid progressively collapses like a stack of dominoes. “What happens is, a failure occurs somewhere and weakens the system a bit,” Iowa State University engineering professor Ian Dobson explained in a 2012 article. “On a bad day, something else happens. Usually it doesn’t, but on that day, let’s say, it does. If it’s a really bad day, then a third thing happens and the system becomes degraded. You’re in a situation where it’s more likely that the next failure is going to happen because the last failure already happened. That’s the idea of cascading failure…Everything in the power system is protected so it doesn’t fry when something goes wrong. Things can disconnect to protect the equipment, but if you disconnect enough things, you get a blackout.” (See related blog post: “Preparing for the Zombie Apocalypse: Are Microgrids Our Only Chance?”)
In an article published in Nature Physics in August 2013, U.S. and Israeli physicists concluded that for a system dependent upon a number of critical nodes, such as the U.S. electrical grid, such cascading failures are pretty much inevitable. We’ve already had a preview: In 2012 , three sections of India’s massive electrical grid collapsed, leaving 620 million people—nearly twice the population of the U.S.–without power for several hours in the biggest blackout in world history so far. (See related photos: “India Power Outage Darkens Cities, Stops Trains.”)
The kidnapping of two American citizens from an oil-supply platform vessel off the coast of Nigeria has put the spotlight on the sharp rise in pirate attacks in West Africa.
On Thursday, a U.S. official said the captain and chief engineer of the U.S.-flagged C-Retriever were taken by armed men who stormed the 200-foot ship in the Gulf of Guinea (map) on Wednesday. (See related slide: “Oil Development Grows in Africa.”)
The ship is owned by the Louisiana-based company Edison Chouest Offshore, which hasn’t commented on the situation.
The Captain Phillips movie released this month brought attention to pirate attacks off Africa’s East Coast in the Gulf of Aden. The movie is based on the real-life story of the attack on the Maersk Alabama, a U.S.-ship, off Somalia in April 2009, and the harrowing rescue of its crew by U.S. Navy SEAL Snipers.
But the number of attacks in that area has actually fallen recently due to the patrols of naval forces from several nations and the presence of armed security guards on merchant ships.
At the same time, attacks in the western Gulf of Guinea — which tend to be more violent — have risen. While the pirates in the Gulf of Aden seemed mainly interested in collecting ransom money from the companies that own the ships, the heavily armed pirates in the Gulf of Guinea are more likely to keep the gas oil they get from successful attacks and sell it on the black market, according to a report from Communis Hostis Omnium.
According to a report from the ICC International Maritime Bureau earlier this month, there have been 10 Somali-related incidents this year, down from 70 during the same period in 2012. Meanwhile, there have been 40 incidents in the Gulf of Guinea this year, with 132 crew taken hostage and seven vessels hijacked.
“Although the number of attacks is down overall [worldwide], the threat of attacks remains, particularly in the waters off Somalia and in the Gulf of Guinea,” said IMB director Pottengal Mukundan in its report. “It is vital that ship masters continue to be vigilant as they transit these waters.”
The London-based think tank Chatham House reported 62 pirate attacks in the Gulf of Guinea in 2012, up from 39 in 2010, according to CNN.
Nigeria, where the C-Retriever was targeted, is the main source of piracy in the region, according to the IMB. The nation accounted for 29 of the reported incidents and the group warns that many attacks there, which generally happen along the coasts, rivers and ports, may have gone unreported.
Perhaps boosting to the pirates’ confidence, the governments in West Africa do not allow armed private security guards on board ships, and Nigeria is known for its weak port security, reported The New York Times.
The Gulf of Guinea is an oil-rich area, and while Nigeria has had oil development for many years, several countries have been tapping oil there for the first time recently. The Chatham House says the gulf produces about 5.4 million barrels of a day. (See related story: “New Oil, and a Huge Challenge, for Ghana.”)
In an interview with NBC’s Brian Williams on Thursday, the Maersk Alabama Capt. Richard Phillips called the waters off Nigeria “worse than even Somalia.”
“Wherever the opportunity for these thugs or pirates are, they will take advantage of it, and Nigeria is teeming right now,” Phillips said.
“Hijacks are over in the Indian Ocean. The hijack for cargo threat in West Africa is where you are going to get hit,” said maritime intelligence expert Jim Mainstone at the International Union of Marine Insurance 2013 conference, according to a September report in Lloyd’s List.
Nigerian military officials deployed army and navy units to search for the kidnappers but told NBC Thursday that they had no “hard information” on their location or the whereabouts of the Americans.
“We’re obviously closely monitoring reports that two U.S. citizens have been kidnapped from a U.S. flagged vessel,” State Department spokeswoman Marie Harf said at a briefing on Thursday. “Obviously our concern at this point is for the safe return of the two U.S. citizens.”
The British government’s long-awaited “policy framework” on the Arctic is not likely to please environmentalists who would like to see an outright moratorium on oil and natural gas drilling. But Clive Archer, emeritus professor and former head of the Manchester Metropolitan University’s European Institute, who has studied Arctic issues extensively, believes it is an important starting point. Archer recently participated in a National Geographic Great Energy Challenge forum on the science of change in the Arctic. -Editor
The British government has issued its first Arctic policy framework called “Adapting to Change: U.K. Policy Towards the Arctic.” It is produced by the Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO), the ministry that leads on Arctic matters in the U.K. government. Specifically the document deals with British interests in the Arctic, how the U.K. will deal with Arctic and other interested states about the region, and the experience that the U.K. has to offer.
The Arctic: The Science of Change
Learn more about the issues surrounding a changing region.
The U.K. vision for the Arctic means working towards “an Arctic that is safe and secure; well governed in conjunction with indigenous peoples and in line with international law; where policies are developed on the basis of sound science with full regard to the environment; and where only responsible development takes place” (p.7). This vision is supported by three principles: respect for the sovereign rights of the Arctic states, the interests of the people who live in the Arctic and for its environment; while accepting the prime position of the eight Arctic states and their peoples, the U.K. wants to show leadership on climate change, trans-boundary issues, science and industry in the region; the U.K. government wants to cooperate with the Arctic states, indigenous peoples and others in the region.
The policy framework sets out three tenets contributing to the U.K. policy in the Arctic. The first is the human, where the U.K. wants the region to be safe and secure, “well-governed in conjunction with indigenous people and in line with international law” (p.13). The U.K. wishes to work through the Arctic Council, in which it is an observer state, and other existing international organizations, and does not want a specific Arctic treaty called for by some non-governmental organizations (NGOs). (See related video: Experts use three words to describe the Arctic at The Arctic: The Science of Change live event.)
The second dimension is environmental, with mention of international scientific collaboration and science-based policy, and the U.K. contribution to both. The U.K. interest in climate change is set out, as is the U.K. government”s attempts to help reduce greenhouse gas emissions, British work on biodiversity and the U.K.’s support of international agreements. The section on “safeguarding the climate from commercial activity” (p.21) is a balance between not denying such activity (see next paragraph) and the need for science-based international regulation. So, that the U.K. “will advocate for the use of the highest environmental and drilling standards in the Arctic, as elsewhere” is unlikely to mollify environmental NGOs who want a complete moratorium on such drilling.
In the third dimension, that of commerce, the U.K. wishes to promote the Arctic “where only responsible development takes place” (p.23). It is mentioned that the reduction in Arctic summer ice means a growing commercial interest in the region and that the people there have as much right as others to pursue economic prosperity, but that this must be done with due care for the Arctic environment and ecosystems. Thus the U.K. supports “legitimate and responsible business activity in the Arctic” (p.23). Norway, with its increased exploitation of hydrocarbons within the Arctic Circle and its sizeable export of gas to the U.K., comes under that heading and assists with the U.K.”s energy security. An Arctic contribution is seen as necessary to fulfil the continuing need for oil and gas. Shipping, fisheries and tourism in the region are also set to grow and the U.K. supports existing organizations to ensure that these activities are conducted in a sustainable and environmentally sound way. Finally, the U.K. is promoted as a place for commercial expertise of direct relevance to industries active in the Arctic.
This U.K. Arctic policy framework has been issued after a number of states, mainly the Arctic ones, have produced Arctic strategies. However, the FCO is at pains to stress that having such a strategic would not be suitable for a non-Arctic state such as the U.K.. Nevertheless, the framework stresses the extensive U.K. interests and activities in the region. It is also a result of the internal cooperation between government departments involved in the Arctic and which meet regularly to discuss Arctic-related issues, perhaps a point that could have been stressed more in the document.
An area of interest scarcely mentioned is that of defence, where the U.K. has had a traditional involvement. While this has diminished, it is still there and a coming review of U.K. global strategy will most likely see some attention to the polar regions.
The most notable element in the framework is the tension between a concern for the environment and commercial interests, something that all states attempt. The final mix will not satisfy the environmental NGOs, but does keep the U.K. active in international organizations in pursuit of environmental safeguards.
On the whole, this is good appreciation of U.K. interests in the Arctic and a starting point for further U.K. interest in the region.
A thick layer of smog has enveloped one of China’s major cities, nearly bringing it to a halt. Harbin’s crisis is just the latest to spotlight the country’s dependence on coal.
The magic of
technology has made it possible for distant relatives to talk to each other
“face to face” over smartphones and colleagues to work on projects together
through videoconferencing. Web cams have also allowed anyone with an internet
connection to visit everything from watering holes in Kenya to bee colonies in
Germany. If you need a break from the daily grind,
get your wildlife fix by visiting one of our favorite live cams:
1. Blacktip Reef
Shark Cam – National Aquarium Baltimore
Yep, it’s an actual thing. Science confirms that watching fish
swim lazy circles can lower a person’s stress levels. Take a chill pill by
vising the National Aquarium’s new Blacktip Reef Cam. Go full screen and zone
out on colorful angelfish, sea turtles, sharks and more.
National Park Brown Bear Cam – National Park Service
Every year over a hundred Brown Bears descend on a
mile long stretch of Brooks River in Alaska to feast on the largest Sockeye
Salmon run in the world. Appreciate the
patience of lumbering and agile Ursus
Arctos as they wait for the perfect moment to snatch their next meal from
the churning river.
Honey Bees Landing Cam
“Busy as a
bee” takes on new meaning in this up-close view of a hive’s tireless workers.
These bees in Germany zip assuredly in and out of the hive collecting pollen
for the colony’s young, and inadvertently pollinating the many plants that
humans rely on for food.
4. Sea Otter Cam – Seattle Aquarium
The Seattle Aquarium is home to a number of sea otters and northern fur
seals. Sea otters are the only mammals other than primates, birds and a few
other animals known to use tools. They use small rocks or other objects to pry
shellfish from rocks and to hammer them open. Watch them dip and whirl through
the water like acrobats in this overhead cam.
Falls – Yosemite Conservancy
one of the country’s most famous National Parks, this cam takes you to the
tallest waterfall in North America with a total drop of 2,425 feet. The
waterfall is at its strongest in the Spring. Also check out the Yellowstone
National Park “Old Faithful” cam.
Yard Cam– Houston Zoo
ten chimpanzees at the Houston Zoo: Charlie, Lucy, Abe, Lulu, Riley, Sally,
Annie, Maizey, Mac, and Willie. This cam shows the yard where the chimps hang
out and play. The Houston Zoo is a proud supporter of EarthShare member the
Jane Goodall Institute to help save this endangered ape from extinction.
7. Monterey Bay Web Cam – Monterey Bay Aquarium
is part of the Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary, a federally protected
marine area offshore of California's central coast. Watch the waves come in off
this safe haven that’s home to a variety of fishes, plants, marine mammals and
Bear Twins – Scandinavian Wildlife Park, Denmark
These polar bear cubs were born in
November, 2012. Watch as mom Ilka nurses and nurtures her curious cubs, then
learn more about this iconic carnivore of the Arctic from Defenders
9. African Penguins – Audubon Aquarium of the
Americas and Animal Planet
Antarctic cousins, the Rockhopper and African Penguins in this cam are both
temperate climate birds who prefer warmer water temperature. These penguins cannot easily preen their
own heads and necks so they can often be seen allopreening (preening each
10. Great Blue Heron Nest Cam – Cornell Lab of Ornithology
Great Blue Herons nest mainly in trees, but will also nest on the ground, on bushes, in mangroves, and on structures such as duck blinds, channel markers, or artificial nest platforms. Males arrive at the colony and settle on nest sites; from there, they court passing females. Colonies can consist of 500 or more individual nests, with multiple nests per tree built 100 or more feet off the ground. See more nest cams from the
Cornell Lab at http://cams.allaboutbirds.org/.
The drive to prospect oil and gas in the Arctic is propelling plans in Russia for a fleet of floating nuclear power plants, despite financing problems and delays.