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Two potentially devastating events for business continuity managers to ponder

By Paul Kirvan.

The Ebola outbreak shows how esoteric threats shelved in the ‘it will never happen’ folder can erupt to cause major disruption. Two other such threats spring to mind and it may be a good time for a reminder of these:

Solar storms

Solar flares traveling from the sun to the earth contain massive amounts of energy that have been known to disrupt electronic systems. Such an event could potentially cripple the world’s electrical grids for years, causing billions (trillions?) in damages.

Back in 2010, the US House of Representatives’ Energy and Commerce Committee voted unanimously to approve a bill allocating $100 million to protect the US energy grid from this rare but potentially devastating occurrence. The Grid Reliability and Infrastructure Defense Act, or H.R. 5026, aimed "to amend the Federal Power Act to protect the bulk-power system and electric infrastructure critical to the defense of the United States against cybersecurity and other threats and vulnerabilities."

Regrettably the bill was not approved by the US Senate and subsequently died.

A similar bill was reintroduced in the Senate as S.2158 early in 2014 but progressed no further than committee status.

Both pieces of legislation cited electromagnetic pulses from geomagnetic or solar storms as a major threat to the US energy distribution grid, and mandated the creation of reliability standards to protect the national power grid from such geomagnetic storms.

Solar storms emerge from sunspots on the sun. Enormous plumes of highly charged electromagnetic particles traveling millions of miles across space can disrupt or damage power systems. Solar activity typically follows an 11-year cycle. Several solar flares that occurred during 2014 have given cause for renewed concern about a potentially huge flare and its disastrous effects.

High altitude electromagnetic pulse

There is another man-made type of disaster that could be just as devastating as solar storms. Known as a high altitude electromagnetic pulse (HEMP), such an event envisions detonating a nuclear device in the upper atmosphere and releasing gamma radiation into the ionosphere. This would result in a powerful energy pulse within a few microseconds of the detonation. The subsequent radiation would disrupt national power grids and damage electronic circuitry, resulting in loss of power and damage to all kinds of electronic and communications devices.

The question for business continuity managers is how can we prepare for these events? Is it possible to build a business continuity and/or disaster recovery plan that addresses a long-term power outage and inability to operate most electronic devices?

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Reader comments

I think the fact that there are no past records for any the two events you mentioned would make planning very unrealistic involving lots of permutations.

I fully agree that these are possible events with unimaginable impacts, however their very unpredictability reminds us that it is going to be impossible to plan for everything, especially the natural elements.

We still get unpredictable and devastating earthquakes around the world. Likewise, Ebola has occurred in the past in central Africa, but part of the current problem is that it has no past records in West Africa, thus explaining why it took so long for the people to believe Ebola is their midst as they unknowingly continue to propagate the contagion.

Joshua Subair, BC Specialist

If this happens, BCP will be worthless.  No customer will be able to buy your products or services.  You will not be able to sell.  Most or all transportation systems (including maybe cars) will not work.  I suggest you stock up food and have lots of batteries (if you can use them)!

Randy Schmidt, BCP Specialist

The author
Paul Kirvan FBCI, CISA is director of Paul Kirvan Associates. He is also a Member of the Board and Secretary, The Business Continuity Institute USA Chapter and Member and Vice Chair of the BCI Global Membership Council. Contact Paul at pkirvan@msn.com

•Date: 21st October 2014 • US/World •Type: Article • Topic: BC general

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