Comments about technological history, system fractures, and human resilience from James R. Chiles, the author of Inviting Disaster: Lessons from the Edge of Technology (HarperBusiness 2001; paperback 2002) and The God Machine: From Boomerangs to Black Hawks, the Story of the Helicopter (Random House, 2007, paperback 2008)

Thursday, March 17, 2011

Techno-catastrophes: Nature's new force multiplier

This article in the Washington Post by Steven Pearlstein ponders why major catastrophes seem to be rising in frequency.
Here's another perspective across two centuries of technological trouble, from the concluding chapter of Inviting Disaster (2002):
“Some of the worst accidents in the field had a flawed technology meeting an unexpectedly strong force of nature.” 
In addition to the series of catastrophic breakdowns triggered by the 9.0-magnitude Sendai Earthquake at the Fukushima Dai-ichi reactor station (see this link for updated, astute analysis), nature-weakened technology played a starring role in:
  • Titanic loss, 1912
  • Tay Bridge disaster in a storm, 1879
  • Banquio-Shimantan dam failures in a typhoon, 1975
  • Hartford Civic Center roof collapse following snowstorm, 1978
  • Alexander Keilland and Ocean Ranger offshore platform disasters, during storms
  • New Orleans levee failures following Hurricane Katrina, 2005
  • Deepwater Horizon blowout at the Macondo 252 high-pressure, weak-formation prospect, 2010
I see four risk factors behind the worst of these:
  • A group of people are in a remote and potentially dangerous place. Their safety depends entirely on a machine working properly;
  • Problems have been showing up in this machine, long before the crisis, even in benign conditions;
  • Leaders did not follow up on these danger signals when they had plenty of time to prepare;
  • Which left an opening for a natural force to tear away the facade of safety.
Once the system fracture is fully underway, any improvised reactions by operators in such extreme conditions tend to be ineffective or even counterproductive, at least in the short term. But in the long term we have the opportunity to learn and do better.

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