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Weathering the Storm: How Severe Weather Impacts Critical Infrastructure Security

Critical Infrastructure

Critical Infrastructure

Solutions Review’s Expert Insights Series is a collection of contributed articles written by industry experts in enterprise software categories.  Paul Von Hertsenberg of 1898 and Co. enlightens us how severe weather impacts critical infrastructure security and how we can weather the storm.

Expert Insights badgeThe recent increase in severe weather events is threatening utilities with increased vulnerability. Continued unpredictability of weather can put utilities in more severe positions for safety incidents, cyber-attacks, or unplanned downtime and outages with some lasting consequences beyond expected maintenance and repairs. Our nation’s aging infrastructure has been in a constant state of repair, standing with an ASCE C minus rating, and while leaders evaluate upgrades against failures due to weather, protections against other incidents should be considered too.

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Critical Infrastructure Security and Severe Weather

U.S. Critical Infrastructure in Constant State of Repair

The American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE) estimates the infrastructure investment needed to maintain a state of good repair every four years, and in 2021 they gave U.S. infrastructure a C minus after nearly 20 years scoring a D+ or lower. Since then, the total investment gap has grown from $2.1 trillion over ten years to $2.59 trillion. But if we do not increase investment in protecting critical infrastructure environments, the continued underinvestment will cost more than three million jobs by 2039 and over $2.4 trillion in exports over the next 20 years. The Society of Civil Engineers says that the United States needs over $2.6 trillion in the next ten years to bring the country’s infrastructure back into good repair.

Increase in Severe Weather and How it’s Making It Worse

Extreme weather events are happening more and more frequently, and damaging events in the last 50 years have impacted all 16 critical infrastructure sectors nationwide. A 2016 report by the U.S. Department of Energy lamented that the trend of increased frequency and intensity are likely to continue as climate change and weather events become more destructive. These conditions and how the weather affects our utilities are making our infrastructure even worse. More needs to be done not only to help with severe weather but also to protect infrastructure.

Severe Weather Affects Utilities Protections Against Various Incidents

As utilities are down for emergencies or maintenance, they are more susceptible to various incidents including attacks, both physical and cyber. A cyber-attack or hack that occurs in the midst of a natural disaster could create a domino effect such as loss of electrical power, water, telecommunications, and other infrastructure. Extreme weather events put utilities in a weakened state, and hackers aren’t blind to the vulnerability and often ramp up cyber and phishing attacks. These attacks can lead to lasting damage to the public perception of the utility company, the infrastructure in general, and the customer’s well-being. According to the National Association of State Chief Information Officers, an attack that coincides with a natural disaster gives hackers the power to greatly hamper the efforts of first responders, hospitals, utilities, and government agencies, making it that much harder to solve the problem.

The health and safety of utility workers is also affected by severe weather. For instance, if a forest fire or a hurricane is threatening or actively causing damage to a facility, employees are unable to get to the location to fix the larger problem affecting numerous customers and the facility itself without putting themselves in immediate danger. Additionally, unplanned work, such as the damage repair caused by severe weather, is often a rush job because of the urgent nature of the situation and the need to restore service, or resume normal operations, as soon as possible. These situations are inherently more dangerous to workers because of unfamiliar conditions, locations, access to tools and materials, stress, etc.

It’s important for all utility companies to understand the importance of planning, and contingency plans are needed to maintain normal operations during extreme events. The caveat to extreme weather is that it’s uncertain if, when and to what degree it will affect the utility service, and not everything can be planned for, especially the unknown. However, the core elements can be determined ahead of time and plans can be put in place to quickly mitigate the risk extreme weather poses to utility companies.

Considerations for Upgrades Against Failures Due to Weather

The uptick in severe weather events has forced the utility industry to take a closer look at large-scale storm hardening in recent years. Storm hardening involves making physical improvements to infrastructure that is able to withstand bombardment from wind, flooding, ice and more. Storm hardening also focuses on improvements such as replacing or reinforcing utility poles, burying vulnerable power lines, and creating barriers around certain power stations, which can improve worker safety through less trouble calls and failures. Funds for storm hardening can be limited so companies must have a good approach to upgrades, whether it’s understanding the most vulnerable assets and proactively protecting or determining the largest impact to operations and correcting for resiliency or redundancy.

Either way, upgrades are not limited to physical improvements. Changes in processes, procedures and technology, including cyber protection, will improve overall protection and response. Technologies are available to better predict, plan for, and mitigate the effects of weather based on company needs including advanced storm prediction analytics, enterprise asset management systems, field tools, anomaly detection, and much more

Final Thoughts on Critical Infrastructure VS. Severe Weather

Improvements to better any system take a long time to plan, develop and justify. Companies must be intentional about their goals and needs while balancing the cost to the business, customers and other stakeholders. As severe weather events continue to plague our infrastructure, businesses can seek improvement and protection through a number of avenues including public-private partnerships, congressional action, additional utility spending, analysis and vulnerability assessment and more.

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Paul Von Hertsenberg
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