Natural Occurences and Their Effects On Information Systems

Natural Occurences and Their Effects On Information Systems

by Jim Dietzel


Natural upheavals have been an integral part of our planet since its inception. It has only been during the relatively recent appearance of man on the scene that these events have been coined "disasters". This paper will discuss these events, and the roles that they play in disrupting information systems and communication networks. Explanations of this technology and examples of natural events drawn from actual news sources will be used to attempt to communicate both the fragility of our information infrastructure and the respect we should have for the power that nature wields.

Cable Cuts

As we become more dependent upon data availability in the information age, we also become more dependent upon the connectivity of those systems that provide us with this data. Just as the information age was made possible by advances in technology, it is these same advances in technology that allow for more data to be transferred using less physical space. Here lies an inherent problem.

Most people agree that streamlining a system makes it more efficient. A common example that most everyone can identify with is when a major corporation lays off a large number of workers. Elements within this particular working environment have changed to the point where these extraneous workers, for whatever reason, cannot accomplish the same work load that more technologically advanced systems could, at a reduced cost to the corporation. Therefore, these extraneous people are "laid off", and a newer system or procedure is implemented, providing an improved work product for less money, or greater efficiency, or both.

Compare this example with the major overhaul that has been undergone in the past several years to upgrade the country's telecommunications system to a technologically advanced fiber-optic based network, from a comparatively crude and less efficient copper wire based network. Massive amounts of communications occurring concurrently that would have been accomplished, under the old system, with several large bundles of copper cable, can now be accomplished with the newer technology by employing one thin fiber-optic cable. While this is a boon for our burgeoning information needs, there is a trade off involved in this upgrade.

Because fiber optic cable carries more data through less space, the companies laying this cable can save on upgrade costs by running the cable through the underground conduits formerly used by the large numbers of copper bundles. And why not bundle several fiber-optic cables together, and use all of this extra space to best advantage, providing for even more capacity for the interchange of information? Here we have the classic case of too many eggs in one basket. With the capacity of one fiber-optic cable to carry approximately 375,000 telephone calls, we now have a scenario wherein a natural disaster or other calamity that might sever this bundle in one geographic location can effectively cripple the information systems of a much larger geographical area hundreds, or even thousands of miles away. Hearkening back to the corporate example, a company with many employees spanning many locations is more likely to survive the devastation of one corporate office than the company that has far fewer employees accomplishing the same tasks in one location that has been devestated.

Never before has the capability existed for one mishap in one small location to affect the lives of this many people.

"BkNNS.......29-07-99 12:05 290799 NORWAY: Cable break cuts off air traffic communications by Andrew Singer

Copenhagen-July 29-(BANNS)- Air traffic controllers in Bodø, northern Norway lost contact with at least nine flights when a Telenor cable broke down on June 23 the daily Aftenposten reported Thursday.

Radar, radio and telephone connections between flights in the air and airports from Bodø to Trondheim were affected. Communications were restored some 13 minutes later, but the incident has "gravely concerned" aviation authorities.

On June 23 telecommunications company Telenor disconnected a 150 megabyte radio line between Bodø and Sandnessjøen to perform maintenance. The company switrched communications traffic to a fiber cable, which then broke down.

No accidents or near-misses resulted from the incident, but it "was certainly frustrating for pilots and air traffic controllers," said one official.

© BkNNS - The Baltic and Nordic News Service." [18]

Earth Movement

By virtue of the fact that nature does not exist in a vacuum, earth movement can play a hand in initiating several of the natural attacks discussed in this paper. Fires caused by the ignition of severed underground gas mains; floods caused by the structural failure of dams and water mains unable to withstand seismic stresses; power failures attributed to downed power lines and damaged substation equipment-these are just a sampling of the "domino effect" of disasters that can be initiated by various types of earth movement. An accurate assessment of the municipal services that would typically be available (or more accurately, unavailable) to a local information system in the aftermath of an earthquake is characterised in the following excerpt:

Case Study: Energy and Communication Systems After the February 9, 1971 San Fernando, CA Earthquake

"The earthquake damaged a number of electrical facilities operated by the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power (LADWP) and the Southern California Edison Company (SCE), which disrupted power service to large portions of the Los Angeles Basin. [1][2] The most severe damage to LADWP facilities occurred within a 4.8 km radius of Sylmar,...Within this zone, the heaviest damage occurred at the Sylmar Converter Station (40% equipment loss), the Olive Switching Station (80% equipment loss), and the Sylmar Switching Station (90% equipment loss)...The financial loss at the Sylmar Converter Station alone was $22 million, with a restoration time estimated at 1.5 to 2 years. (Youd [3] notes that this facility is particularly important "because it ties southern California to the Bonneville electrical power system, and is the facility that converts the power from direct current to alternating current.")...

Outdoor (yard) equipment at the above facilities was especially vulnerable to the earthquake forces. Damage occurred when certain pieces of equipment, such as circuit breakers, transformers, and air switches, were toppled from their foundation pads or pedestal as a result of anchoring system failures.... Other pieces of equipment, including conductors and condensers, were heavily damaged when supporting porcelain insulators failed during the earthquake. [1][4]

Other types of LAPWD facilities and equipment were damaged in the area of the most intense ground motion. For example, the San Fernando Powerplant suffered severe structural damage from intense shaking and ground settlement. The reinforced concrete powerhouse was constructed in 1921 without earthquake resisting elements. In addition, approximately 285 overhead distribution transformers and 30 wooden poles were damaged and had to be replaced. Many lattice-type steel towers were subjected to intense shaking and permanent ground movements, but all transmission lines remained intact even though about 20 towers were displaced from their original positions... [1]

Power failures, resulting from damaged equipment and relays triggered by the earthquake, affected 636,000 LADWP and 254,000 SCE customers.... [1][4]

The most serious damage to a General Telephone Company of California (GTC) facility occurred at the Sylmar Central Office building. There, 91 tonnes of automatic switching equipment, mounted on vertical bays, was destroyed-a loss of $4.5 million. The switching equipment was damaged or destroyed when the supporting structures failed and toppled to the floor...The loss of this switching station severed telephone service for 9500 customers in Sylmar.... it was not until March 19, 39 days after the earthquake, that normal service was fully restored..." [5]

To say that earth movement can have a severe effect upon information systems, the resources they use, and their associated lines of communication is a radical understatement compared to the devastation that can be wreaked upon a geographical region. However, it is not just these previously mentioned by-products of earth movement that must be taken into account by those dealing specifically with information systems. There are further considerations that the general public does not have to deal with. Addressing only the issue of vibration, Frank Cohen states that "Earth movement causes vibrations that disrupt internal connections between information system components, disrupt power, cause disk drives to physically destroy themselves, and disrupt wiring." [6]

Many people immediately think of earthquakes when they hear the phrase "earth movement". However, as Cohen points out, "Other forms of earth movement include mud slides, sink holes, and other similar phenomena. Although these forms of earth movement are comparatively local, they can still cause significant disruption." [6]

Electronic Interference

Most everyone who has been bored enough to read the side of a cereal box has most likely been bored enough also to read the little advisement printed somewhere on one of the electronic devices they own. The one that says something to the effect of "This device complies with part fifteen of the FCC rules. Operation is subject to the following two conditions: (1) This device may not cause harmful interference, and (2) This device must accept any interference received including interference that may cause undesired operation..." [6] "What does that mumbo-jumbo have to do with me?", you may have asked yourself. Well, anyone who has taken a plane ride on a commercial carrier recognizes the following scenario: shortly before the plane takes off, the voice of the flight steward or stewardess comes over the intercom, and in addition to telling you to fasten your seat belt and observe the no smoking sign, there is a request to turn off all cell phones, laptops, radios, portable televisions, and any other electronic devices. By now you may have guessed that these devices have a recent history of causing failures in the systems used by airports in their normal air traffic control operations through the electronic interference they produce. [7] And, if these devices produce enough interference to possibly affect the safe operation of an airport, just imagine what havoc the devices with the new bluetooth technology will cause, with the recent push of one company to install them in airports. [8] (Bluetooth uses radio waves to communicate with other devices. To further elaborate on this technology goes beyond the scope of this paper.)

Many people think that electronics are the only thing that can cause electronic interference, but nature can cause electronic interference as well. If you are skeptical, ask the owner of one of those large satellite TV dishes about the last time he had to remove snow or leaves from the dish to improve his reception. Ask a ham radio operator how unfavorable weather conditions or solar flares affect his transmissions. Or, prove it to yourself by tuning into an AM radio station during a lightning storm. Even earthquakes are known to emit ultra low frequency waves. [9] While no research has been conducted on this front, even these waves, theoretically, could cause electronic interference.


Fires can happen anywhere, at any time, as long as the four requisites for its sustinence are present: air, heat, fuel, and of course, the reaction known as fire - all of these things collectively referred to as the "fire triangle". [10] While fires present the obvious potential to destroy computers, backup media, networks, and the like, merely by consuming everything in its wake, the by-products of fire, as well as the measures used to extinguish it, can cripple systems as well. The following excerpt helps to crystallize this concept.

Profile: The mechanical function of a hard drive.

"In all but the lowest capacity hard drives, the hard drive consists of several disks that are arranged vertically and rotate around a common axis. These disks are made of aluminum and are covered with a synthetic coating that contains finely ground iron oxide, which allows the surface of the data carrier to be magnetized. like floppy disk drives, hard drives consist of four component groups: the drive motor, read/write heads, stepper motor, (and) the control circuitry. The drive motor brings the disks to a rotational speed of 3600 RPM...."(ED. NOTE- This text is circa 1996. Rotational speeds of 7200 RPM and above have become more common.)

"... The combined read/write heads reach between the disk surfaces. So each disk can be accessed both on the top and the bottom. The heads are always moved together, although only one writes or reads at a given time.

They're mounted on arms similar to those found on floppy drives, and are moved radially from track to track by the stepper motor. This particular action (i.e., the movement of the drive's heads from the disk's edge to its center.), is one of the primary differences that can be found between different types of hard drives....

Unlike the read/write heads of a floppy drive, hard drive heads don't touch the data carrier surface. At such high rotational speeds this would inevitably lead to both a damaged disk and a damaged head.

Instead, the heads float on a cushion of air caused by the high rotational speed. This is called the Bernoulli effect.

The distance between the disk surface and the head is so small that even a human hair is 100 times thicker. Therefore, the hard drive is enclosed within a hermetically sealed case. The presence of even a single grain of dust could result in a head crash. When this occurs the head actually touches the disk surface. Therefore, never try to open your hard drive's case." [11]

While smoke particles are not as thick as the diameter of a human hair, they can be thicker than the distance between the disk surface and the head of a hard drive, [11, illustration] and cause recorded data to become unrecoverable if they coat the disks of a hard drive. [12]

Other "by-product" concerns include:


Approximately 7/10 of the surface of our planet is covered by water. [13] So is it any wonder that water damage is the second ranking cause of computer network failure? [12] Regardless of its ranking on the "computer system hit parade" (pun intended), the ability of water to render information systems inoperative should not be underestimated. Cable couplings that connect computers to networks can be affected by water. Electronic connections can be shorted out, causing potential damage to data and hardware. And in instances of full scale flooding, computer systems can be totally lost- as described in the following interview.

Interview: John Kador interviewing Bill Thompson, manager of manufacturing at labeling machine manufacturer Mark Andy, describing disaster recovery efforts after 1993 Midwestern floods

"The Great Midwestern Floods of 1993 will go down as one of the most costly disasters in American history. From July to September, persistent rains flooded the Mississippi Valley, including Illinois, Iowa, Minnesota and Missouri. To get a first hand account of this disaster, I went to the Chesterfield Valley, a prime commercial area nestled in a flood plain along the Missouri River, 18 miles west of St. Louis.

At 10:17 p.m. on July 30, 1993, the surging Missouri River overwhelmed the Monarch levee protecting the valley. A wall of water spilled through a 100 foot section of the ruined levee. By dawn, the valley was flooded with over 8 feet of water. Four months after the waters receded, signs of devastation are still evident. Most residences are uninhabitable. Almost a third of the businesses are shuttered. Trees are uprooted and some roads still are washed out. The entire landscape is raw, as if the whole valley had been rubbed with sandpaper.

We view the flood through the eyes of Bill Thompson, manager of manufacturing at Mark Andy, a manufacturer of labeling machines for the printing industry. With a background in manufacturing engineering, Thompson worked at TRW before joining Mark Andy in 1986. He is responsible for the plant's sophisticated computer-controlled manufacturing systems, including a minicomputer-based CAD/CAM application.

When did you realize that the rains of 1993 were going to be a problem?

Starting in the spring, the rains didn't seem atypical. Although the rain kept coming, we watched the water rise without too much concern. From the beginning, most of the rain stayed north in Iowa. It was the old out-of-sight-out-of-mind phenomenon that frequently gets people in trouble. There had not been a flood in the Chesterfield Valley in over 50 years, which was before we had the Monarch levee, the barrier that was designed to protect the area from high water.

When did you first get alarmed?

We got a little worried in the first part of July when some of the secondary levees began to break.

What did the company do?

We didn't do anything at first because we had trouble getting meaningful information. The information we did get was that we had nothing to worry about.

Who within the company was responsible for monitoring the flood situation?

The VP of manufacturing and I. As the water level in the Missouri River rose, we were increasingly concerned about the building and property. Every morning, we contacted the local powers that be. Toward the end, we gave up on local sources of information and started talking directly to people who had federal information: the Army Corps of Engineers and the Chesterfield Airport Authority.

What information were you looking for?

Based on the height of the Monarch levee and the altitude of the plant above sea level, we wanted to know the worst case scenario for us if the levee failed. Eventually we calculated that there would be somewhere between 3 to 4 feet of water in the building if the levee broke. But by the time we were able to make this calculation, there wasn't a whole lot we could do.

Did you consider sandbagging?

Yes, but to protect the building, it would have required over 22 tandem loads of sand. And that doesn't even address the challenge of bagging the sand. We moved as much equipment as we could to high ground, held our breath, and hoped.

What did you do to protect the computer systems?

On the Friday before the flood, we moved our CAD/CAM computer system to the second floor. That system survived. To protect the numerous PCs on the shop floor, we put them on top of file cabinets. Unfortunately, that strategy did not work. We thought 48 inches--the height of most file cabinets--would be sufficient. It wasn't.

What was the maximum height of the water in the building?

We measured it at 54 inches. But it wasn't just the depth of the water. The levee broke in the worst possible place for the valley. The Missouri River runs from south to north through the Chesterfield Valley and hooks back to meet up with the Mississippi to the east. If the levee had ruptured at the other end of the valley, the water would have filled up the lowlands and gone right back into the Missouri. But the way it broke, it caused the whole river to flow through the valley. We had a huge current. Many buildings had their first floors blown away--furniture and everything totally cleaned out. Our offices on the first floor were destroyed.

How long were you out of business?

We never were out of touch with our customers. By July 31, we had arranged for temporary offices about five to six miles away. By Monday morning, we were reassuring customers that we still were in business and, more important, that we intended to stay in business. Sales and support activities were uninterrupted. Of course, manufacturing and parts were disrupted for about six weeks.

What did you find when you finally were allowed back into the plant?

It wasn't until Aug. 6 that the city allowed us to get back in and take cursory looks around. There was about 2 feet of water still inside the building. By Aug. 12, we had a crew in to start cleaning up. We had to bring them in by boat. Quite unintentionally, we had built the factory on a berm, so we were one of the first ones out of water. However, it still took us about four weeks to get the building cleaned up, move the people back in, and start operations with parts orders.

Did the company have to lay off anyone during the flood?

I'm proud to say that we kept all of our 265 workers employed throughout the disruption. No one lost a single paycheck.

What about the physical stress of the clean up?

At the time, I didn't think about it because I was too exhausted. To get the plant cleaned up, we were running two 12-hour shifts, seven days a week. It's pretty humid in St. Louis in August even without 2 feet of water in your building. But cleaning up inside the building was brutal. Interior humidity hovered between 95 to 98 percent. in some cases, it appeared to be raining inside the building. It's impossible to describe what the physical stress was like.

What was the lowest point of this ordeal for you?

After we moved back into the building, the waters started to rise again. We sandbagged and jacked the machines up. To work 24 hours a day for three solid weeks and then see the waters rise was draining. Luckily, we weren't flooded a second time.

It's said that a crisis brings people closer together. Did that happen at Mark Andy?

Yes, it did. Especially in the second part when we were sandbagging together. Sometimes it was almost fun. Imagine 50 to 60 people sitting around on a pile of sand! filling bags. We started talking and it brought a lot of people closer together. Certainly it brought management and hourly people closer together because the managers were right there pitching in.

How is the company stronger today for surviving the flood?

We took the opportunity to talk to our customers a lot more than we usually did. Before the flood, we took orders, shipped them, and answered questions. This opportunity gave us a chance to talk to all of our customers, listen to their concerns, and explain what we were doing. Humor also helped.

What kind of humor?

There is a huge trade show for our industry every September. In the midst of our clean-up, we decided to go. In the middle of our display booth in Chicago we had a rubber raft and some sandbags. We had buttons that said, "What flood?" It went over well. We took a lot of orders.

If you had to do it over, what would you do differently?

We used some subcontractors to help us with cleanup. In retrospect, I'm not sure we would use subcontractors again. We could have done just as good a job ourselves. We also tried to fix the machines on the floor by drying them out and cleaning up the circuit boards. That effort failed. We should have figured there was no way to dry out a sophisticated piece of electronic equipment and expect it to work over the long haul.

How has this experience made you a more effective manager?

I listen better. After slogging through the swamp together with these people, I have a better appreciation of what my colleagues are telling me.

Was there a contingency plan in place before the flood?

No. Needless to say, we are completing one now. We hadn't even anticipated flooding. That's why it was so difficult for us to determine who to call for the right information. That's the first thing we'll have in the contingency plans we are working on now. Incidentally, a couple of years ago, we put hundreds of hours into preparing for the potential earthquake that was predicted for the Midwest.

What is the central lesson of the flood for you?

Stick with it. At the height of the flood, it was easy to conclude the company wouldn't make it. But if you honestly believe there is a chance, stick with it. I'm proud that 263 out of 265 people at Mark Andy felt that way and they all pitched in to make it happen." [17]

And while it can be very easy to discount flooding as a threat because your systems are not located in or near a flood plain, it would be foolish to do so. Wherever man-made facilities exist for the storage and transfer of a natural resource such as water, the potential for those facilities to fail exists also. Ruptured water pipes can flood out a computer room in a matter of moments. and rectifying the problem can be especially difficult if the ruptured line belongs to another tenant in your building.

Believe it or not, even structures or systems designed to support or protect an information system, under adverse conditions, can actually harm it. Examples include fire sprinkler systems that use water instead of Halon, structural leaks in a building, and condensation overflow from air-conditioning systems. [12]

Environmental Control Loss

With all of the benefits that computers provide us through the efficient storage, retrieval and processing of data, it is easy to take for granted the fact that the conditions of the environment in which they reside have to be "just right" for those systems to function efficiently and properly. As mentioned in the previous section, the structures and systems designed specifically to keep computers running optimally can be detrimental to them if they fail. Some of the many factors that can affect computer operations include:


Incidents of "over-temperature" have been cited by at least one source to be the most commonly reported cause of computer downtime, with the condition being most often attributable to the failure of room air-conditioning. [12] A closely related cause of overheating can occur with a power failure, where uninterruptible power supplies kick computer systems back on, but do not provide power for the air-conditioning systems that support them.

Air flow:

The air flow concern is a close relative to that of temperature, in the respect that most, if not all, computer systems rely on the air flow provided by case fans and CPU fans tï keep the internal components of those systems operating at a particular temperature range. If just one of these fans fail, failure of the whole system, including component damage, will be relatively apparent in short order.

Air quality:

The quality of the air cycled through a computer system can play a direct role as to how much downtime a computer undergoes. A system which operates under strict air quality controls can provide much more reliability than one in an environment replete with dust, dander, tobacco smoke particles, and other contaminants. As mentioned previously in this paper under the fire category, minute particles such as smoke, dust and hair, can be directly responsible for a hard drive crash, and subsequent, irretrievable loss of data. Large collections of dust and other airborne debris inside computer housings, such as those that can be found inside of computer systems that have not been periodically cleaned, can contribute significantly to reduction, or even constriction of air flow, and also act as a form of insulation, causing overheating.


Moisture in the air of a computer facility should be closely monitored as well. The right balance can avoid conditions conducive to system failure. Too much humidity can cause high resistance current paths in circuitry to form due to the oxidation of connections and components. The subsequent variations in circuit resistance can introduce undesirable logic errors. On the other hand, too little humidity promotes the formation of static electricity, which will be discussed later in this paper.

And finally.......

Power Failure

For the purposes of this section, the term "power failure" is meant to encompass not only a complete and total loss of power, but to include the full category of conditions affecting the quality of a power supply. While it's quite obvious that computers that have no power can not function, the precise moment of a power disruption can have an important effect upon the data stored in those systems. If the power to a computer is disrupted during a hard drive read or write operation, the file being accessed at the time of the outage could be corrupted to the point of inaccessibility and/or unusability. The danger also exists for a hard drive crash, where the loss of rotational speed of the magnetic media deprives the read/write head of its supportive cushion of air. The read/write head makes contact with the magnetic media that is still spinning to a stop, causing damage to the head and/or the media, thereby making ALL the data stored on the drive inaccessible.

Municipal power supplies, like anything else in life, have the capacity to fail. Transformers can be taken out by automobile accidents; sub-stations can be hit by lightning; fallen trees can down power lines. But, aside from these calamities, the quality of the electricity provided can have a say as to the longevity and the reliability of any computer system. Power spikes and drops, over voltage and under voltage can cause internal heat rise and component degradation by stressing computer power supplies. [12]

Solar Flares

"Our star is riddled with powerful magnetic fields, which are probably created by currents of hot gas flowing in the interior. In places, the magnetic fields become concentrated, choking off energy pouring from the interior and creating cool, dark sunspots. Sunspots usually form in pairs and mark the most active magnetic regions on the sun' s surface.

Solar flares erupt from these active regions, spewing huge loops of energized particles and X-ray and gamma ray light. At other times, the sun hurls "coronal mass ejections" from the active regions, in which billions of tons of hot gas rush into space. And a constant solar "wind" of charged particles blows from the surface, gusting past Earth at 1 million mph or more.

The Earth's magnetic field, a giant cocoon, usually deflects the energized particles and matter. Occasionally the particles are funneled toward the poles, where they interact with the magnetic field to form brilliant auroras, also known as the northern and southern lights." [19]

Solar flares are periodic eruptions on the surface of the sun that are accompanied by increased cosmic ray activity. These eruptions, along with sunspots, coronal mass ejections and the solar wind, cycle over an 11 year period. The cosmic rays have been known to cause transient bit errors in computer systems by colliding with memory elements. [7] other characteristics of solar flares include noise bursts and excessive background RF noise interfering with radio communications-sometimes disrupting them altogether. [7][14] Solar storms can also knock out pager service, orbiting satellites, and electrical power, such as the solar storm in 1989 that knocked out power to 6 million people in Quebec. [19]


Volcanos seem to be one of the easier attacks to be able to avoid - simply don't go anywhere near them. They are definitely a regional phenomena, and one of those things that you shouldn't have to worry about developing. Unless, of course, you've already got one. Volcanic eruptions have been known to cause a great deal of damage, and have the capacity to eliminate support systems that keep computers up and running. [7] Lava flows burn through cables and wires, and disturb radio communications by emitting radio frequency interference. [14] Ash interferes with telecommunications and causes physical damage to disk drives and other peripherals. [14]

Severe Weather

Everyone has experienced severe weather at one time or another in their life. Severe weather knows no season that has not seen its effects. Whether it's as tame as a heat wave that causes spot fires or as vicious as a tornado that tears through everything in its path, severe weather has been on earth longer than mankind and is one of the things than mankind has yet to tame. It plays no favorites, and nothing, no matter how carefully conceived or how well constructed, is immune from its effects. This includes information systems.

Aside from severe weather events like hurricanes, tornadoes, tidal waves, and lightning strikes, that have the capability of destroying computers directly, other weather events, some more spectacular than others, can bring down information systems by attacking their support structures. Ice storms, notable for their beauty, are also notorious for bringing down power lines. High winds associated with blizzards and most storm fronts can also bring down power lines. Hail pelts transformers and switching equipment of both telephone and power utilities causing damage and subsequent loss of services. Even the previously mentioned hurricanes, tornadoes, tidal waves and lightning strikes can take this passive role by striking an outlying area that provides your information system with its power and communication needs.

Not all weather events are so dramatic, however. The heat wave makes its subtle attack on computer systems either directly, by causing runtime failure of individual air-conditioning units that support computer systems, causing those systems to overheat, or indirectly, by causing such a drain on a particular regions energy resources, (i.e.- If everyone is running their A/C on high at the same time) that a power failure results.


Static electricity is the accumulation of electrons on a surface through the transfer of charges from the frictional contact of two dissimilar bodies. [15] Everyone who has received a shock from a doorknob in the winter has experienced this. Walking across a carpet in rubber soled shoes, electrons get transferred from the carpet to our bodies, which collect the charge, since there's nowhere for the charge to dissipate. Once we touch a doorknob, or a similar metal object- ZAP! - the electrons bleed off quickly through this better conductor, giving a miniature noise and light show. While this process is a great demonstration of a scientific principle, it can be dangerous for computer systems and equipment. To understand why, we have to take a brief look at the IC.

All modern day computers use ICs, or integrated circuits. These ICs are compact packages of resistors, transistors and other semiconductors that allow computers to perform logical functions. The size of these packages are what allow us to have the portable PCs and digital watches of today. without the IC, the circuitry needed for today's hand-held calculators would take up a large room, as they did back when electronic computers were in their infancy. It doesn't take much to imagine how small these circuits have to be to condense a room full of equipment down to something that fits in the palm of your hand. ICs don't use a lot of energy- some run in the millivolt range. So imagine what would happen if this IC were to have a power surge of 10,000 volts- the average voltage of a typical static discharge. [16] - it would be tantamount to a direct lightning strike on the electrical system of your house. Wiring would be burned out and electrical appliances would no longer function, to say the least.

Static discharge is such a threat to computer systems, that computer labs go out of their way to protect against it. Anti static mats are used to harmlessly discharge personnel, and service technicians who install new components (which also come protected in anti-static wrappers!) use wrist straps that bleed off static build up.

Summary, Conclusions, and Further Work

Like it or not, mankind's creations fall under the auspices of nature's domain. Information systems and their associated support structures are no exception. Though it is true that these natural calamities that befall us are not of our own making, we should not use them as an excuse for a fatalistic attitude. Rather, we should use them as the impetus to spur ourselves on to continue to learn to coexist with nature. Preparation and understanding of nature's way is the key to unlocking this relationship. We can't stop natural disasters from occurring, but, in most instances, with forethought and preparation, we can step out of harm's way.


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13. tm

14. Cohen, Fred. "Course on Threats, Attacks, and Defenses" multimedia compact disc, copyright, Fred Cohen & Associates, 1999

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