Extreme weather will inflict chaos on infrastructure

Weather cloud

In the coming years, extreme weather events will become more frequent and widespread, devastating areas of the world that typically don’t experience them and amplifying the destruction in areas that do. Exposing deficiencies in technical and physical infrastructure, these events will cause major disruption and damage to IT systems and assets. Data centers will be significantly impacted, with dependent organizations losing access to services and data, and Critical National Infrastructure (CNI) will be put at risk.

Widespread droughts will force governments to divert water traditionally used to cool data centers, resulting in unplanned outages. In coastal areas and river basins, catastrophic flooding, hurricanes, typhoons or monsoons will hit key infrastructure such as the electrical grid and telecommunication systems. Wildfires will lead to prolonged power outages, stretching continuity arrangements to breaking point. The impact of extreme weather events on local staff, who may be unwilling or unable to get to their workplace, will put operational capability in jeopardy. The magnitude of extreme weather events -- and their prevalence in areas that have not previously been prone to them -- will create havoc for organizations that have not prepared for their impact.

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In addition to natural factors, environmental activists will establish a link between global warming and data center power consumption and will consider them to be valid targets for action. For data-centric organizations, the capabilities of data centers and core technical infrastructure will be pushed to the extreme, as business continuity and disaster recovery plans are put to the test like never before.

What is the Justification for This Threat?

Extreme weather events have frightening consequences for people’s lives and have the potential to degrade or destroy critical infrastructure. From wildfires in California that wreck power lines, to extreme rainfall and flooding in South Asian communities that poison fresh water supplies and disrupt other critical services, the impacts of extreme weather are pronounced and deadly. They have severe ramifications for the availability of services and information -- for example, in 2015 severe flooding in the UK city of Leeds caused a telecommunications data center to lose power, resulting in a large-scale outage.

According to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), human-induced warming from fossil fuel usage, overbreeding of animals and deforestation will contribute to, and exacerbate, the damage caused by extreme weather events. The impact on human lives, infrastructure and organizations around the world will be destructive.

The likelihood and impact of extreme weather events are increasing and will soon spread to areas of the world that haven’t historically experienced them. Overall, up to 60 percent of locations across North America, Europe, East Asia and South America will see a threefold increase in various extreme weather events over the coming years. Moreover, the US Federal Emergency Management Agency released new proposed flood maps along the west coast of Florida, showing that many companies that once assumed their data backup solutions were safe will find themselves struggling to deal with rising water levels. These increasingly volatile weather conditions will result in severe damage to infrastructure including telecommunication towers, pipelines, cables and data centers.

Data centers are some of the biggest users of energy in the world, using up to 416 terawatt hours of energy annually and accounting for 1–3 percent of the global electricity demand, doubling every four years. According to Greenpeace, only 20% of the energy used by data centers is from renewable resources. Criticism will soon turn to action, with environmental activists targeting organizations that use technical infrastructure that contributes towards harming the environment.

With the likelihood of extreme weather events increasing and becoming more damaging, organizations will be caught off guard, as their core infrastructure is crippled and CNI is taken offline. Combined with a greater scrutiny from environmental activists, data centers and core infrastructure will be put at risk.

How Should Your Organization Prepare?

Extreme weather events, coupled with environmental activism, should prompt a fundamental re-examination of and re-investment in organizational resilience. It is critical that organizations risk assess their physical infrastructure and decide whether to relocate, harden it or transfer risk to cloud service providers.

In the short term, organizations should review risk exposure to extreme weather events, considering the location of data centers. Additionally, revise business continuity and disaster recovery plans and conduct a cyber security exercise with an extreme weather scenario.

In the long term, consider relocation of strategic assets that are at high risk and transfer risk to cloud or outsourced service providers. Finally, invest in infrastructure that is more durable in extreme weather conditions.

Image credit: solarseven / Shutterstock

Steve Durbin is Managing Director of the Information Security Forum (ISF). His main areas of focus include strategy, information technology, cyber security, digitalization and the emerging security threat landscape across both the corporate and personal environments. Previously, he was senior vice president at Gartner.

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