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Risk Symposium focuses on analysis, modeling potential natural and man-made disasters

By Roger Snodgrass

POJOAQUE — The 2009 Risk Symposium sponsored by Los Alamos National Laboratory and several partners wraps up today at Buffalo Thunder Resort in Pojoaque.

The conference, which has become an annual affair, began Tuesday and brought together about 150 people from the risk community, including a substantial contingent from the Department of Homeland Security.

Theoreticians and computer modelers in academia and national laboratories batted ideas back and forth with subject experts, decision makers and managers in government and private industry.

The theme this year was about risk analysis and natural and man-made disasters as complex systems. Participants found new ways to think about unthinkables. And from a safe distance, they sampled vulnerability scenarios for things like pandemics and dam bursts.

Rene LeClaire, a LANL modeler described a study his team has been doing integrating models that could be used to analyze potential impacts on infrastructure from a dam disruption. Dams are usually located at the confluence of an energy source and water resource, the kind of place that has implications for many other vital activities, especially if interrupted or damaged, because many other parts of the infrastructure depend on them.

One available program provided hydrographic information on the potential spillway in the path of a breech.

“You get the lay o’ the land, so to speak, of where the water might flow,” LeClaire said. “Given the hazard, there is a fragility curve that can be assigned to various assets depending on the disruption.”

This program can be linked with another software tool that provides a very high angle view – “a mile wide and an inch deep,” he said.

In a related talk about emergency relocation, Leticia Cuéllar of LANL demonstrated how evacuations could mitigate some of the worst consequences of hurricane-like disasters, but only if managers know who is getting out and where they are likely to go, so that resources can be effectively allocated.

“Prediction is needed for shelters of last resort,” she said. “This kind of information is not just used for emergency response, but also for emergency planning.”

Rounding out this particular parallel session on infrastructure disruptions, which covers only a facet of the realm of risks, Sue Mniszewski, a LANL simulator, demonstrated a large-scale, agent-based program called ActivitySim. The sim has been used to characterize the daily activities of the 2.6 million residents of the Twin Cities area of Minnesota. U.S census data is employed to generate representative schedules, such as sleeping, working and shopping. Integrating those schedules helps researchers understand how interrelated activities, whether normal or distressed, create complex demands on the infrastructure.

Among other risky areas, apparent in the topics of the symposium, are borders and coasts, biosecurity, cybersecurity, resilient networks, financial and economic disorder and public health. Terrorism, which illuminated much of what we didn’t know about risk management, is still out there as well.

The security challenges of the 21st century have changed in the last decade, from national contests with known antagonists to a much more irregular security landscape and indeterminate hazards.

As Joe Martz suggested, it is becoming harder to determine oncoming competitors, less certain that we will not be taken by surprise by some new technology, and there is little assurance that a submerged game-changing development won’t pop up on the horizon.

A senior staff member and spokesperson for the LANL Weapons Division, Martz said he welcomed President Obama’s statement in Prague about his goal of eliminating nuclear weapons, even if he wouldn’t be around to see it for himself.

“Like him, I’m not sure it will happen in my lifetime,” Martz said.

Meanwhile we wrestle with well-known natural monsters like earthquakes, storms and floods and climate change alongside unsolved pathologies of international relations like weapons of mass destruction and failed and rogue states.

Among the hosts of the event, David Izraelevitz of the Organizing Committee and Gregory Brouillette of the Advisory Committee kept the symposium on track. The lab’s Decision Application Division and its Risk Analysis and Decision Support System group were well represented, as was the Center for Nonlinear Studies.