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Mother Nature’s assault on electricity and the Internet

We may be screwing up Mother Nature, but she is getting back at us in her own way. And she knows we love electricity and the Internet.

Though a lot of outages are man-made, there are a huge amount of power outages directly caused by nature every year. Causes include storms and hurricanes, earthquakes, flooding, and more often than not, animals too curious for their own best.

We had a look at some of the nature-made power outages so far in 2008, focusing mostly on the United States and North America, and how power outages have affected data centers and ISPs.

Outages caused by animals

Here is a small sample of what Mother Nature’s foot soldiers have accomplished so far this year.

Stubborn and curious squirrels are actually a well-known plague for power companies. For plenty of other examples, read this post dedicated 100% to outages caused by squirrels.

And as if this avalanche of animals weren’t enough, Mother Nature resorts to other tactics as well. Cue…

Outages caused by storms

While an animal will hurt one single location, usually a substation, a storm can cause much more widespread damage.

  • January 4: 1.2 million customers in the California Bay Area lost power when a storm with winds up to 100 mph (44 meters/s) hit the region. It took almost a week before all power had been restored.
  • March 4: An ice storm in Ohio left up to 100,000 customers without power, spread over various regions where it hit the hardest.
  • June 4: About 500,000 homes and businesses were left without power after a violent thunderstorm struck the Washington area in District of Columbia. Even two days later, 50,000 were still without power.
  • July 21: Thunderstorms and high winds cut power to 18,000 customers in portions of central Illinois.
  • August 4: A series of thunderstorms left 479,000 Chicago power customers in the dark.
  • September 13: Then of course there was Hurricane Ike in September, the third most destructive hurricane to ever hit the United States. Between September 13 and September 15, it caused around 7.5 million to lose power, all the way from Texas to New York.

(And here’s a little Twilight Zone moment: What’s up with so much happening on the 4th?)

Outages caused by floodings

Flooding is often caused by rain storms, but can also be caused by for example melting snow, as you can see in the example below, so we gave it its own category.

(If that includes March 4, this is getting spooky… 🙂 )

Outages caused by earthquakes

From what we could find by searching the news, earthquakes haven’t been so much of a problem in North America so far in 2008, though many other countries have not been so lucky. Here are some smaller incidents from the United States:

  • April 18: A 5.2 magnitude earthquake shook southern Illinois and eastern Missouri and left approximately 1,000 without power.
  • July 29: A 5.4 magnitude earthquake hit just outside Los Angeles, California, and left 5,000 customers without power.

Website downtime and lost Internet connectivity

It’s important to remember that power outages have secondary effects that can cause outages in many other services. If telecoms and ISPs are affected, this can cause significant outages for websites hosted in that area, and of course households without power can’t exactly access the Internet.

Data centers normally have backup power, but things don’t always work as planned. Here are some examples of data center and ISP outages caused by power failures so far this year:

Those were just a few examples of what has happened to far in 2008. Though these specific data center outages weren’t necessarily caused by nature, it does prove our point that even though backup power solutions are in place, these will sometimes not work as planned.

A few final words

In the cases of severe storms, hurricanes and earthquakes, there are often more immediate problems to worry about than the state of your Internet connectivity. However, considering what Pingdom is about (uptime monitoring) and what we usually write about in this blog, we focused on the effect these power outages have on the Internet infrastructure.

Sounds to us like people planning locations for new data centers might want to have a look at the local news to see how common these “nature attacks” on electricity are in the region. We have actually written something related to that before: Where NOT to place your servers according to Mother Nature.


Photos:

Raccoon by Michael Scheltgren.
Squirrel by Gilles Gonthier.
Goose by David Evers.
Earthquake library by the San Jose Library.
Thunderstorm by Danrandom.
Storm Cross by Kelly Poull.
Flooding by the U.S. Geological Survey.
Snake by Benny Mazur.

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