July 01, 2011

Summer Reading List: Scientific American, For the Last Time

CNAS is closed this week. We bloggers have dispersed far away from Washington. For those who must spend their days at desks, this week we bring you our second Summer Reading List to supplement our last one. Enjoy!

I know, I know. You’re thinking, “Christine, you recommend that we read things from this magazine every single month.” I realize now that this has become a trend. But that’s because there is a trend in Scientific American itself. Every single month it is providing articles that are directly relevant to natural security work. And because they are based on advances in scientific research, it is actually new material, not just someone else’s opinion.  

But seriously, this month’s edition has a few good short pieces and two must-read longer articles. The first is “Hacking the Lights Out: The Computer Virus Threat to the Electrical Grid,” a topic of great concern to many of us in the energy security and cyber fields (I’m looking at you, @abochman). This piece is a great overview of the various methods of potential attack available to cyber intruders, and really helps the reader walk through the broad and complicated nature of this challenge.

You’ll notice in one of the graphics that one of the early, major cyber intrusions of U.S. energy Davis Besseinfrastructure was at Davis Besse nuclear power plant. This reactor happens to be about 30 miles from beautiful Sandusky, Ohio, where I was born and raised (and yes, also of Tommy Boy fame). The ability to hack into nuclear reactors is serious business, to be sure. The article outlines a broad range of threats of high concern. But even with a major nuclear power cyber attack so close to my hometown, I still believe that too much oversimplification and hype drive the debate over how to handle the grid cyber security challenge. This is something we’ll always have to wrestle with – a security risk we’ll always have to mitigate. But focusing on virtual Maginot lines (as the article discusses) or retaining an unstable and outdated dumb grid are not the answer to reducing these kinds of threats.

The second must-read article points to a new layer to what we know about how the climate is changing. In “The Last Great Global Warming” the author presents research from a team of scientists who have focused their work on the Paleocene-Eocene Thermal Maximum, one of the great historical periods of change in the global climate.

This line reveals their big results: “The fossil record tells us that the speed of climate change has more impact on how life-forms and ecosystems fare than does the extent of the change” (emphasis mine). This is huge for policies to address the climate change challenge, and seems to point to mitigation (not solely adapting to change) as critical. The vulnerable nations that consistently push for the United States to step up in its leadership on climate change will also surely take note of this newly-identified characteristic of the climate change threat.

I do promise to cease harping on you all to read SciAm every month. From now on, I’ll just Tweet the best articles, and I’ll close here with a final recommendation that you should just subscribe in tree format or on your modern electronic devices or whatever. I’m confident it will continue to be worth it.

More summer reads tomorrow!

Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.Originally posted to Flickr by dknisely at http://www.flickr.com/photos/dnk/223140722/.