Forum for Science, Industry and Business

Sponsored by:     3M 
Search our Site:

 

Government, Industry Can Better Manage Risks of Very Rare Catastrophic Events

19.11.2012
Several potentially preventable disasters have occurred during the past decade, including the recent outbreak of rare fungal meningitis linked to steroid shots given to 13,000 patients to relieve back pain.

Before that, the 9/11 terrorist attacks in 2001, the Space Shuttle Columbia explosion in 2003, the financial crisis that started in 2008, the Deepwater Horizon accident in the Gulf of Mexico in 2011, and the Fukushima tsunami and ensuing nuclear accident also in 2011 were among rare and unexpected disasters that were considered extremely unlikely or even unthinkable.

A Stanford University engineer and risk management expert has analyzed the phenomenon of government and industry waiting for rare catastrophes to happen before taking risk management steps. She concluded that a different approach to these events would go far towards anticipating them, preventing them or limiting the losses.

To examine the risk management failures discernible in several major catastrophes, the research draws upon the combination of systems analysis and probability as used, for example, in engineering risk analysis. When relevant statistics are not available, it discusses the powerful alternative of systemic risk analysis to try to anticipate and manage the risks of highly uncertain, rare events. The paper by Stanford University researcher Professor Elisabeth Paté-Cornell recommends “a systematic risk analysis anchored in history and fundamental knowledge” as opposed to both industry and regulators sometimes waiting until after a disaster occurs to take safety measures as was the case, for example, of the Deepwater Horizon accident in 2011.

Her paper, “On ‘Black Swans’ and ‘Perfect Storms’: Risk Analysis and Management When Statistics Are Not Enough,” appears in the November 2012 issue of Risk Analysis, published by the Society for Risk Analysis.

Paté-Cornell’s paper draws upon two commonly cited images representing different types of uncertainty—“black swans” and “perfect storms”—that are used both to describe extremely unlikely but high-consequence events and often to justify inaction until after the fact. The uncertainty in “perfect storms” derives mainly from the randomness of rare but known events occurring together. The uncertainty in “black swans” stems from the limits of fundamental understanding of a phenomenon, including in extreme cases, a complete lack of knowledge about its very existence.

Given these two extreme types of uncertainties, Paté-Cornell asks what has been learned about rare events in engineering risk analysis that can be incorporated in other fields such as finance or medicine. She notes that risk management often requires “an in-depth analysis of the system, its functions, and the probabilities of its failure modes.” The discipline confronts uncertainties by systematic identification of failure “scenarios,” including rare ones, using “reasoned imagination,” signals (new intelligence information, medical alerts, near-misses and accident precursors) and a set of analytical tools to assess the chances of events that have not happened yet. A main emphasis of systemic risk analysis is on dependencies (of failures, human errors, etc.) and on the role of external factors, such as earthquakes and tsunamis that become common causes of failure.

The “risk of no risk analysis” is illustrated by the case of the 14 meter Fukushima tsunami resulting from a magnitude 9 earthquake. Historical records showed that large tsunamis had occurred at least twice before in the same area. The first time was the Sanriku earthquake in the year 869, which was estimated at magnitude 8.6 with a tsunami that penetrated 4 kilometers inland. The second was the Sanriku earthquake of 1611, estimated at magnitude 8.1 that caused a tsunami with an estimated maximum wave height of about 20 meters. Yet, those previous events were not factored into the design of the Fukushima Dai-ichi nuclear reactor, which was built for a maximum wave height of 5.7 meters, simply based on the tidal wave caused in that area by the 1960 earthquake in Chile. Similar failures to capture historical data and various “signals” occurred in the cases of the 9/11 attacks, the Columbia Space Shuttle explosion and other examples analyzed in the paper.

The risks of truly unimaginable events that have never been seen before (such as the AIDS epidemics) cannot be assessed a priori, but careful and systematic monitoring, signals observation and a concerted response are keys to limiting the losses. Other rare events that place heavy pressure on human or technical systems are the result of convergences of known events (“perfect storms”) that can and should be anticipated. Their probabilities can be assessed using a set of analytical tools that capture dependencies and dynamics in scenario analysis. Given the results of such models, there should be no excuse for failing to take measures against rare but predictable events that have damaging consequences, and to react to signals, even imperfect ones, that something new may be unfolding.

Risk Analysis: An International Journal is published by the nonprofit Society for Risk Analysis (SRA). SRA is a multidisciplinary, interdisciplinary, scholarly, international society that provides an open forum for all those who are interested in risk analysis. Risk analysis is defined broadly to include risk assessment, risk characterization, risk communication, risk management, and policy relating to risk, in the context of risks of concern to individuals, to public and private sector organizations, and to society at a local, regional, national, or global level. www.sra.org

Contact: Steve Gibb, 202.422.5425 skgibb@aol.com to arrange an interview with the author.

Note to editors: This paper is available upon request from Steve Gibb or here: http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1111/j.1539-6924.2011.01787.x/full

Steve Gibb | Newswise Science News
Further information:
http://www.sra.org

More articles from Studies and Analyses:

nachricht Real-time feedback helps save energy and water
08.02.2017 | Otto-Friedrich-Universität Bamberg

nachricht The Great Unknown: Risk-Taking Behavior in Adolescents
19.01.2017 | Max-Planck-Institut für Bildungsforschung

All articles from Studies and Analyses >>>

The most recent press releases about innovation >>>

Die letzten 5 Focus-News des innovations-reports im Überblick:

Im Focus: Safe glide at total engine failure with ELA-inside

On January 15, 2009, Chesley B. Sullenberger was celebrated world-wide: after the two engines had failed due to bird strike, he and his flight crew succeeded after a glide flight with an Airbus A320 in ditching on the Hudson River. All 155 people on board were saved.

On January 15, 2009, Chesley B. Sullenberger was celebrated world-wide: after the two engines had failed due to bird strike, he and his flight crew succeeded...

Im Focus: Breakthrough with a chain of gold atoms

In the field of nanoscience, an international team of physicists with participants from Konstanz has achieved a breakthrough in understanding heat transport

In the field of nanoscience, an international team of physicists with participants from Konstanz has achieved a breakthrough in understanding heat transport

Im Focus: DNA repair: a new letter in the cell alphabet

Results reveal how discoveries may be hidden in scientific “blind spots”

Cells need to repair damaged DNA in our genes to prevent the development of cancer and other diseases. Our cells therefore activate and send “repair-proteins”...

Im Focus: Dresdner scientists print tomorrow’s world

The Fraunhofer IWS Dresden and Technische Universität Dresden inaugurated their jointly operated Center for Additive Manufacturing Dresden (AMCD) with a festive ceremony on February 7, 2017. Scientists from various disciplines perform research on materials, additive manufacturing processes and innovative technologies, which build up components in a layer by layer process. This technology opens up new horizons for component design and combinations of functions. For example during fabrication, electrical conductors and sensors are already able to be additively manufactured into components. They provide information about stress conditions of a product during operation.

The 3D-printing technology, or additive manufacturing as it is often called, has long made the step out of scientific research laboratories into industrial...

Im Focus: Mimicking nature's cellular architectures via 3-D printing

Research offers new level of control over the structure of 3-D printed materials

Nature does amazing things with limited design materials. Grass, for example, can support its own weight, resist strong wind loads, and recover after being...

All Focus news of the innovation-report >>>

Anzeige

Anzeige

Event News

Booth and panel discussion – The Lindau Nobel Laureate Meetings at the AAAS 2017 Annual Meeting

13.02.2017 | Event News

Complex Loading versus Hidden Reserves

10.02.2017 | Event News

International Conference on Crystal Growth in Freiburg

09.02.2017 | Event News

 
Latest News

New pop-up strategy inspired by cuts, not folds

27.02.2017 | Materials Sciences

Sandia uses confined nanoparticles to improve hydrogen storage materials performance

27.02.2017 | Interdisciplinary Research

Decoding the genome's cryptic language

27.02.2017 | Life Sciences

VideoLinks
B2B-VideoLinks
More VideoLinks >>>