Is Chicago ready? ‘The Doomsday Squad’ works to predict disaster

A team of researchers at Argonne National Laboratory in Lemont is hard at work trying to predict chaos.  They’re simulating the impact of everything from massive power outages to Ebola outbreaks.

They’ve been dubbed the “Doomsday Squad” and their job is to anticipate everything from food and water shortages to the pandemonium caused by plague.

Charles “Chick” Macal’s job is to expect the unexpected.  His official title is chief scientist in Argonne’s global security sciences division.  Macal leads a team that used Argonne’s $180 million super computer.  It allows them to see how one disaster could to lead to another disaster. “Our work is not to scare people, it’s meant to educate people,” Macal said.

Scientists are exploring the cascade effect of major infrastructure failures.  “The important thing isn’t what takes out an infrastructure asset but what happens afterward and the domino effect,” Argonne strategy and innovation director Megan Clifford told WGN.

One simulation the team runs includes the outage of a major electricity supplier in North Dakota. That would impact a big natural gas producer which supplies several states - including Illinois. Within days… no heat, little fuel for a major metropolitan area.   And what if the Chicago-area lost electricity for a prolonged period?  “If the electrical grid goes down the street lights go dark, traffic signals go dark and the transportation system can break down,” Argonne infrastructure expert Tom Wall said.

Argonne’s Global Security Sciences division is also test-driving the systems that run driverless vehicles.  “We’re really interested in that, the cybersecurity aspect of operating things without humans and how that can create new vulnerabilities,” Clifford told WGN.

Argonne’s experts are also using their computing power to analyze the spread of a virus or disease.  Be it naturally occurring or one released by a terrorist.  How do they do it? With an understanding of the actual patterns of the 2.7 million people who live in the City of Chicago. “With our computer models we’re able to understand the contact patterns that can develop between people and possibly how a disease may be transmitted from one person to the next,” Macal said.”

 Last Halloween, the team had a bit of fun substituting a few lines of code to change the threat from a virus like zika to zombies.  How long would it take for a troupe of zombies to overwhelm the inhabitants of Chicago?

Argonne computer analysts determined the “city that works” becomes the “city of the dead” within 60 days.

The system running all these simulations is nicknamed “Mira.” She’s currently the 9th fastest supercomputer in the world, capable of running 10-quadrillion calculations a second.  Next year, “Mira” will be replaced by a younger, faster model named “Aurora.” She’s a computer 18-times more powerful.  And for a scientist, more seductive.   “With our faster computer we’ll be able to go a long way toward simulating, for example, activities in the brain potentially leading to consciousness,” Macal said.

Argonne National Lab’s global security science division is complimented by other Argonne experts working on things like batteries that never lose power.  A transit team is also studying the most efficient way to conduct mass evacuations in cities like Chicago.

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