Black Swans

The Darkness of the Sun

A fast-moving geomagnetic storm blasts the North American power grid, leaving a large swath of the Northeastern U.S. temporarily uninhabitable.
By: | August 3, 2015 • 10 min read

“Daddy, wake up! Come see the rainbows!” 6-year-old Amanda LeBlanc insisted as she shook her father out of his slumber. Joel LeBlanc stirred slowly, feeling like he hadn’t slept at all.

“What? Go back to bed,” he grumbled, rolling over.

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“No, Daddy you have to look,” insisted Amanda, throwing the bedroom curtains wide open. Joel squinted at the light, confused. It was way too early for sunrise, wasn’t it?

Joel hoisted himself out of bed and joined his daughter at the window, catching his breath at the sight. “Huh. You know what that is, honey? It’s called an aurora. Don’t see that every day — not in Florida anyway.”

“I’m going outside to take a picture,” Amanda declared, cantering off.

Northward, there was less wonderment and more worry. Scientists had warned that week of a large coronal mass ejection (CME) that the sun had hurled toward Earth. Only three days later, it was followed by a pair of still-larger CMEs. The latter two bursts combined during their brief journey from the sun, pushing billions of tons of highly charged particles toward Earth at unprecedented speed, thanks to the path cleared by the earlier blast.

Scientists’ predictions on the size and speed of the event fell short of the mark. But even if they’d been right about everything else, they couldn’t have gauged that the CME’s magnetic field was aligned in a way that left Earth at its most vulnerable, allowing the maximum infusion of charged plasma into the Earth’s magnetosphere. It was a recipe for a perfect solar superstorm.

Video: This 1:31 minute time lapse video by Brendan Hall shows an aurora borealis in Kalispell, Mont., that occurred over 1.5 hours in June 2015.

By the time the NOAA Space Weather Prediction Center issued an urgent warning, there were only minutes left to act. Power generation companies kicked into emergency mode, working to mitigate the impact by taking transformers offline.

But even large generators couldn’t act fast enough. Geomagnetically induced currents flowed into the power grid in a matter of minutes, overheating extra-high-voltage (EHV) transformers and frying coils, destroying or damaging hundreds.

The North Atlantic corridor was hardest hit, thanks to higher ground conductivity along the coastline. In short order, upwards of 35 million people from New York City to Washington, D.C. were suddenly without power. There was an eerie stillness that morning as schools and many businesses were forced to remain shuttered.

Backup-generator owners went in search of fuel, but most gas pumps had stopped functioning immediately or soon afterward.

ATMs were all down. Within hours, land and cell phones would fail, and water could no longer pump. Worse, wastewater treatment plants shut down, causing sewage to overflow into drinking water.

Beyond the area affected by the power outage, disruptions to global positioning systems and satellite communications wreaked havoc with cellular networks, financial transaction processing and logistics operations.

The hardy Northeasterners made the best of it at first, boiling water on camp stoves, firing up barbecues and grilling the thawing food from their freezers. But before the week was out, nerves had frayed. Residents and businesses demanded answers from utilities and government officials.

The news was bad — very bad. It’s not as if hundreds of EHV transformers were warehoused waiting to be called into service. Replacements had to be ordered. and replacement for any given transformer would be at least five months and possibly up to a year or even longer, given the high level of need and the short list of manufacturers.

Units coming from foreign manufacturers would take even longer, involving arduous and complex transportation arrangements.

Residents and business owners were stunned. Public officials explained that with no power or fuel, no water pumps or waste treatment facilities, no readily accessible food supply and badly strained emergency services, there was no option other than to evacuate the affected regions.

The impact to the economy was staggering. National companies struggled to maintain communications with evacuating employees, while putting plans in place to shift operations to other locations. But an overwhelming number of small and mid-sized local businesses without the means to relocate simply folded.

Companies with business interruption or contingent business interruption policies presumably triggered by the mandatory evacuation breathed a sigh of relief, not yet aware of the lengthy battles they’d face later on about whether or not fried transformers, or the incapacity of the power grid itself, constituted a property damage trigger under policy terms.

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Supply chains nationally and globally faced upheaval as companies raced to secure secondary suppliers. Those select few companies that had chosen to take up supply chain coverage quietly congratulated themselves and used the opportunity to its fullest advantage while their competitors faltered.

Once the dust had settled, much of the North-Atlantic corridor was a patchwork of ghost towns. Members of the Army and National Guard were stationed in the region to curtail damage from looters and gangs who evaded evacution, sometimes squatting in unoccupied buildings and setting fires at night for light and warmth. Many buildings that hosted squatters would eventually need to be condemned.

Two years later, a handful of transformers still awaited replacement. Only a fraction of the evacuated population had returned, and local governments struggled to rebuild long-vacant communities. Estimates calculated the total economic cost at upwards of $2 trillion.R8-15p30-32_03Carrington.indd

The Inevitable Storm

The largest solar storm in recorded history occurred in 1859. It was dubbed the Carrington Event, after British astronomer Richard Carrington, who witnessed the megaflare. He was the first to realize the link between activity on the sun and geomagnetic disturbances on Earth.

During the event, Northern Lights were reported as far south as Cuba and Honolulu. The flares were so powerful that people in the Northeastern United States could read their newspapers just from the light of the aurora. U.S. telegraph operators reported sparks leaping from their equipment — in many cases setting fire to nearby materials.

Now, take a storm of that magnitude and let it play out in the modern world. Far smaller events have occurred many times. One such storm struck in 1989, taking out Quebec’s power grid in less than two minutes, causing $6 billion in damages and leaving millions of people without power for nine hours.

For the sake of comparison, scientists measure these storms using an index based on nano-Teslas (nT). The lower the number, the harder the Earth’s magnetic field shakes when a storm hits. The Quebec storm in 1989 measured at -589 nT. The far more powerful Carrington Event is estimated at around -850 nT.

And then there was a near miss in July 2012. Had that solar blast occurred only one week sooner, the Earth would have been directly in its path, and scientists calculated the storm would have clocked in at up to -1,200 nT. The fabric of society would have been profoundly altered, and we would still be picking up the pieces today.

“The concern becomes, now that we know, do we make the choice to act?” — Kyle Beatty, president, Verisk Climate

There is more or less universal agreement among experts and scientists that another Carrington-level event or stronger is an inevitability — the only uncertainty is when. Some experts even opine that this kind of event shouldn’t even be called a Black Swan, because the probability is higher than most might realize.

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In an article published in the journal “Space Weather” in 2012, solar scientist Pete Riley of Predictive Science Inc. calculated that the probability of a solar storm at the power of the Carrington Event or stronger in the next 10 years is around 12 percent.

The potential impact of such an event to our hyper-connected, electricity- and satellite-dependent society is a sobering prospect, and one that is netting an increasing amount of interest.

In 2013, Lloyd’s published the report that our scenario is partially based on, “Solar Storm Risk to the North American Power Grid,” in partnership with Atmospheric and Environmental Research Inc. (AER), a division of Verisk Climate.

Kyle Beatty, president, Verisk Climate

Kyle Beatty, president, Verisk Climate

“This is a topic that is drawing strong interest in the government levels at a national and international scale, because the impacts could be so large and because this is one of the only natural perils that could create simultaneous impact across continents,” said Kyle Beatty, Verisk Climate president, who worked on the study. “… When we get into an event of this size, it would impact Europe as well — it’s a global phenomenon.”

“We understood that the engineering and science communities were talking about space weather as a potentially high impact phenomenon,” added Nick Beecroft, emerging risks and research manager at Lloyd’s of London.

“But we felt that the understanding of the phenomenon and the potential impact on the insurance industry was very limited.”

Doomsday Assumptions

Experts stress that while it’s popular to paint this level of solar superstorm as a virtual “doomsday” event, that outcome need not be the case. The key is to commit to doing something about it now.

Nick Beecroft, emerging risks and research manager, Lloyd’s of London

Nick Beecroft, emerging risks and research manager, Lloyd’s of London

Since the 1989 Quebec storm, the Canadian government has invested $1.2 billion into protecting the Hydro-Quebec grid infrastructure. But you have to wonder how many billions could have been saved if that investment had come sooner.

“If we were to experience a major solar storm event — and I really should say it’s a question of when, not if — there could be extreme ramifications for power grids and for all those technologies that rely on satellite navigation systems,” said Beecroft.

It would require worldwide cooperation and investment to build in resilience to key systems, he said, as well as enhanced satellite systems and technology to improve monitoring and early warning systems for space weather events. In addition, it’s likely there would be “much greater demand for specific insurance products that would be able to respond to an event like this.”

At the risk manager level, Beecroft said, organizations around the world should be thinking “about how they can diversify their reliance on power systems and on key technologies.”

But Beecroft and other experts drive home that there is simply no reason for all of these things to happen after the fact.

“The concern becomes, now that we know, do we make the choice to act?” Beatty asked.

Something else that needs to happen sooner rather than later is the development of strong plans and procedures, especially on the part of power generation companies, said Lou Gritzo, vice president of research at FM Global.

Lou Gritzo, vice president of research, FM Global

Lou Gritzo, vice president of research, FM Global

Gritzo said the nonprofit North American Electric Reliability Corp. (NERC) has already developed recommendations to help power generators respond in such an event.

“The big wildcard is, when push comes to shove and power generators have to make those difficult decisions about what they’re going to do, do they do the right things? And how many of them do the right things?” he said.

The ideal scenario, said Gritzo, is that when the storm hits, the power generators most likely to be affected by the storm disconnect their power supply from the grid and adequate power can be temporarily supplied to the grid by other generators in areas where the storm is not going to be as intense.

The ability to make that happen quickly, said Gritzo, could go a long way toward shifting from a doomsday scenario to one of minimal consequences.

He also said risk managers should be asking power suppliers some hard questions to help them assess the need for additional investments, such as a backup power system.

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Not taking any action would be a mistake. “If there’s one number in this whole report that’s significant,” said Beatty, “it’s the estimate that the return period of a Carrington-like event is estimated at around 150 years,” a figure that can be backed up with evidence tracing back to 17 B.C.

Bottom line, he said, is that “the likelihood is high enough that we actually have a responsibility to act.”

BlackBar

Additional 2015 Black Swan coverage:

TURNERWelcome to the ARkStorm

A 45-day superstorm floods California and dishes out economic catastrophe.

R8-15p26-28_02Bomb.inddTo Clean Up a Dirty Fight

A dirty bomb detonated in Manhattan could make a ghost town of the most populous city in the U.S.

Michelle Kerr is associate editor of Risk & Insurance. She can be reached at [email protected]

More from Risk & Insurance

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Claims Trends

Treating Pain Without Drugs

Other pain relief therapies hold substantial promise in defeating drug dependency.
By: | February 20, 2018 • 9 min read

From high praise to a spiraling crash, opioid-based pain medications are out of favor. Once thought to be the solution to chronic pain, opioids opened the door to an even bigger and scarier addiction epidemic — one that menaces the workers’ comp industry and the population in general.

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According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, since 1999, more than 183,000 people have died from narcotic painkiller addiction. An estimated 91 people die each day from opioid abuse.

“Opioids are dangerous drugs. The side effects are dangerous and severe. Their efficacy is not always what people expect,” said Marcos Iglesias, senior vice president, chief medical officer, Broadspire.

“If opioids aren’t the answer, what do we turn to?”

The time to answer that question is now. Workers’ comp professionals, physicians, insurers and employers alike are looking for that next solution to pain, one that will help curb addiction and more quickly get workers on their feet.

Medical cannabis is one candidate.

Marcos Iglesias, senior vice president, chief medical officer, Broadspire

“Marijuana is unique in that everyone comes into the conversation with a bias,” said Mark Pew, senior vice president, PRIUM, a division of Genex Services.

With opioids, he said, no one knew of the dangers at first. Marijuana, on the other hand, always provoked two very polarized views: It does a great deal of good or it’s a strong drug with bad consequences.

A 2014 study published by the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA) found a link between legalized medical marijuana and a decrease in opioid-related deaths. States that legalized medical marijuana saw a 25 percent decrease in deaths from opioid overdoses.

Yet, “when people make the claim that medical marijuana is the solution to the opioid epidemic, it resonates with some people because of that bias,” said Pew.

Because of ongoing controversy, not to mention its classification as a Schedule 1 narcotic by the federal government, medical marijuana isn’t lined up to be the pain-relief answer anytime soon.

Non-Drug Therapies

So how about this: Let’s treat pain with no drugs. Radical as it may sound, non-drug pain therapies hold merit.

Meta-analyses collected for a U.S. National Library of Medicine study found that cognitive behavior therapy (CBT) had a positive effect on chronic pain and fatigue. Specifically, CBT was found to be a superior method to other treatments for decreasing pain intensity in fibromyalgia patients.

Iglesias, who has worked as a physician for more than 25 years, said CBT, a psycho-social therapy used to teach patients about the emotional and psychological factors influencing their pain, leaves a lasting impression on the injured.

“The methods I’ve seen work well are behavioral approaches — giving people tools and methods so they can manage their own life.”

“Marijuana is unique in that everyone comes into the conversation with a bias.” — Mark Pew, senior vice president, PRIUM

In workers’ comp, physicians using a CBT approach look at an injured worker’s life outside the office walls. Their home life, their health, their financial responsibilities and their mental ability to cope with an injury all factor into the healing process and could potentially lead to a lengthened claim if untreated.

Assessing these additional forces enables a physician to recommend therapies beyond the typical pill prescription.

Sometimes that means sending a patient to physical or occupational therapy. Sometimes yoga or acupuncture will do the trick, with both philosophies tapping into the mind-body connection  and encouraging relief. Exercise, diet and overall wellness are factored into an injured worker’s chronic pain management.

“Drug-related therapies tend to mask the pain symptoms,” said Michelle Despres, vice president, national product leader physical therapy, One Call Care Management. “Opioids are like the ‘quick fix.’ In physical therapy, we investigate pain patterns, seek to correct musculoskeletal problems and teach people about their anatomy.”

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A non-drug pain therapy, PT looks at the physical components of an injury, educating injured workers about the muscles that hurt and how to effectively use them in daily activities. The big question physical therapists ask: What triggers the pain?

“We look at outside activities that could be affecting the injured worker,” she said. “We look at strength, range and flexibility. We want to change the behavior instead of masking the pain.”

Iglesias pointed to another example of non-drug pain therapy called acceptance and commitment therapy (ACT), in which health care professionals work with an injured worker to accept their chronic pain but then commit to living their values in spite of that pain.

ACT, in essence, focuses on mindfulness and function in a person’s life.

Iglesias added he’s seen disability duration lessen because more professionals are starting to address function instead of pain.

Cost and Well-being

But pain is still a big factor in an injury, and CBT primarily focuses on pain management. It’s being used increasingly as an alternative to opioids, too. So much so, in fact, that some states are starting to draft legislation aimed at adopting  its methods.

In Ohio, for example, residents with work-related back injuries are now required by law to try remedies such as rest, physical therapy or chiropractic care before surgery or opioids are even brought into the discussion.

And Ohio isn’t alone; at least 17 states have added restrictions on opioid prescriptions, including limiting the length of time such pills can be prescribed. But not all states are turning to CBT and like methods to combat the growing epidemic.

Michelle Despres, vice president, national product leader physical therapy, One Call Care Management

“In workers’ comp, anytime we talk about change, it’s about cost containment,” said Pew. “But this has nothing to do with cost containment, premiums, closing claims, scale of benefits. It’s about personal well-being.”

Iglesias added he has seen much more acceptance of CBT and other non-drug therapies on the payers’ side, though not everyone is on board.

“Payers see opioids have not helped patients. They’re cognizant of needing to move beyond just drug medications. However, psych and behavioral factors can be a significant issue in workers’ comp. Some individual payers are afraid that a behavior approach might induce a psych claim,” he said.

“Nobody wants to pay for everything that happened to you in your life but, in essence, we do when psychosocial concerns aren’t addressed early and it delays recovery,” added Pew.

“There are payers who have started to see the value in the biopsychosocial model [looking at every aspect of a person’s life], but there’s still an obstacle with psych.”

Still, cost-wise, moving beyond opioids yields reduced pharmacy expenses — not just for opioid prescriptions but also for other prescriptions written for opioid-related side effects like nausea, vomiting, headaches, lack of sleep and so on.

“Opioids have addictive qualities,” said Despres. “It’s easy for us as a society to want to see something diagnostic tied to a drug-based solution. But with alternatives, we lose nothing and chances are we can mitigate chronic pain. We know there are no long-term bad effects to physical therapy.

“The cost to get people off of opioids is huge. Just getting them back to their daily routine, the back-end cost of detox from opioids is enough to at least consider other non-drug pain relief methods as the first treatment option.”

Changing Mindsets

Effective change comes once the employers and their workers understand the benefits of non-drug pain therapies.

Untill now, “in between the payer and the treatment is the patient who has often created this passive mindset that someone else will take care of them,” said Pew.

This mindset isn’t going to help in the long run. Education is key for both employees and employers to work toward pain management.

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“One appointment isn’t going to solve the problem,” said Despres. “We have to break the cycle. Time is the biggest downfall; we have to get people moving versus letting someone sit at home. For chronic pain, we provide the education [to the injured worker] on what’s happening inside when they do activities and how to not only manage their symptoms but also correct musculoskeletal imbalances.

“Workers’ comp, as a practice, needs to embrace the idea of being seen quickly and early and getting the injured worker in the mindset of having a role to play,” she added.

For employers, Pew said those who are engaged in their workers’ well-being see more positive outcomes when injuries occur. Investing in wellness programs enables workers to address those outside factors — like psych and diet and exercise routines — before any injury.

“[Wellness programs are] a way of trying to show there is more than a drug or a procedure; employers and physicians can work to teach that concept before an injury even occurs,” said Iglesias.

“There’s a fear that we’re taking something away. There’s a belief that opioids are the best pain modality. Could we develop more programs to teach about opioids to an employer’s population before an injury?”

His answer is a resounding yes.

Public perception plays a big role in the move away from opioids. Workers’ comp professionals, health care workers and legislators see and understand the negative effects of opioids; however, the public isn’t as convinced.

Mark Pew, senior vice president, PRIUM

The New England Journal of Medicine released a study in January entitled, “The Public and the Opioid-Abuse Epidemic.” In it, researchers examined several national polls conducted in 2016 and 2017 regarding how the public believes opioid addiction should be addressed. They found that a significant number (28 percent) don’t actually see it as a national emergency.

Fifty-three percent did say it was a major problem, though only 38 percent of respondents said it affected their home communities.

“An important finding from our review is that at a time when [we] are seeking a substantial increase in government funding for opioid-addiction treatment programs … polls show a large share of the public uncertain about the long-term effectiveness of treatment,” the authors wrote.

They speculate this uncertainty might lead to less funding for alternative treatments to opioids and less funding for people recovering from addiction.

“Sometimes we don’t know everything,” said Despres, “but we should still open up and embrace what could be. If [non-drug therapies] don’t work, you haven’t lost anything. If it does help, you’re better off.”

That’s why engaging employers and their employees is imperative.

“If we see an employer with a pattern of the same injuries, we can offer many possible solutions from ergonomic improvements to classes for body mechanics training.”

A Balancing Act

But one size doesn’t fit all when it comes to pain relief, and while non-drug pain therapies do help, Pew said that doing away with drugs altogether would be unwise.

“Every person is an individual and needs customized — individualized — treatment plans. Every individual is different. How they deal with pain is different, what their support system is like is different — that’s why treating pain is so difficult.

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“Exercise, a better diet, yoga and other non-pharmaceutical treatments are effective, but often underutilized components to a successful pain management protocol. But trying to come up with a one-size-fits-all is counter to common sense,” he added.

In a 2017 study released by JAMA, researchers examined patients admitted to the emergency room for pain-related causes. They monitored the cause of their pain and what medicine brought them relief.

Acetaminophen and ibuprofen were found to be more effective than opioids. Combined, they had as much of an effect on pain as opioids.

Iglesias added, “We do need to move beyond opioids. Other pharmaceuticals do have a role to play, but we need to embrace other modalities of treating pain.” &

Autumn Heisler is a staff writer at Risk & Insurance. She can be reached at [email protected]