Maps

Mapping Hundreds of Power Disruptions Caused by ... Squirrels

The work hopes to counter political fear-mongering over terrorist cyberattacks.

Image Cyber Squirrel
Cyber Squirrel

An electrified squirrel causing a black-out in your neighborhood is more than an unfortunate occurrence for all parties involved—it’s a regular event that happens much more often than you might think.

Now, thanks to the work of an East Coast resident going by Cyber Squirrel, you can track the furry animals sadly snared in the grid. Cyber Squirrel has created a map, based on news reports, showing places where squirrels have gotten caught in power equipment and disrupted electrical service. It includes 623 instances since 1987, though the real number is likely much higher. (For variety’s sake, the map has dozens of reports of other creatures causing disruptions—214 for birds, 47 for snakes, nine for beavers, etc.)

The map’s creator hopes to contrast political fear-mongering over terrorist cyberattacks and what’s actually happening on a weekly basis. (He, she, or it wishes to remain anonymous because “I work in the information-security field and am somewhat well known which is why I think attaching my name to the account would detract from its message.”) Here’s more from conversation on Twitter DM (links are mine, some grammar corrected):

It has been a meme that has been floating around information security circles for decades, all this [talk] of cyber war, cyber pearl harbor, and how the nation’s electrical infrastructure is at risk, blah blah blah and yet there are no confirmed cases of anyone attacking anyone’s infrastructure and causing actual damage (except for stuxnet)… there are ZERO (0) cases of any power outages anywhere caused by a cyber attack of any kind (the recent event in the Ukraine may be an exception but still no confirmation on that one yet) and yet there is tons of hype about how we are at so much risk from a devastating cyber attack and yet we can’t even protect our infrastructure from squirrels, or birds, or snakes.

As to the real number of bushy-tailed blowouts being larger, Cyber Squirrel points to an energy-industry spokesman saying squirrels caused 560 outages in Montana in 2015 alone. (Money quote from the Missoula Independent: “They’re industrious little creatures. And so they like to climb up power poles and get on lines, and it’s not getting on just one line that gets them in trouble, it’s where they get connected up with another line or piece of equipment, that's where we have problems.”) Only two of those disruptions are listed on the map. Here’s more from Cyber Squirrel:

[W]e logged over 300 events in 2015 worldwide. Think of how large the number really is. And we sit here and worry about cyber armageddon? We experience ‘armageddon’ every day…. Now does that mean power companies are perfectly safe from the cyberz? Absolutely not. There is definitely some risk there and as a national security issue it is an issue that needs attention. Just nowhere near the attention that [it] has been getting from the cyber war hawks.

Though this might seem like a lark, Cyber Squirrel isn’t planning on dropping the project anytime soon. “We have some friends in a few small power companies that have sent us their historical and/or current animal outage data,” the mapmaker writes, “and it is taking us a bit of time to integrate that into our data.”

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About the Author

  • John Metcalfe is CityLab’s Bay Area bureau chief, based in Oakland. His coverage focuses on climate change and the science of cities.