Sandia National Laboratories is expecting the unexpected to help the U.S. prepare for severe weather and figure out the best ways to lessen the havoc hurricanes and other disasters leave on critical infrastructure such as power grids, bridges and roads, according to a press release from Sandia. 

“I think our work in critical infrastructure protection is a really great thing to be working on,” said Marianne Walck, director of Geoscience Climate and Consequence Effects, the press release states. She said Sandia can give policymakers the understanding and information they need to make decisions that lead to systems that are better able to absorb impacts and recover quickly, so-called resilient infrastructure. 

Walck was part of a panel at the recent American Geophysical Union’s inaugural Science Policy Conference that highlighted geoscience insights for the economy, public safety and national security. She discussed how Sandia is developing ways to assess the resiliency of the nation’s infrastructure and provide the knowledge officials need to create more resilient systems, according to the release. 

Efforts to analyze natural disasters and other threats grew out of Sandia’s strengths in systems engineering and complex systems analysis, Walck said. Some of the work is done through the National Infrastructure Simulation and Analysis Center (NISAC), a Department of Homeland Security (DHS) program jointly housed at Sandia and Los Alamos national laboratories. NISAC models and analyzes critical infrastructure, including how interdependent and vulnerable systems may be and the consequences of having them disrupted, the press release states. 

“Given how much of our national and economic security rests on the resiliency of our infrastructure, the rational choice for policymakers is to experiment with models, not the system,” said Lori Parrott,  manager of Policy and Decision Support Analytics and the NISAC program for Sandia.     

Researchers do a risk analysis and quantify uncertainties, the press release says. They look at interdependencies among systems and supply chains, the resilience of various systems, how infrastructure systems fail, cascading effects and how results might differ if a series of disasters hits instead of just one. 

Walck said in an interview before the Science Policy Conference that good models allow analysts to quantify consequences of disruptions in very complex systems, according to the release. “If you don’t have a good model to look at or to exercise in terms of running through these various scenarios, you may not understand what could really happen,” she said. 

A flood, for example, might damage roads, collapse bridges and take down power lines, so officials have to decide what to rebuild first, how best to rebuild it and how much that will cost, she said. 

Analytic information can better inform policymakers so they can decide how to craft policies, how to promote incentives to create resilient infrastructure or how to prioritize recovery and restoration, Parrott said in the press release. 

Each year, NISAC undertakes projects analyzing various risks such as, given a particular disaster, how could people be evacuated along the roads? How much damage would hurricane-force winds cause to power lines, and would that cause governments to consider requiring underground lines in the future? Then there are rebuilding considerations. Would it be better, for example, to focus on repairing rail transportation routes in a particular area rather than trying to repair all routes simultaneously? 

According to the Sandia press release, NISAC has developed expertise in analyzing subjects and developing models that cover everything from national transportation to interdependent supply chains. Sandia’s long-term analysis projects help keep data, models and analytic expertise current so they’re useful for crisis decision support, Parrott said.