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Morning Shift

Argonne Scientists Prepare For Chicago Doomsday Scenarios

Chicago might not seem like it’s prone to disasters, but hundreds of scientists at the Argonne National Laboratory are using the city as a testing ground for the apocalypse.

Chicago Magazine’s Bryan Smith visited the laboratory’s Global Security Sciences division -- the so-called “doomsday squad” -- and wrote about the team’s simulations of how the city could react to earthquakes, deadly viruses, cyberattacks and a zombie outbreak.

Smith joined Morning Shift to talk about why “it’s good to know this very, very bright group of people is actually looking at these things.” Here are some highlights from that conversation.

On how data turns into a “screenplay of a disaster”

Bryan Smith: They take detailed demographic data -- where people work, where they play, where they dine out, socioeconomic factors, gender -- they take all these data points and almost create virtual characters. They feed them into a computer called Mira, which can do 10 quadrillion calculations per second.

They almost create a screenplay of a disaster, and with all this data, they let the screenplay unfold and then we see the result. Then you can step in and say, “OK, this is how we can stop this from happening or stop that from happening.”  

On the cascade effects that lead to disaster

Smith: What if that earthquake hits out in North Dakota, where there are two power stations that feed into other power stations all the way into Illinois? Suddenly any city that lies in the path of that circuit is in deep trouble.

You start with a lack of power. Power brings us water. If you don’t have water and you don’t have power, for instance in the Chicago filtration plant, suddenly our water isn’t getting filtered and all kinds of things can come out of that -- potential disease, for example. These are things we don’t think about.

On how scientists are affected by seeing worst case scenarios play out

Smith: One of the scientists talked about how the things that she studied and the results that were revealed influenced her own behavior.

For instance, one of the things that happens when a big calamity strikes is that you don’t have access to money -- ATMs and credit cards don’t work. So she keeps some money stashed. She noted that a lot of people don’t have any kind of emergency plan, but because of her work she developed a family plan -- who to contact, how to contact them, emergency service numbers. It’s very much personal for them.

This interview has been edited for brevity and clarity. Hear the whole conversation by clicking play above. 

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