I come across an awful lot of strange data in my line of work. Toilets. Goats. Ugly counties. But today, I stumbled upon what may be the finest dataset in existence: a comprehensive database of incidents where squirrels and other critters have knocked out part of the power grid.
The slightly tongue-in-cheek map : Cyber Squirrel 1 promises a list of "all unclassified Cyber Squirrel Operations that have been released to the public that we have been able to confirm." It lists incidents going back to 1987, although naturally recent years' data is more complete.
The website lists 623 power disruptions caused by squirrels, 214 by birds, 53 by raccoons, one by a Hannah Montana balloon, and a handful of other incidents caused by everything from snakes to slugs. Each report is linked to a news story so you can go dig up the terrifying details yourself.
The most recent incident in the database happened on January 2 in Wagoner, Oklahoma. A squirrel touched grounded wire at an electric substation, knocking out power for a portion of the town for five hours. The exact same thing happened only two months ago. "The squirrel, like the last one that caused the outage in November, did not survive the accident," the report concludes.
There were about 137 squirrel-induced power outages in 2015, according to Cyber Squirrel's data. That works out to about one squirrel attack every three days or so. And, as the site notes, this is probably an undercount.
The phenomenon of squirrel attacks is a great illustration of how our perception of risk tends to be skewed away from mundane frequent things toward big, scary improbable things. Plenty of ink gets spilled on the alleged vulnerability of our power grid to cyber attacks. But as none other then the Brookings Institution has noted, "squirrels have taken down the power grid more times than the zero times that hackers have." You could say the same about Hannah Montana balloons, for that matter.
As told to The Washington Post last month, The American Public Power Association, a group representing municipal electric utilities, says that squirrels are the most frequent cause of power outages in the US, although it notes that squirrel-induced outages typically affect fewer people than outages caused by storms. "Squirrels remain the biggest wildlife nemesis because of their sheer numbers and smarts," the story concluded.
Now, at least, we have a way to track that threat.