By Ariana Eunjung Cha
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, July 4, 2005
LOS ALAMOS, N.M.-- Deep inside the cave-like laboratories of the legendary research center that created the atomic bomb, scientists have begun work on a Manhattan Project of a different sort.
In the wake of Sept. 11, 2001, they have been constructing the most elaborate computer models of the United States ever attempted. There are virtual cities inhabited by millions of virtual individuals who go to work, shopping centers, soccer games and anywhere else their real life counterparts go. And there are virtual power grids, oil and gas lines, water pipelines, airplane and train systems, even a virtual Internet.
The scientists build them. And then they destroy them.
On a recent weekday at the Los Alamos National Laboratory, researcher Steve Fernandez took several power-relay plants in the Pacific Northwest offline with a few clicks of his keyboard while Kristin Omberg and Brent Daniel were working up mathematical models that calculated the worst places to release biological agents in San Diego.
"We're trying to be the best terrorists we can be," said James P. Smith, who is working on simulations of a smallpox virus released in Portland, Ore. "Sometimes we finish and we're like, 'We're glad we're not terrorists.' "
The Los Alamos experiments are part of the Homeland Security Department's efforts to harness technology to aid the war on terrorism. Like government "data-mining" projects that use flight itineraries, credit card reports and other data and try to find patterns to predict who might be a likely terrorist, the simulations are attempts to guess the bigger picture.
The federal government is using the simulations to provide options in the event of a real terrorist attack. The information is so sensitive that most of the lab's work is classified, and the physical facility is secured with its own experimental technologies. If the simulations got into the wrong hands, the researchers say, they could be used as the ultimate weapon against Americans. "It would be a terrorist recipe for doing something terrible," Smith said.
Some urban planners have criticized the project for its cost -- each simulation can cost tens of millions of dollars -- and have argued that such modeling can never be precise. A book on public health threats by the Institute of Medicine of the National Academies, for example, notes that some critics say simulations "cannot provide clear evidence for or against any option." Advocates say the exercise is providing crucial information for protecting the country.
When planes crashed into the World Trade Center and Pentagon nearly four years ago, the government had little understanding of the weaknesses and interdependencies of power, water, transportation and telecommunications networks. Richard Clarke, the former counterterrorism czar under the Clinton and Bush administrations, warned that this opened the possibility of "cascade" failures--domino effects--that authorities had little power to stop.
In 2003, for example, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission revealed that a computer "worm" on the Internet penetrated the control systems of a nuclear power plant, disabling its safety mechanisms for about five hours. That same year, much of the East Coast and Midwest were hit with an electrical blackout that experts thought should have been limited to one area.
Clarke created a "critical infrastructure protection" group made up of the top officials from the government and from industry. The Los Alamos simulations are the cornerstone of their work.
The models have helped officials pinpoint and prioritize where changes need to be made. Fernandez's work has led to upgraded security at certain power plants. Omberg and Daniel have created biosensors--which can detect a wide variety of biological threats -- that have been placed in areas of major cities that the computer program calculated were vulnerable, such as near sports arenas or transportation hubs.
Smith's findings have been a major component of the debate over whether it's necessary to synthesize enough smallpox vaccine for the entire country. He found that in the event of an outbreak, targeted vaccination would work almost as well as mass vaccination if officials moved quickly to establish quarantine zones for those infected.
Traditionally, estimates of infection and deaths are made using a simple multiple that denotes how fast the disease spread. Smith's program is far more detailed and uses a mixture of mathematical data and basic psychology to simulate an area and the behavior of its population.
It begins by modeling every city block using census data, then populates the city using information on household income and age of residents. Next the scientists simulate people's movements on a daily basis by using data from diaries kept by commuters; foot traffic patterns on streets, malls and other public places; and public transportation schedules. The hope is to be able to see how different social interactions are in America in 2005 from other areas where the spread of disease has been studied -- such as in rural Africa, where communities are much more isolated, or in the United States in 1918 when some cities like Portland saw much traffic from soldiers on boats.
It turns out that the average person in Portland, population 1.6 million, has about five "activities" per day. That is, they might get up and drop the children off at school, go to work, buy gas, buy groceries and then pick up the children. The average travel time for each person is 30 minutes.
"The thing that makes it unique is the estimate of who comes into contact with whom in a large urban area and how long the contacts last," said Stephen Eubank, a researcher at the Bioinformatics Institute at Virginia Tech who worked with Smith on the smallpox simulation.
The scientists continuously run the simulations, which operate about 100 times faster than real time, testing actions like closing the airport, quarantining a neighborhood or shutting down workplaces.
"It's like the movie 'Groundhog Day.' You could reach in and say what I did yesterday didn't work so well and let's see how something else works," Eubank said.
In one simulation, Smith unleashed the smallpox virus in a university building in downtown Portland, with several students becoming victims. Soon after the 10-day incubation period passed, hospitals throughout Portland began to report cases. Smith's computer chronicled the devastation. Day 1: 1,281 infected, zero dead. Day 35: 23,919 infected, 551 dead. Day 70: 380,582 infected, 12,499 dead.
Smith wondered: How would the results change if local officials closed the schools? If they started mass vaccination? If they locked down the whole city?
Smith programmed a cluster of computers to run through these scenarios and hundreds of others, trying to determine which response would save the most lives.
Each time the model is run, it produces more data than the contents of the Library of Congress. Some findings are obvious: that the invention of air transportation may be the biggest factor in the spread of disease. Others aren't as easy to guess: that shutting down schools may not help as much as expected because parents are likely to take their children to malls and playgrounds where they can come in contact with others who have been infected. It also turned out that the speed of intervention is much more important than the type of intervention.
If officials waited 10 days or more, Smith found, "We didn't get to enough people so a lot of people died. It was almost as bad as a "do nothing" strategy, which was depressing."
Eubank said that when he runs simulations for governors or mayors, they inevitably ask him to quarantine the whole city, to make sure residents stay in their houses.
"But if I had to do that I would basically be shooting anybody who walks out on their doorstep. That's not acceptable," Eubank said. "We are trying to understand the 'cost-benefit' tradeoff--if you implement a quarantine it may give you the benefit you're looking for but it may be too costly socially."
The biggest challenge simulation researchers face is that it's unlikely they'll ever know how accurate they were until a real attack occurs. The only system that's been tested against a real life event is Fernandez's program for how hurricanes will affect the electricity grid.
In September 2004, his team used the system to predict the route of Hurricane Frances based on historical information about similar hurricanes as well as its wind profile, intensity and other data 40 hours before landfall. He advised Florida officials to position emergency repair teams in parts of the state that he thought would receive the most damage--and he turned out to be correct. His computer was also right about the 11 days it would require to get power back up for 90 percent of the state, and about the estimate of damage: $28 billion; the final damage total was $27 billion.
Fernandez said the pinpoint accuracy of the Hurricane Frances simulation was just plain luck. The world is too complex, he said, to ever be captured that specifically in a computer program.
No matter how much money is spent, he said, or how long scientists work on the task, "we'll never understand all the interdependencies of life."