Did a “Ninja Squirrel” Cause the Northeast Blackout in 2003?

As many people discovered from the postmortem of the Northeast Blackout of 2003, it was a widespread power outage that occurred throughout parts of the Northeastern and Midwestern United States and the Canadian province of Ontario on Thursday, August 14, 2003, just after 4:10 pm EDT.

Some power was restored by 11 pm; however, many others did not get their power back until two days later. In more remote areas it took nearly a week to restore power. At the time, it was the world’s second most widespread blackout in history, after the Southern Brazil Blackout of 1999. The outage, which was much more widespread than the Northeast Blackout of 1965, affected approximately 10 million people in Ontario and 45 million people in eight U.S. states. The blackout’s cause was primarily a software bug in the alarm system at a control room of the FirstEnergy Corporation, located in Ohio. The lack of alarm capability left operators unaware of the need to re-distribute power after several overloaded transmission lines were hit by poorly pruned foliage, which triggered a race condition in the control software. What would have been a manageable local blackout cascaded into massive widespread distress on the electric grid.Source: Northeast Blackout of 2003

However…some have felt that there was an additional factor involved which may have been the real cause to foliage collapsing onto the transmission lines — squirrels.

Yes, you heard me correctly — squirrels.

Within the SCADA security community, the blame has been focused onto ‘ninja squirrels’; these are expertly-trained martial arts squirrels that specifically seek out potentially vulnerable power lines and/or transformers, and will stop at nothing to disrupt electric power to as wide of an area as possible. Several conspiracy theorist sources have indicated that this is an attempt by the squirrels to taking over the World.

Little Bobby has a new friend named ‘Spary’. Posted with permission.

Seriously…no joke. Squirrels have been trying to take over the World through suicide squads to shutdown our power. In several blogs devoted to the wacky, strange and bizarre, conspiracy theorists have hinted that power outages, more than once, have been caused (intentionally) by squirrels. Lookup the words “squirrel”, “conspiracy”, and “terrorist” together. You’d be amazed at what you may find.

Surprisingly, they may actually be right though — but not for what may think.

Yes, the problem of power outages being blamed onto squirrels has happened for decades, and continues to be reported for years to come; however, not to be confused with the sriracha hot sauce called ‘ninja squirrel’, the term ‘ninja squirrel’ (alternatively called a ‘throw squirrel’ or ‘throwaway squirrel’) is more than likely to be blamed.

Little Bobby now knows what is a ‘throwaway squirrel’. Posted with permission.

When linemen work on downed power lines, or damaged power equipment (such as transformers, relays or switches), if they cannot solve what was the root cause of the problem, they find a nearby dead squirrel, and throw it down onto the ground, usually indicating in their report that a squirrel was the culprit for the outage.

Sound ‘fishy’ to you?

Look at some of the titles of various news reports and blogs around the U.S.:

Did a Secret Military Experiment Cause the 2003 Blackout? [dated 7-Sep-2003]
URL: http://www.globalresearch.ca/articles/ANA309A.html

Squirrel Power! [dated 31-Aug-2013]
URL: http://www.nytimes.com/2013/09/01/opinion/sunday/squirrel-power.html?pagewanted=all

Forget hackers: Squirrels are a bigger threat to America’s power grid [dated 28-Jan-2014]
URL: http://theweek.com/articles/452311/forget-hackers-squirrels-are-bigger-threat-americas-power-grid

Squirrel causes massive power outage in Muncie [dated 3-Feb-2016]
URL: http://www.theindychannel.com/news/local-news/squirrel-causes-massive-power-outage-in-muncie

And last, on a much more humorous, but still factual side, there is a web site called Cyber Squirrel 1, which is dedicated to ‘ninja squirrels’. It is worthwhile reading, both funny and factual. They sell stickers which is used to keep their web site alive and running.

The website lists all unclassified Cyber Squirrel Operations that have been released to the public that have been confirmed. There are many more executed ops than displayed on this map however, those ops remain classified.Source: Cyber Squirrel 1

Nonetheless, I seriously doubt that we will ever hear the end of those ‘ninja squirrels’.


Bob is the founder, owner and co-moderator of the SCADASEC mailing list, and has written several books on topics pertaining to critical infrastructure research and cybersecurity.