Author Archives: Gordon Woo

About Gordon Woo

Catastrophist, RMS
Gordon is a catastrophe-risk expert, with 30 years’ experience in catastrophe science, covering both natural and man-made hazards. Gordon is the chief architect of the RMS terrorism risk model, which he started work on a year after joining RMS in December 2000. For his thought leadership in terrorism risk modeling, he was named by Treasury & Risk magazine as one of the 100 most influential people in finance in 2004. He has since lectured on terrorism at the NATO Center of Excellence for the Defense against Terrorism, and testified before the U.S. Congress on terrorism-risk modeling. As an acknowledged, international expert on catastrophes, Gordon is the author of two acclaimed books: “The Mathematics of Natural Catastrophes” (1999) and “Calculating Catastrophe” (2011). Dr. Woo graduated as the best mathematician of his year at Cambridge University and he completed his doctorate at MIT as a Kennedy Scholar and was a member of the Harvard Society of Fellows. He also has an Master of Science in computer science from Cambridge University.

Spread of the New Coronavirus in the Year of the Rat

When the Middle East Respiratory Syndrome (MERS) was first identified as a coronavirus in 2012, the case fatality rate was very high at 35 percent; but thankfully there was very low human-to-human transmission. Such transmission happened in healthcare settings, or to a much lesser extent in households where people caring for an infected person had close contact. 

Camels were identified as a “reservoir host” for MERS, with infection primarily caused through direct contact with camel fluids. As evidence of very low human-to-human transmission, there were no MERS cases reported in either the 2012 or 2013 Hajj pilgrimage to Mecca, although an Indonesian couple may have caught MERS in the 2014 Hajj.

In China, there is an even larger annual migration tied to the lunar calendar – as the lunar New Year starts on Saturday, January 25. This is normally a time of happiness and celebration during family reunions. This year, there will be fear and foreboding over the new coronavirus, which emerged in December from a seafood market in Wuhan, Central China. On January 21, Chinese health authorities confirmed human-to-human transmission of the coronavirus. Fortunately, the case fatality rate seems to be quite low, just a few percent.

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New Lethal Coronavirus In China

In this the centennial year of the great 1918 pandemic, I was invited to speak at a special symposium on emerging infectious diseases at the renowned Pasteur Institute in Paris. One presentation that was both fascinating and alarming was on viruses in fish. I haven’t eaten raw fish since. When I heard that, in mid-December, a new form of pneumonia had struck a seafood market in Wuhan, central China, it seemed like a new fish disease affecting humans might have finally emerged. It turns out that the seafood market at the center of the outbreak also sold live animals and meat from wildlife such as snakes and marmots, and a wildlife primary infection source is most probable.

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Je Suis Charlie 2020

“Trump is a joke: why satire makes sense when politics doesn’t.” This was the title of a presentation at the McCourtney Institute for Democracy at Penn State on February 20, 2018. One of the cherished freedoms of democracy is satire. Since Saturday Night Live first aired on NBC in October 1975, all presidents from Ford to Trump, and other prominent public figures, have been targets of merciless satire. Censorship of satire is an affront to democracy. The murder of satirists is terrorism.

Five years ago, on Wednesday, January 7, 2015, the Paris office of the satirical weekly, Charlie Hebdo, was attacked by two Jihadi brothers, Cherif and Said Kouachi, armed with AK-47s. This was the day of the week when the editorial committee met. Of the dozen deaths, eight were Charlie Hebdo staff members, including the fearless editor Stéphane Charbonnier, known as Charb. He had declared he would “… prefer to die standing than live on his knees.” President Hollande condemned this terrorist attack as the most serious in France in more than forty years. Indeed, this event was referred to as France’s 9/11: it was like killing Voltaire.

Memorial at the Place de la Republique in Paris. Image credit: Author’s own

A measure of the singular nature of this event was the global response it triggered; not only heavily armed police security in Paris, but also a popular demonstration of millions throughout France, joined by world political leaders, expressing international solidarity against terrorism. The popular slogan, “Je Suis Charlie”, coined spontaneously at a French style magazine, echoed around the world.

At the start of a new decade, democracies are still threatened with acts of terrorist violence, aimed at coercing changes in public policy. These threats can emerge from the far right as well as from Islamists. The hate speech peddled by terrorist groups needs to be vigorously countered by the free press, including satirical publications.

As one of the most notable terrorist attacks in the Western world since 9/11, the attack on Charlie Hebdo has been insightful for affirming the basic principles of terrorism risk modeling. An overarching principle is that terrorist operations follow the path of least resistance. Charlie Hebdo was a prime target because of the global media publicity associated with the brutal assassination of the editorial committee. According to an ISIS doctrine, half of Jihad is media. Charlie Hebdo was also a soft target, having weak security compared with alternative political, economic or military targets.

Another important principle underlying terrorist operations is that too many terrorists spoil the plot. The surveillance profile of a plot is minimized by having as few operatives as possible. Brothers, like the Kouachis (and the Tsarnaev Boston marathon bombers), also have the advantage of a more compact counterintelligence footprint than terrorists from different families. 

Since the great majority of terrorist plots against Western democracies are interdicted by the security and law enforcement services, a counterfactual perspective on plots is essential for terrorism risk modeling. This perspective of reimagining history is universal, and applies to any peril, natural or man-made[1]. Carl von Clausewitz, the Prussian master of military strategy, noted that perfecting the art of warfare entails knowing not only what has occurred, but also everything that could have occurred.

On January 7, 2015, the editorial committee of Charlie Hebdo planned to have lunch after their meeting at a local bistro, Les Canailles (Little Rascals). A large table was routinely reserved for them on Wednesdays. This bistro had open public access, unlike the Charlie Hebdo office, so it would have been easy for the two shooters to storm in firing their AK-47s. Through target substitution, this bistro might well have been attacked rather than the Charlie Hebdo office.

Counterfactual thinking such as this is not mere hindsight; it can provide valuable foresight into the future. The vulnerability of Parisian restaurants and cafés was evident. Months later, on Friday, November 13, 2015, six Parisian restaurants were attacked by ISIS terrorists, along with the Stade de France sports stadium and the Bataclan theater.  

Knowledge of history is a precious resource for terrorism risk modelers. Most attacks have either happened before – or might have happened before. For insurers as well as civic authorities and businesses, strategic surprise can be avoided by reimagining history.


[1] Woo G. (2019)  Downward counterfactual search for extreme events. Frontiers in Earth Science https:/doi.org/10.3389/feart.2019.00340

White Island Risk Mitigation: A Role for Insurance

Safety from volcanic eruptions is heavily influenced by economic factors. Those who earn their livelihood from farming around a volcano may be reluctant to evacuate, and those who operate tourist excursions may be reluctant to suspend them. This may have been the case with White Island Tours which holds an exclusive license to land tourists on the privately-owned island in New Zealand’s Bay of Plenty, named White Island by Captain James Cook. Tourists averse to sea sickness have also been able to arrive on the island via helicopter through Volcanic Air.

With around 10,000 customers per year, paying up to several hundred New Zealand dollars (US$0.66 per NZ dollar) for a tour, White Island Tours has been a substantial business. But one whose financial viability would have required that as few trips as possible were cancelled because of the volcano risk.

After 22 years of business operation, the volcano erupted on December 9, 2019. There were 47 tourists on White Island; most were killed or seriously injured. 38 of the tourists were from the cruise liner Ovation of the Seas, operated by Royal Caribbean Cruises Ltd., which denies any responsibility for their excursions, which were advertised with the statement that White Island is one of the most active volcanoes in the world. The terms and conditions of cruise tickets require that any lawsuit be filed in Miami. The U.S. courts will thus decide what liability Royal Caribbean Cruises Ltd. had in vetting White Island Tours.

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The Unrehabilitated Terrorist

A few hundred yards from where Stephen Hawking first explored black holes from his wheelchair, is the Institute of Criminology at the University of Cambridge. Hawking never shied away from really hard problems; nor do the Cambridge criminologists. There is no Nobel Prize for finding viable solutions to rehabilitating prisoners, but the Cambridge Learning Together program has forged new communal pathways for addressing this major societal challenge. The program seeks to bring together people in criminal justice and higher education institutions to study alongside each other in inclusive and transformative learning communities.

The Learning Together program began at the University of Cambridge in 2014, in partnership with HMP Grendon, a small prison at a village named Grendon Underwood, outside London. This program recognizes that collaboration underpins the growth of opportunities for the learning progression of students in prison, and the development of pathways towards non-offending futures.

Five years on, a celebration alumni event was organized for Black Friday, November 29. This took place in the City of London, at Fishmongers’ Hall, off London Bridge. This happens to be close to the Monument, where the RMS London office is situated.

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MyShake: New App Unveiled for California Earthquake Early Warning

As my colleague Mohsen Rahnama reminded us in his recent blog, the last destructive earthquake to strike Northern California was on October 17, 1989. Loma Prieta was a magnitude 6.9 earthquake which resulted in 63 deaths and about four thousand injuries. The epicenter was about ten miles northeast of Santa Cruz, and seismic waves took about 30 seconds to reach San Francisco. But there was no way of communicating any earthquake early warning to residents of the Marina district of San Francisco, which suffered some of the worst damage from shaking and fire outbreak.

On October 17, 2019, the thirtieth anniversary of this earthquake, the California Governor’s Office of Emergency Services unveiled a smartphone app from the University of California, Berkeley Seismological Lab that will give all Californians the opportunity to receive earthquake early warnings.

Governor Gavin Newsom, who happened to be in the Marina district at the time of the 1989 earthquake, has urged people to download the MyShake app. This app (myshake.berkeley.edu) is available on the Apple App Store and Google Play, and relies on the ShakeAlert earthquake early warning system, developed by the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS).

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Terrorism in El Paso

Terrorism is a global menace that spreads like a virus along social networks. On March 15, 2019, Brenton Tarrant killed 51 Muslims attending Friday prayers at two mosques in Christchurch, New Zealand. Terrorism is the language of being noticed. Shortly before his rampage, he emailed his white supremacist manifesto, The Great Replacement, to the New Zealand Prime Minister’s office and media outlets, and shared a link with 8chan, a counter-culture website associated with political extremism.

Ever since the Christchurch mass shooting, 8chan users have commented regularly on their desire to beat Tarrant’s high score of victims. On Saturday, August 3, 2019, 21-year-old Patrick Crusius posted a four-page document, The Inconvenient Truth, on 8chan, which has since gone offline.  

This expressed support for the Christchurch shootings, and blamed immigrants and first-generation Americans for taking away jobs. He also called for the deportation of immigrants. Such a white supremacist tirade is not unusual on 8chan. However, shortly after this posting, he headed for the Walmart near the Cielo Vista Mall, El Paso, Texas, and opened fire in the parking lot and store with an assault rifle. Mid-morning on Saturday, Walmart was busy with shoppers. His twenty-minute shooting spree left 20 dead with 26 people hospitalized. He then surrendered to police officers. 

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Ebola in Goma

Assessing the risks faced by the city of Goma in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) would go well beyond the norms of the insurance industry. On January 17, 2002, a large part of the city center was destroyed by an eruption of Mount Nyiragongo, about 20 kilometers (12.4 miles) to the north. Volcano hazard is not a significant risk factor for many towns and cities – and nor is Ebola. Goma is exceptional in being at risk from both.

Outbreaks of Ebola have occurred in the DRC sporadically in 1976, 1994, 2003, 2007 and 2012. The most recent outbreak started on August 1, 2018, and even with the infection of 2,500 and the deaths of more than 1,700, the Ebola virus is still not contained. Endemic hostilities in the DRC make it hard for health organizations to track contacts of those infected, and to operate treatment centers without fear of military attack. Health workers expose themselves daily to lethal infection – and should not be exposed also to armed assault. But they are – two health workers were killed in mid-July.

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London Bridge Terrorism Inquests: A Counterfactual Risk Perspective

The inquests into the deaths of eight individuals killed in a terrorist attack on London Bridge and in Borough Market on June 3, 2017, were held at the Central Criminal Court, Old Bailey, London, two years later – from May 7 to June 28, 2019. Judge Mark Lucraft, the Chief Coroner for England and Wales, concluded that the eight victims were unlawfully killed, but he was not convinced that MI5 and the police missed any opportunities that would have prevented the attack.

Three Islamist terrorists, Khuram Butt, Rachid Redouane, and Youssef Zaghba, rammed pedestrians on London Bridge, before launching a frenzied knife rampage around nearby Borough Market, a lively food market and tourist hotspot that attracts 4.5 million visitors per year. The three attackers were shot dead by police at 10.17 p.m., less than 10 minutes after the rampage began.

Although the Chief Coroner did not criticize MI5 and the police in his conclusions, he did criticize the lack of security barriers on the bridge, and concluded that this showed weaknesses in systems for assessing the need for such measures, and implementing them promptly. The attack happened only two-and-a-half months after the Westminster Bridge vehicle ramming attack on March 22, 2017.

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Understanding the Terror Attacks in Sri Lanka

A decade ago, an RMS colleague traveling to Bali for a climate change conference sought my advice on where to stay to minimize the risk of falling victim to terrorism. In 2002, some 204 people had been killed in a bomb attack by Islamist militants in Kuta Beach, a busy tourist area in Bali. My advice then, as it is now, was to stay away from luxury hotels. Not just for tourists, but for insurers also, the risk to luxury hotels is far higher than for lesser accommodation.

The basic principles of terrorism risk modeling explain the terrorist preference for luxury hotels and places of worship, both of which were targeted in a coordinated terrorist attack in Sri Lanka on Easter Sunday (April 21), which with a current death toll of 290, has nearly killed half as many more people than the Bali bombing.

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