A Heat Dome Hits Virginia: Things Fall Apart
“Think of infrastructures as decisions and negotiations across numerous stakeholders, multiple governance layers, and old and new technologies. They are not simply amalgamations of hardware.” – Mikhail Chester, Arizona State University professor of civil, environmental, and sustainable engineering
In the catastrophic wake of 2025’s fictional Heat Dome Calcifer, six influential people—three senior U.S. government officials and three industry executives—have gathered in a Washington, D.C., speakeasy during a blizzard to discuss the future of reliability regulation for the data center industry. When one of the members arrives late, the already tense atmosphere boils over.
Cast of Characters
- Caitlin Jones: On loan from the U.S. Department of Homeland Security (DHS), she’s deputy homeland security advisor for resilience and response at the National Security Council. In Act I, Data Center Facility Manager Scott St. Michel’s wife, Emily, is one of Caitlin’s top advisors and confidant, so she got the inside scoop on what it was like to try to keep an Ashburn data center running during Calcifer.
- Tony Santamaria: General Services Administration (GSA) senior executive, co-lead with Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) for National Response Framework part 7, Logistics. He has broad government experience, including stints at FEMA and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. His focus the last few years has been on the consolidation of thousands of federal data centers.
- Raven Pullman: Presidential advisor. Charismatic climate scientist and climate risk communicator at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA). UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) lead scientist for heat and droughts. Carl Sagan was her doctoral advisor at Cornell.
- Larry Stockton: Chairman of the Financial and Banking Information Infrastructure Committee (FBIIC) and formerly chief financial services risk officer at the Analysis and Reliance Center (ARC). The ARC is a Washington, D.C., organization that focuses financial, energy, and cross-sector mitigation strategies and resilience against systemic risks to the United States.
- Alan Malfoy: Chief executive of Advanced Technology Advocacy Council (ATAC), a trade group that advocates for tech companies—including data center owners and operators. Among ATAC members are the biggest colocation companies, Equinix and Digital Reality; the hyperscale cloud companies Google, Microsoft, and Amazon Web Services (AWS); and the largest North American telecommunications companies, Verizon and AT&T.
- Jane “Roxey” Jorgenson: Chief scientist at the American Society of Heating, Refrigerating, and Air Conditioning Engineers, the body that sets the standards that determine the minimum requirements for new buildings of all kinds.
- Sinead Finnegan: Bartender and retired U.S. Marine logistics specialist who served in Afghanistan. Classic cocktails are her specialty.
23 December 2025, 5:00 p.m. ET
SETTING: Bar Azovstal, a small private lounge in the back of the Seat of Power, a popular restaurant on Capitol Hill in Washington, D.C. The lounge is characterized by dark wood walls, a fireplace, leather chairs, and warm lighting. The lounge has two doors: one from the side alley and one to the kitchen. The bar counter behind which Sinead Finnegan stands is about 10 feet from the circular table around which the six other characters are eventually seated. She is alone, placing glass tumblers on a shelf behind the bar.
(Enters through a back door that opens into the alley. She removes her long wool coat, which is covered in snow, and shakes the snow onto the floor.)
This wasn’t in the forecast.
(Begins mixing a cocktail.)
I’ve got just the thing.
(Approaches the bar as Sinead pours the drink.)
What do you call it?
(Takes sip and considers it.)
Tastes like a Vesper with Pernod Absinthe.
You’ve guessed right again, my friend! That’s six in a row. Have you ever considered a career in mixology?
I may have to if tonight’s discussion goes off the rails.
Some big hitters?
Yes. With big opinions about big businesses and limiting big bureaucracy.
Sounds like a riveting discussion about regulations.
You’ve guessed right again, my friend! Impressive. Have you ever considered a career in government?
Not for a second.
Just then, the alley door opens and four people enter, covered in snow.
Keep an ear open for side conversations, will you?
(To the newcomers)
Welcome! Hang your coats by the fire. Have a cocktail.
(Hangs his coat and brushes off remaining scant snow before approaching the bar.)
Beefeater martini with a lemon twist.
(Keeps his coat on.)
Rusty Nail, please. It’s freezing in here.
What I wouldn’t give for a heat dome right now.
(Scowls at Larry before tossing a North Face puff jacket onto the back of a chair.)
Anything to eat?
Diet coke with a lime for me.
Poorly insulated walls plus heat loss through the fireplace.
Appetizers will be in shortly. And they just turned up the heat for us back here.
I’d like to get started as quickly as possible so that—(pauses to look around) is Alan here?
I have about an hour before I need to leave for a flight.
With this snow?
It’s unprecedented, almost like the heat dome.
(Ignoring Larry’s comment)
As I was saying, I’d like to get started as quickly as possible. Hopefully Alan will join us soon.
A waiter emerges through the kitchen door and delivers apps to the table. The guests take their seats.
I’ve asked you here today for an off-the-record icebreaker talk about Calcifer. You’ve all read the initial report about its impact and the very high probability of similar events going forward. Having just conferenced with both houses of Congress, as well as the G8, the president wants swift action. My goal today is to find whatever common ground we can before things move into more formal—and constrained—territory. Almost like how we came together on Defense Critical Electric Infrastructure, we come at this challenge from different directions, but our interests are quite aligned. I think we need to hear each other out…
(Under her breath)
More aligned than anyone knows.
From what I’ve heard, you three USG types are here to soften us up to accept yet another layer of regulation.
That’s not my starting position. I’m here representing the ESF-7 capabilities within the National Response Framework, which GSA co-leads with FEMA. We’ve been so incredibly slammed by this thing, I’m open to just about anything that could help.
I can’t speak for Tony and Raven, but there’s no agenda here besides the intent to see how we can find ways to cooperate, collaborate, and this time possibly—
I find that very hard to believe.
I’m willing to take Caitlin at straight value. There’s a place for industry standards as a bridge between government policy positions and business interests.
To be honest, that’s not your place. When we’ve allowed time-consuming to strangle us in the past, cloaked in “industry standards,” business suffered—the Those horrendous SEC requirements to report Scope 1, 2, and now Scope 3 emissions in formats inspired by the Global Carbon Council are just one example. They’re incredibly time consuming and don’t accomplish what they purport to do.
That’s a mischaracterization. Standards set the minimum bar for a given domain. My colleagues have been working through the holidays with our members to update the 20-year extreme conditions.
Irrelevant. The insurance industry has been crushed by Calcifer. New regulations are not going to bring it back. And there’s no way underwriters can keep pace with the rapid moves industry is already making to improve its posture vs. extreme weather.
Alan enters quietly via the kitchen door, unnoticed by all except Sinead. Signals “two” to the bar for his usual double Laphroaig. He takes his scotch and remains standing next to the bar. The other attendees, all eyes on Larry and Raven, don’t notice him.
News flash people. The planet could care less about your petty squabbles. While you huff and puff, it’s going to keep throwing extreme events at us—at you.
Wrong, Ms. Scientist. Every meteorologist called Calcifer an unprecedented event. That means there’s no way to prepare for things like it, and it also means if another heat dome comes, chances are it’s not going to be on our watch.
I don’t think that word means what you think it means.
(Interrupts, attempting to lower the temperature)
People, please. We are seeking a way forward that supports everyone’s interests.
The planet doesn’t care about our interests. Every ensuing year will bring hotter temperatures, more dramatic and destructive precipitation and drought, and unrelenting fires and floods. What we decide to do or not do here, data center reliability regulation or no regulation, will not change any of that. But it might make a difference in how well the economy and the nation, meaning our children and their children, adapt, even survive. I’m asking you to consider how we must become more resilient.
This passionate plea by Raven seems to have cooled the recently fractious table.
I hear you. I just can’t help but think there’s got to be a way forward that doesn’t fall into those old patterns where more regulation is the reflexive answer.
(Previously simmering, can’t contain himself any longer, walks towards the table but remains standing)
These conciliatory remarks strike me as odd for the very first scrum on this. If any on the industry side are at all swayed by the standard government talking points, allow me to swiftly disabuse you of that notion. The data center tribe—and here I include the hyperscalers, the largest telcos, the biggest colocation owners—none will kowtow to the threat of looming regulation. Take it from me, everyone’s learned their lessons from this unprecedented event and is already beefing up their cooling systems. In fact, the new cooling technologies coming on the scene will make it so we’ll be more reliable than ever, no matter the temperature. And another thing …
A simple tech fix to this isn’t going to save the data centers or the economy—the economies that depend on them…
First Larry, now you. What’s with you people? Alan, this is an all-hands-on-deck challenge. Not one you or your members can solve on your own. We all have to play ball.
Playing nice is not my MO, not when the stakes are this high.
Everyone begins speaking at once. Just then, there's a crash.
(Having just thrown a glass down on floor.)
So sorry. Clumsy me.
(Stands, speaks calmly but decisively)
Conversation on this topic is not going to be easy. But we’re done for now today, ladies and gentlemen. We’ll reconvene after the holidays. Please grab your coats and Sinead will show you the door.
Some shocked, some grumbling, they all depart leaving Caitlin and Sinead, who quickly sweeps up the broken glass.
When you’re done with that, how about something of a warmup to counter that frosty encounter? Have any B&B? It’s an old favorite. And thanks for that very timely “accident.” Things were headed straight downhill the minute Alan grabbed the mic.
(Handing Caitlin a snifter.)
Well, I was taking the group’s temperature throughout, and it rose and fell a couple of times. But when the bearded blowhard showed up, the thermometer spiked. I’m not surprised he blew it up. Probably thought his team was losing. I thought a distraction might help.
A very good call indeed. I appreciate you. I didn’t really know what to expect. Thought we might be able to move the needle a bit. Get off to a fast, slightly friendlier start given the enormity of the pain Calcifer wrought. But looks like it’ll be business as usual with more hearings, reports, posturing, and finger pointing.
(Takes a long, slow sip, gazing at honey-colored liquid.)
Just hope nature holds off long enough to let us harden our collective houses before the next big shoe drops.
This is the final part of a three-part series that Security Technology published during December 2022, illustrating the ramifications of a heat dome settling on Data Center Alley in Ashburn, Virginia, and the ripple effects of that event. Read part 1 and then part 2.
Andy Bochman is a senior grid strategist and defender at the Idaho National Lab, where he provides strategic guidance on topics at the intersection of grid security and climate resilience to senior U.S. and international government and industry leaders. He is also a non-resident senior fellow at the Atlantic Council’s Global Energy Center.
Tracy Staedter is a freelance science and technology writer who has previously been published in Scientific American, IEEE Spectrum and MIT’s Technology Review.
© Andy Bochman