The understanding of cascading failures in complex systems has been hindered by the lack of realistic large-scale modeling and analysis that can account for variable system conditions. Using the North American power grid, we identified, quantified, and analyzed the set of network components that are vulnerable to cascading failures under any out of multiple conditions. We show that the vulnerable set consists of a small but topologically central portion of the network and that large cascades are disproportionately more likely to be triggered by initial failures close to this set. These results elucidate aspects of the origins and causes of cascading failures relevant for grid design and operation and demonstrate vulnerability analysis methods that are applicable to a wider class of cascade-prone networks.
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