How to Protect Hard Drives Against Cold Weather Hazards

A friend of mine has been posting frequent updates via email from a remote research station in Antarctica. (That's his dive buddy in the photo below.) Even though it's sunny and warm where I'm writing this, cold weather is on the way, and it got me thinking about the computer equipment that isn't sitting cozily in offices but is out in the field in places like Antarctica, riding back and forth from home to office in cars, or being shipped in unpressurized cargo cabins in airplanes.

I've seen the gear Antarctic researchers don to stay warm, I grew up on the East Coast (and have dived in cold water), and I saw the movie "A Christmas Story." I know we humans don't do well unless we take precautions to protect ourselves from extreme temperatures. What about the gear we now haul with us just about everywhere? Should I buy a down coat for my laptop and wool gloves for my terabyte portable drive?

"I think it is safe to say that most people don't think about this at all," says Chris Bross, senior enterprise recovery engineer at DriveSavers. Bross was pleased I asked because cold weather can be a serious hazard for hard drives -- whether they are in a computer or not. "In the hard drive industry, though, we are hyper-aware of this."

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"A hard drive can exist perfectly well in extremely cold temperatures in a nonoperational state," he says. "The issue is when it is made operational -- or spun up. The real problems we see in data recovery is the lack of awareness people have when it comes to taking a storage device that has been in an extremely cold environment and plugging it in and firing it up. That is where the window of failure opportunity exists."

How bad can that failure be?

"It can result in a catastrophic head crash," warns Bross. "You are dealing with very tight tolerances in a hard drive, and a drive that is very cold can go through some -- even very small -- contraction of components."

At these very tight tolerances, even a tiny contraction of materials can be a disaster. "If that cold drive is spun up, contact can occur between the heads and platter," says Bross.

You will know this has happened when you hear a clicking or crashing drive. This is a complete disaster for the hard drive. Bross thinks it likely that a hard drive still under warranty would be covered in the event of this sort of crash. But of course, the data on it would probably be lost and you can avoid the hassle with a few precautions.

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