Science and Technology Facilities Council
UK scientists help plan for the effects of solar storms on Earth
UK scientists have set out how the government can prepare for space weather events, which could impact multiple critical infrastructures in a short space of time.
A corona mass ejection, associated with a solar flare (May 1, 2013). Image captured by NASA's Solar Dynamics Observatory spacecraft.
Space weather is a disturbance in the upper atmosphere and space environment around the Earth, caused by activity at the Sun.
These events can disrupt technology, including:
- causing power outages
- faults in train signals
- satellite navigation errors.
The phenomenon was added to the UK’s national risk register in 2011.
Space environment impact
The Space Environment Impacts Expert Group (SEIEG) advises the government on the impacts and mitigations for space weather. It has released a paper outlining the science behind the UK’s preparations and proposing a joined-up approach to planning, mitigation and response.
Professor Mike Hapgood of the Science and Technology Facilities Council (STFC)’s RAL Space, is the lead author and chair of the SEIEG. He recently said:
Space weather could disrupt many different economic sectors in quick succession – potentially overloading our national capability to handle such widespread disruption, similar to the concern that the COVID-19 pandemic could overwhelm the NHS. Our work provides realistic scenarios that enable government to work with industry to prepare to be ready for that.
Preparing for a storm
Severe space weather storms are rare, occurring only around once in a hundred years, but the impacts are largely untested on modern life.
The last severe storms, in 1859 and 1921, caused disruptions to telegraph systems – but today, we are far more reliant on technologies vulnerable to space weather.
This paper is part of efforts by the SEIEG to provide clear, science based scenarios to be used for preparation by the government.
Effects of an intense geomagnetic storm
The paper explores how an intense geomagnetic storm could near-simultaneously:
- affect radio signals used for aeroplane communications with air traffic control
- cause regional power blackouts
- disrupt railway signalling.
It could also distort satellite signals affecting space-dependent services like satellite navigation and satellite phones. Some of these effects may be localised and short-lived, others may cause lasting damage to costly infrastructure.
A severe event could leave governments and sectors dealing rapidly with several issues at once while managing the public’s perception of an issue that many people will not be familiar with.
Professor Mike Hapgood added:
There is now a wealth of evidence which shows that space weather is a serious problem, one that requires, not just a technical response, but also good science-based public communication to reduce the risks that false information will cause adverse public responses such as panic buying and conspiracy theories as we have seen during the COVID-19 pandemic.
As well as integrating planning into the national risk register, the UK government is investing £20 million into a programme, called Space Weather Instrumentation Measurement, Modelling and Risk (SWIMMR). SWIMMR is being run by UK Research and Innovation to improve the UK’s ability to monitor and predict space weather events.
The UK is also home to one of only three space weather prediction centres in the world, based at the UK Met Office.
In 2019, the UK Space Agency invested £60 million into the development of a new European Space Agency mission to the L5 Lagrange point. This ensured UK leadership, through STFC RAL Space, University College London and Airbus UK, of this mission towards meeting operational forecast needs, improving our ability to accurately forecast extreme events.
Latest News from
Science and Technology Facilities Council
UKRI targets net zero computing01/12/2021 13:05:00
Scientists will recommend a plan to help the UK’s research and innovation sector reach net zero.
North-west Digital Tech Cluster to create 1,000 jobs25/11/2021 13:05:00
New Digital Tech Cluster at Sci-Tech Daresbury will drive economic growth and productivity for the north-west.
Roman coin study reveals thriving empires18/11/2021 13:05:00
A study of gold coins from different moments of the Roman Empire has revealed the thriving economy at the time of minting.
STFC spin-out company gets funding to improve satellite broadband12/11/2021 13:05:00
An STFC spin-out company has secured funding to enhance its software to optimise the performance of satellites for telecommunications.
Graphene stops satellites from getting too hot or cold11/11/2021 13:05:00
SmartIR is developing technology that will enable satellites to regulate their temperature.
Black holes of all sizes in new gravitational wave catalogue09/11/2021 13:05:00
The largest catalogue of gravitational wave events ever has been released today, with dozens of ripples in space time captured by a global network of detectors.
World-leading decarbonising technology for net zero transport08/11/2021 13:05:00
A new company is being formed to deliver a pioneering, world-leading decarbonising technology to sectors such as aviation and shipping.
Laser tool could offer improved cancer treatment05/11/2021 13:05:00
A new tool using high-power lasers could be used to improve the treatment of cancer.