Preparations for extreme solar weather event

Source: Air Traffic Management
Source: Air Traffic Management

A solar ‘superstorm’ is coming and we’ll only get 30-minute warning,” reports The Independent.

This follows yesterday’s Royal Academy of Engineering report entitled, UK must plan now to defend itself against extreme solar weather events.”

The news release from the Royal Academy states:

The UK should plan now to mitigate the effects of a rare but potentially serious solar superstorm, according to a report published today by the Royal Academy of Engineering. Although the UK is better prepared than many countries, there are areas where we need to improve our resilience.

The Academy’s report, Extreme space weather: impacts on engineered systems and infrastructure, was drawn up with the help of experts from many different disciplines. It is the UK’s first in-depth assessment of the potential impacts of solar superstorms.

Explosive eruptions of energy from the Sun that cause minor solar storms on Earth are relatively common events. Superstorms, by contrast, occur very rarely – perhaps once every century or two. Most superstorms miss the Earth, travelling harmlessly into space. Of those that do travel towards the Earth, only half interact with our environment and cause damage. The last true solar superstorm – known as the ‘Carrington event’ was in 1859.

However, a solar superstorm is inevitable at some point and will degrade the performance of the electricity grid, satellites, GPS systems, aviation and possibly mobile communications.

The Academy recommends that a UK Space Weather Board be initiated within government to provide overall leadership of UK space weather activities – this board must have the capacity to maintain an overview of space weather strategy across all government departments.

More research is needed into the full effects of solar superstorms. The Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC) should ensure that its research programmes recognise the importance of extreme space weather mitigation and EPSRC should be fully integrated into any research council strategy,

In some respects UK planning is well advanced – for example the National Grid has already taken measures to harden the electricity grid against such disruption and has an active mitigation strategy in place. This should be continued, combining appropriate forecasting, engineering and operational procedures.

The Academy recommends that all terrestrial mobile communications networks with critical resiliency requirements should be able to operate without global navigational satellite systems (GNSS) timing for up to three days. This should include network upgrades, including those associated with the new 4G licences, and particularly upgrades to emergency services communications.

The report finds that a solar superstorm might render GPS and Galileo partially or completely inoperable for between one and three days due to disruption of radio transmission paths between the satellites and the ground. Such a loss of navigational aids could potentially affect aircraft and shipping. Today’s aircraft navigation systems are not wholly dependent on GNSS and their use is generally backed up by other navigation aids; it is important that these alternative navigation options remain available in the future.

In a solar superstorm of the size of the Carrington event, air passengers and crew already airborne would be exposed to a one-off dose of radiation. The radiation doses received would result in a marginal increase in cancer risk. The same radiation may also upset the electronics on aircraft, but design practices will keep the risks to a minimum.

The report recommends that ground-, space- and even airborne-derived radiation alerts should be considered for provision to aviation authorities, operators and pilots to allow them to minimise and quantify the risk. Consideration should also be given to classifying solar superstorms as radiation emergencies for air passengers and crew, although the radiation levels concerned are borderline.

Satellites will also be affected by the solar superstorm and we expect around one in ten satellites to be fully or partially inoperative for a period of a few days. A small number will never recover. More broadly the satellite fleet will be aged significantly, necessitating an accelerated satellite launch programme to compensate.

Read the entire news release by the Royal Academy at

Also, here’s a link to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s news release on the US/UK, “International Space Weather Agreement,” published in June 2012.

From the NOAA and UK agreement report:

“To effectively manage space weather threats, strong collaboration is required among scientists, forecasters, emergency planners, industry and others. I am pleased that, in recognizing the seriousness of these threats, the UK and NOAA are working together to better understand and forecast space weather and to use that knowledge to safeguard lives, livelihoods and property,” said Dr. Kathryn D. Sullivan, NOAA Deputy Administrator.

Sir John Beddington, UK Government Chief Scientific Adviser said: “Space weather is a global challenge that requires a coordinated response. The inclusion of space weather in the UK’s National Risk Register is evidence that we are already taking it seriously. Today’s joint statement will build on this and see the UK and US working more closely together to better understand and respond to space weather threats.”


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