‘Power loss, aviation disruption, radiation’: UK warns solar storms could wreak havoc

The UK government has warned of potentially damaging effects of coronal mass ejections, solar flares and other severe space weather, in a new report published by the Cabinet Office.

“Solar activity can produce x-rays, high-energy particles and coronal mass ejections of plasma. Where such activity is directed towards Earth there is the potential to cause wide-ranging impacts. These include power loss, aviation disruption, communication loss, and disturbance to (or loss of) satellite systems,” says the report, called Space Weather Preparedness Strategy.

Noting that “public awareness of space weather remains low,” the report outlines the main threats from solar flares, which are powerful bursts of energy that originate near the surface of the sun due to magnetic activity, and coronal mass ejections (CMEs), which are their bigger, but less intense cousins.

While these events are caused by the sun’s activity, “there is no clear pattern on when these eruptions happen. The sun has an approximately 11 year cycle of activity, with the current cycle peaking in early 2014.”

As its model for the worst case scenario, the report has chosen the 1859 Carrington Event, which combined flares and CMES, and created spectacular auroras for those observing from Earth. According to the paper, such an event has a 1 percent annual chance of reoccurring, while a 2013 study by Lloyd’s of London estimated the damage from such an event today at up to $2.6 trillion, just in the United States alone.

While “impacts are difficult to predict and are best assumptions” the report says that a similar occurrence would cause:

– Localised power outages;

– Disruption of satellite operations, including to Global Navigation Satellite System outages (GPS) and SATCOM disturbances;

– Disruption to High Frequency communications;

– Increased radiation to aircrew and passengers in flight, particularly over polar regions; and

– Further disturbances to small-part electronic systems.

The electrical grid and satellite networks would have just hours to prepare for the impact, though authors say that “due to degradation in the satellite capability available to forecasters” any forecast could be off.

“Generally speaking, the faster the ejection, the greater the potential impacts. The Carrington Event, for example, travelled to Earth in as little as 18 hours. It is therefore likely that our reasonable worst case scenario would only allow us 12 hours from observation to impact,” warn the authors.

The authors admit that even with awareness of the incoming geomagnetic storms, there is a limit as to what those on the surface of the planet can do to mitigate their effects, but note that “the advancement of technology and the increases in interdependence of some systems means that infrastructure has become more vulnerable to its impacts in last few decades.”

© Regis Duvignau

The report does promise that UK power lines and mobile phones would still work in case of hostile solar weather, though it notes that the US would be more vulnerable, both due to the nature of its extensive power network and the reliance of its communication systems on GPS, which may be taken out.

“The GB power grid network is highly meshed and has a great deal of built in redundancy. This potentially makes it less susceptible to space weather effects than power grids in some other countries. Over recent years a more resilient design for new transformers has been used to provide further mitigation,” says the paper, while pointing out that “this resilience is not the result of planning for this risk but good fortune.”

The onus on finding long-term solutions is placed on engineers and manufacturers.

“Development of new infrastructure, such as future rail projects, will need to consider all impacts of space weather alongside other resilience issues. Other areas such as aviation and satellites will need to consider space weather impacts on new air and space craft,” say the authors.

According to the report, the role of the government will be providing “clear and concise” communication to avoid spreading panic during a solar storm. The UK population will be told that “you can plan for the effects of severe space weather in the same way as for any other natural hazard,” and that “the risk to health [from radiation exposure] has been judged as minimal” and that plane “passengers need not seek medical advice.”