How to plan for a solar superstorm

30 April 2013
By Edd Gent
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Professor Mike Hapgood of RAL Space says the UK needs to be better prepared for the prospect of a solar superstorm

Professor Mike Hapgood of RAL Space says the UK needs to be better prepared for the prospect of a solar superstorm

Strategies for dealing with a solar superstorm that could knock out critical infrastructure were discussed at a seminar today.

Academics and industry representatives met at the Institution of Engineering and Technology to consider the impacts of a major explosive eruption of energy from the Sun and the possible damage mitigation strategies.

Earlier this year the Royal Academy of Engineering published a report into the possible effects of a solar superstorm like the “Carrington event" in 1859, the last true solar superstorm.

The events only occur every few centuries, but a major storm could seriously damage electricity grids, satellites, GPS systems, aviation and possibly mobile communications.

Professor Mike Hapgood, head of the Space Environment Group at the Rutherford Appleton Laboratory’s space division, has been leading work in the area and gave the keynote address to delegates.

Speaking after his address he said: “I was particularly trying to lay out the evidence for the kind of superstorm we would expect maybe once per century. But also to show there’s some evidence for the possibility of storms 10 times more intense on a one-in-a-thousand year basis.

“And I think there’s a growing interest in the very disruptive events on the 1,000-year timescale because of the experiences of the tsunami in Japan, which was precisely that kind of thing.

“These are all natural hazards, it doesn’t matter whether it’s coming from the Sun, the weather or earthquakes or tsunamis or even volcanoes, you want to know what are the risks on century- and thousand-year timescales and are those risks such that you need to plan for them.”

While the authorities are beginning to recognise the risks, people’s increasing reliance on technology means such an event could have profound effects on society and the economy.

“The big thing about space weather is not so much the direct threat to people, but it disrupts the technology that we now are critically dependant on,” said Hapgood. “Compared with when I was a kid 50 years ago we are just so much more dependent on these things.”

And with infrastructure critical to the world’s economy such as the power grid and GPS likely to be affected, the cost could reach into the billions even though most events would only cause outages for a matter of hours or days.

“A real superstorm, you could certainly expect billions of pounds worth of disruption,” said Hapgood. “A significant fraction of GDP is dependent on GPS so if we lost access to GPS signals for several days that gives you some estimate of the potential cost.”

He added: “People have looked at it but it really needs a proper study in the future. There are a lot of figures plucked out of the air but I think you would need to have a proper study of that with some economists.”

While there are engineering solutions to the problems caused by a superstorm, such as better power transformers and smarter software, forecasting will have to play a major role.

“There’s a lot you can do with engineering, but beyond that you want to know if there’s a big event coming that might exceed the engineering specifications you’ve used. You can’t afford to build something that will resist everything. So at that point you need a warning system,” said Hapgood.

“What we are doing at the minute is thinking about what do you need in terms of warning systems and then how do you use the warning. That’s a big issue that government is starting to get to grips with.”

But with major events only likely to occur every century or two, Hapgood believes getting past the inherent randomness of the events is a key obstacle that needs to be overcome.

“Organisations and people are really only remembering the lessons they’ve learned in the last decade or two,” he said. “It’s trying to get over the nature of that randomness. We say it’s a one in a hundred-year event, that’s where the science really becomes important because it’s something that transcends the experience of individuals or even organisations.”

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