Politicians have been told “don’t panic, but do prepare” for a solar superstorm that could knock out satellites and power networks.
According to a report published today by the Royal Academy of Engineering, while the UK is better prepared than many countries for the effects of explosive eruptions of energy from the Sun, there are areas where resilience could be improved.
The events only occur every century or two and most miss the Earth, travelling harmlessly into space, and of those that do travel towards the Earth, only half interact with our environment and cause damage.
But a major storm that does cause serious damage is inevitable and could seriously degrade the performance of the electricity grid, satellites, GPS systems, aviation and possibly mobile communications.
Professor Paul Cannon FREng, chair of the Academy’s working group on extreme solar weather, said: “The UK is one of a small number of countries taking this risk seriously. The two challenges for government are the wide spectrum of technologies affected today and the emergence of unexpected vulnerabilities as technology evolves. The Academy recommends that government sets up a space weather board to oversee these issues across government departments.
“Our message is: Don’t panic, but do prepare – a solar superstorm will happen one day and we need to be ready for it. Many steps have already been taken to minimise the impact of solar superstorms on current technology and by following the recommendations in the report we anticipate that the UK can further minimise the impact.”
Around one in 10 orbiting satellites could be knocked out for days during a superstorm event, said the report, and those that keep operating would be aged "enormously", making it necessary for many to be replaced.
GPS signals would be interrupted one to three days after the storm hit as satellite transmissions to the ground are disrupted and As a result sat-nav systems would be rendered inoperable.
Navigating officers in aircraft and ships would temporarily have to revert to old-fashioned "dead reckoning” and energetic particles penetrating lower levels of the atmosphere could also interfere with aircraft electronics.
Other effects of a solar superstorm would be to send large induced currents through the electricity grid network, potentially knocking out central transformers and causing blackouts.
For passengers on high flying aircraft, a superstorm would also deliver a radiation dose equivalent to three CT scans. This would still be below harmful levels, said the experts - but astronauts aboard the International Space Station could be at ris
Space engineer Keith Ryden, from the University of Surrey, another member of the working group, said: "The most likely scenario is that data elements get corrupted. It's possible that individual chips could fail. The systems are designed to cope with a certain amount of failure.
"What would be of concern is if we had multiple failures for the pilot to deal with so he becomes overloaded."
But he added: "We're not talking about aircraft dropping out of the sky."
Following the release of the report Extreme space weather: impacts on engineered systems and infrastructure, the Academy has recommended that a UK Space Weather Board be initiated within government to provide overall leadership of UK space weather activities and that more research should be done into the full effects of solar superstorms.
But despite the dangers, in the UK the National Grid has already taken measures to harden the electricity grid against such disruption and has an active mitigation strategy in place.
The last true superstorm, known as the "Carrington event" occurred in 1859 when Earth was hit by a tidal wave of energetic particles following a large solar flare.
Induced currents caused by the blast sent sparks flying from telegraph pylons causing fires and around the world, night skies were lit up by magnificent aurora displays.