A powerful coronal mass ejection captured by Nasa's Solar Dynamics Observatory in 2012

Space weather forecast centre to help protect infrastructure

The UK’s only dedicated space weather forecast centre has been launched to alert satellite telecommunication providers and electrical network operators in case of major solar storms.

A joint project between the British Met Office and the US National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), the Exeter-based centre has been opened after three years of preparations.

"Space weather is a new, emerging and exciting area of science where understanding is growing rapidly,” said Met Office Space Weather Business Manager Mark Gibbs.

"Space weather is an all-encompassing term covering the near-Earth impact of solar flares, geomagnetic storms and coronal mass ejections (CMEs) from the Sun. The impact these have on Earth is becoming ever more important as we become more reliant on technology."

Solar flares ejecting huge amounts of highly-charged particles into space can cause geomagnetic storms when interacting with the Earth's magnetosphere. The charged particles can damage satellites orbiting the Earth and even knock out ground-based telecommunication systems and electrical networks.

The largest solar storm in the history, known as the Carrington event, hit the Earth in 1859, causing widespread disruption to telegraph networks all over Europe and North America.

"Accurately predicting and preparing for the impacts from space weather requires a commitment similar to terrestrial weather forecasting and preparedness,” said Laura Furgione, deputy director of NOAA's National Weather Service.

“Our countries' collaborative efforts will help to promote preparedness and resilience to protect critical infrastructure against the growing and evolving global impacts from space weather."

According to scientific estimates, a solar storm the size of the infamous Carrington event could hit the Earth approximately every 250 years and the experts have been growing increasingly concerned about the possible effects on the technology-dependent world of the 21st century.

It is believed such an event could disrupt satellite navigation services and radio communication and possibly cause widespread power outages and electrical equipment damage.

Space weather is even identified as the fourth most important risk on the UK National Risk Register.

"The Met Office Space Weather Centre is a clear demonstration of how the UK is a world leader in space weather,” said Universities, Science and Cities Minister Greg Clark, opening the centre. “Not only will it help us to guard against the impact of space weather, but its capabilities will mean benefits for British businesses like those in the space industry and the wider economy."

The centre, backed by £4.6 million of governmental funding will provide round-the-clock services and develop an early warning system aimed at protecting critical infrastructure from the impacts of space weather.

The Met Office is working closely with a range of partners including NOAA’a Space Weather Prediction Centre,  Science and Technology Facilities Council,  British Geological Survey, University of Bath, RAL Space, British Antarctic Survey and several other universities and research organisations to optimise the use of data, knowledge and models.

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