Being prepared – UK scientists are helping Government plan for the effects of solar storms on Earth
15 Mar 2021



Pandemics are just one of just a number of natural hazards that could threaten the UK. Space weather is another. It may seem like the stuff of science fiction but it is a very real phenomena which the UK added to the national risk register in 2011.

Solar flare captured by the Solar Dynamics Observatory.

​​​​Solar flare, one of the causes of space weather, captured by the Solar Dynamics Observatory.

Credit: NASA

​A new paper published in Space Weather Journal, from the group advising the government on the impacts and mitigations for space weather, outlines the science basis behind the UK's preparations and argues that a space weather event could have an impact across multiple different infrastructures, in a short space of time requiring a joined-up approach to planning, mitigation and response.

Space weather is a disturbance in the upper atmosphere and space environment around the Earth, caused by activity at the Sun, which can disrupt technology, including causing power outages, faults in train signals and satellite navigation errors.

Professor Mike Hapgood, lead author, chair of the Space Environment Impacts Expert Group (SEIEG) which advises the UK government on space weather and scientist at the Science and Technology Facilities Council's RAL Space said: “Space weather could disrupt many different economic sectors in quick succession – potentially overloading our national capability to handle such widespread disruption, similar to the concern that the COVID-19 pandemic could overwhelm the NHS. Our work provides realistic scenarios that enable government to work with industry to prepare to be ready for that."

Severe space weather storms are rare, occurring only around once in a hundred years, but the impacts are largely untested on modern life. The last severe storms, in 1859 and 1921, caused disruptions to telegraph systems, including a spectacular fire at a key Swedish centre in May 1921, capturing news headlines around the world. Today, we are far more reliant on technologies vulnerable to space weather.

An intense geomagnetic storm could near-simultaneously; affect radio signals used for aeroplane communications with air traffic control, cause regional power blackouts and disrupt railway signalling. It could also distort satellite signals affecting space-dependent services like satellite navigation and satellite phones. Some of these effects may be localised and short lived, others may cause lasting damage to costly infrastructure. A severe event could leave governments and sectors dealing rapidly with several issues at once while managing the public's perception of an issue that many people will not be familiar with.

The UK is leading the world in efforts to understand and mitigate the effects of space weather. This paper is part of efforts by the Space Environments Impact Expert Group to provide clear, science based scenarios to be used for preparation by the government.

As well as integrating planning into the national risk register, the UK government is investing £20 million into a programme, called Space Weather Instrumentation Measurement, Modelling and Risk (SWIMMR), being run by UK Research and Innovation to improve the UK's ability to monitor and predict space weather events. The UK is also home to one of only three space weather prediction centres in the world, based at the UK Met Office. In 2019, the UK Space Agency invested £60 million into the development of a new European Space Agency mission to the L5 Lagrange point​. This ensured UK leadership, through STFC RAL Space, University College London and Airbus UK, of this mission towards meeting operational forecast needs, improving our ability to accurately forecast extreme events and provide that vital extra warning time required to take action to efficiently and effectively protect critical infrastructure.  

Professor Mike Hapgood added: "There is now a wealth of evidence which shows that space weather is a serious problem, one that requires, not just a technical response, but also good science-based public communication to reduce the risks that false information will cause adverse public responses such as panic buying and conspiracy theories as we have seen during the COVID-19 pandemic."