The world would only get 12 hours warning if a huge explosion of high energy particles from the surface of the sun heads our way, a new report has warned. A plan to help prepare for major bursts of “space weather” has been published by the British government, outlining what needs to be done to cope with such an event. It says that a massive solar phenomenon would disrupt transport networks, cause blackouts and disrupt satellites.
The report warns that GPS systems could go down, leaving train networks and shipping in disarray. Mobile phones and landlines are not expected to be affected, but satellite communication and high frequency radio communication used by shipping and aircraft could go down. Power grids could also be effected, leading to black outs in some areas. Oil production could fall as oil drilling relies heavily on GPS for accuracy. High frequency communication networks used by aircraft and shipping would go down for several days, which together with the loss of GPS could mean shipping is suspended. Trains also rely upon GPS systems and so may not be able to run for up to three days after the storm hits.
The report also says that a solar storm would also increase airline passengers’ exposure to radiation, but says the risk to health would be “minimal.”
The document warns that the most harmful element of severe space weather is a major coronal mass ejection, where huge eruptions blast high energy particles out into space. Like a never-ending rain shower, cosmic rays pour down on Earth everyday. These high-energy particles, triggered by the solar flares, make their presence felt when they create the northern lights or disrupt power grids.
The report cautioned: “Space weather results from solar activity. 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.”
Severe solar events are thought to threaten the Earth every 100 years or so. The last major coronal mass ejection to hit the Earth, known as the Carrington event, was a powerful geomagnetic solar storm in 1859 and is thought to have been the biggest in 500 years. At the time technology was still relatively underdeveloped, although Telegraph systems all over the world failed and pylons threw sparks.
On March 13th, 1989 – 23 years ago, a CME caused a power failure in Québec, as well as across parts of the northeastern U.S. In this event, the electrical supply was cut off to over 6 million people for 9 hours.
A large solar flare in March knocked out radio transmissions in some parts of the world. The UK government’s Space Weather Preparedness Strategy said on that occasion it took the blast of energy and particles 18 hours to reach the Earth. But it added: “It is therefore likely that our reasonable worst case scenario would only allow us 12 hours from observation to impact.”
The report warns that while the UK power network would likely be able to cope with a major space weather event, other countries are less well prepared. It said: “The GB Power Grid is likely to be more resilient than that of some other countries to the effects of severe space weather for a range of reasons: shorter power lines, a mesh like grid system with the ability to close sections and route power around them and, a more reliant design for new and replacement transformers. Nonetheless, for the GB grid, our relatively high latitude, long coast line and geology are factors that increase risk.”
The report suggests that improvements will need to be made in alerts and warning systems for solar storms. The Met Office recently launched a Space Weather forecasting service. It also says power and communication infrastructure should be updated to include backups. And companies and emergency services are urged to have plans in place to deal with the impacts.