UK Boosting Space Weather Research
NASA's Parker Solar Probe. Image credit: NASA/Johns Hopkins APL/Steve Gribben
A Birmingham University led consortium, which brings together lead experts in upper atmosphere modelling from the British Antarctic Survey and 5 major UK Universities, has received funding for two significant projects. The result of the programme is meant to increase the UK's forecast capability when it comes to solar superstorms and other extreme space weather events.
It is crucial to understand what space weather actually is and how it can affect us before recognising the implications of the research to our everyday life and why the prediction of such events is necessary.
What is Space Weather?
Alike Earth weather, space weather is constantly changing, has cycles and even a daily forecast as well.Unlike Earth weather on the other hand, instead of looking for temperatures and rainfall, we look for solar wind or accelerated particles. In brief, space weather refers to the environmental changes within the near-Earth space, caused by the activity on the surface of the Sun. In other words, space weather is caused by the interaction of radiation (flares), plasma (Coronal Mass Ejections — CMEs) and charged particles (Solar Energetic Particles — SEPs) emitted by the Sun, with the Earth geomagnetic field and upper atmosphere.
Minor activities are quite common and little to no harm is done, while more powerful ones can cause a number of physical effects or even endanger our technological systems. Geomagnetic Superstorms are the most harmful ones, but thankfully with a much lower occurrence rate, of only once every one to two hundred years.
Should we be worried?
From our technology in space, to our technology on the ground, historical evidence shows the vulnerability of modern technology when confronted with high energy particles, a by-product of space weather events. Equally important is to remember that space weather has a global footprint, thus the damage is felt worldwide rather than local, much like an outbreak. Impact on satellites, aviation, power grid, navigation and communication systems have all been previously documented.
In case of extreme weather and solar superstorms, multiple critical space and ground based infrastructures can be affected simultaneously, as cascade effects are to be expected. If spacecrafts are first to fail, then any system dependent on the data-flow will be disrupted as a result. Such dependencies are referred to as hidden vulnerabilities, hence why so many technologies on Earth are at risk.
The three types of solar activities that can negatively impact our infrastructures are solar flares, geomagnetic storms and solar radiation storms.
Solar Flares: produced by the movement of magnetic field lines near sunspots and can release high amounts of radiation into space. Solar flares can cause radio blackouts that affect radars, space and ground communications, including the disruption of high-frequency communications used by the aviation and maritime industries.
Geomagnetic Storms: caused by the interaction of the Coronal Mass Ejections (magnetised solar plasma) and Earth’s magnetosphere. It can impact satellite operations, GPS systems, aviation and rail transport, as well as electrical grid operations. A severe geomagnetic storm could cause massive worldwide blackouts. One such example is the Carrington storm of 1859, which caused a global disruption on the telegraph lines with many accounts of bright auroras all over the world. According to the National Academy Report of 2008, if such a storm would hit us today it would cause extensive damage to the power grids, satellite communications and GPS systems, for up to $2 trillion.
Solar Radiation Storms: occur when magnetic eruptions accelerate charged particles to very high velocities, the end result being protons which can arrive from the Sun to the Earth in less than 10 minutes, able to pierce the magnetosphere and enter the atmosphere due to their very high speeds. Energetic particle production is a by-product of both Solar Flares and Coronal Mass Ejections. The particles can affect satellite operations, the aviation sector, as well as all crewed and robotic spaceflight.
Nowadays there are many assumptions regarding the possible impact and cost of a worse-case-scenario, since the space weather threat is globally recognised, but unfortunately a clear economic impact remains undetermined, as the all the direct and indirect losses are hard to grasp. Nonetheless, the probability of a Carrington level storm is presumed to be between 6 and 12% within the next decade.
UK's Latest Investment in Space Weather Research
It was concluded at the 2016 Summit on the Impact of Extreme Space Weather on Critical Infrastructures that an extreme event “could overwhelm a single nation’s response capacity”, therefore urging the need for a multi-risk governance approach, with the UK being one of the key players in Europe.
The UK is recognising the risks and taking active steps towards prevention, preparation and response to the threat. From 2011 onwards space weather is part of the UK’s Government National Risk Register of Civil Emergencies, and as a result on June 27th, a Birmingham University led consortium has been awarded a £3.7M funding to boost the nation’s monitoring and prediction capabilities.
The investment is funding two projects dedicated to the study of Earth’s upper atmosphere. The first one focuses on improving ionosphere monitoring, while the second one on investigating the thermosphere. The aims of the research are to improve both the overall forecasting potential and the risk mitigation strategies. For this purpose, the consortium gathered experts in upper atmosphere modelling from the Universities of Birmingham, Bath, Lancaster, Leicester, Leeds and Southampton, together with specialists from the British Antarctic Survey.
The research is funded by UK Research and Innovation (UKRI) as part of the £20M Space Weather Instrumentation, Measurement, Modelling and Risk programme, otherwise known as SWIMMR. The four year programme (2019-2023) is focusing on reducing the potential radiation hazards of space weather to satellites and aviation operations, mitigating potential space weather effects on communication and global positioning, as well as diminishing the potential risks of space weather to electric power distribution. Furthermore, the funding is part of the Strategic Priorities Fund (SPF), which guarantees that the UKRI’s investment is in accordance with governmental priorities.
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8. University of Birmingham. n.d. What is Space Weather?