Space Weather Preparedness Strategy: UK Government Report

Magnificent Outburst PIA18167 courtesy of NASA

A magnificent outburst!  Courtesy of NASA

The updated UK strategy document was published in July 2015 by the government, and the full text can be found here.  There’s obviously some joined-up thinking going on behind the scenes about this; it remains to be seen whether there’s any joined-up action too. Be that as it may, the actions recommended are as follows:

– designing mitigation into infrastructure where possible
No individual preparedness can be of any use in relation to infrastructure (National Grid) mitigation.

– developing the ability to provide alerts and warnings of space weather and its potential impacts, having in place plans to respond to severe events
Alerts and warnings aren’t something we individuals can do, either: though what we can do is make sure we can receive those alerts. More of that in a moment.

– preparation is needed to the national level, with the support of local capabilities to deal with the consequences.
Preparation both nationally and locally to deal with the consequences. Local preparation is more like it!

What are the risks?
Disruption might come from lack of electricity, as parts or (worst case) all of the National Grid breaks down.

Disruption of the aviation industry: anyone in the air, staff or passengers, would receive more radiation, especially on the transpolar routes. Schedules would probably be badly interrupted.

Communication loss, especially radio systems and trans-oceanic communications.

Satellite systems would certainly be disturbed, and might even be lost, including GPS. A lot depends on satellites in our society, even our financial system.

Pipelines and railway neworks would be affected. For example – flow meters in pipelines would transmit corrupted information.

Many of these items would affect one another too, and very possibly lead to cascading problems, which makes everything even more serious, of course.

In prepping circles, the electronic ignition of cars is often assumed to fail … none of the official sources mention this, so that’s another individual area of knowledge where more research is needed.

There are difficulties with the warnings, however. It’s tricky to forecast events correctly – not as bad as volcanoes, but bad enough – and the timescale is very short, a matter of hours after a warning.

And the big one: space weather isn’t doing anything different nowadays, it’s simply that nowadays, with our reliance on all things electronic, our technology is a lot more vulnerable to the same sorts of space weather that have always been around. The final difficulty is that it’s our vulnerable technology that we’d use to monitor events – the very technology that’s most at risk from space weather! Talk about Catch-22.

The standard that’s being worked to is the Carrington Event, of 1859 – and even then, there were plenty of telegraph wires that were sparking and remained electrified after they were disconnected from their batteries. This is NASA’s description of what happened during and after the Event.

The only help that’ll be out there are the emergency services and utility companies. I suppose the army too, if it gets really bad, but I haven’t found this stated in so many words. But we know from local emergencies that the national scale of events like this would be overwhelming. A big event would probably be international, actually – there wouldn’t be any certainty of help coming from anywhere else, because many other countries would be in as much trouble.

UK Resilience?
All of this sounds okay-ish, as far as it goes. And then you go to the website for the National Grid, where they’re talking about space weather, and you see the headline “Storm In A Teacup?” Oh dear.

There’s a bit of an attitude in this article, which is by an analyst named Andrew Richards, but there’s actually a lot of valuable information here too, about inbuilt mitigations and about what they do if they know there’s a potential event about to happen. Plus, because we’re an island with lots of short, interconnecting webs of powerlines, we’re intrinsically a lot more protected than North America, China and Australia, with their huge long powerlines that go on for ever, with much less redundancy than we have. One of the few advantages of being a smaller, crowded country, I suppose.

However, the Royal Academy of Engineering is quite a bit more realistic, it seems to me, in it’s approach.  Their 70 page report is linked to in the first paragraph on this page.

They say that “since the last peak of the solar cycle, the Great Britain transmission system has developed to become more meshed and more heavily loaded. … there is increased probability of severe geomagnetic storms affecting transmission equipment critical to robust operation of the system” (my emphasis). In other words, the same sort of “just in time” that our supermarkets operate, is operated by the National Grid too – and there would be consequences during a space weather event. It wouldn’t be Armageddon, but there would be problems, probably in more remote regions, where there is less transformer redundancy.

This issue about replacing transformers that have overloaded is the really crucial one. Several transformers are available at almost every site, though fewer in remote areas. “The time for an emergency transformer replacement, when a spare is available, would normally be 8 to 16 weeks although the record is four weeks.” says the Royal Academy of Engineering.

Minimum four weeks of low or no power, even if your consumer goods are okay, especially in areas served by fewer transformers. What if it was during winter? Could you cope?

So what can we do to safeguard ourselves?

There are many things we as individuals can do to increase our resilience to space weather, when the Met Office advises of an incoming storm. Many of the ordinary preparations you’ve probably made will be relevant: alternative methods of cooking, heating and sanitation; plenty of cash, petrol and water.

If you’re booked onto a transpolar flight at just the wrong time, what do you do? What do the airlines say? Plus, you could find out what the Met Office, the Foreign Office, the US-equivalent Foreign Office, and WebMD and NHS are saying.

It’s hard to believe that all flights would go ahead, but some would, and the optimistic assumption is that aircraft would be instructed to lose height, which would give them greater protection from the particles concerned, but that might not be possible – they’d use more fuel, and there may be too many aircraft beneath them, for instance.  Individual risk to each passenger seems to be low, even so, but there hasn’t really been a great deal of research in this area.

The alternative is not to fly: it’s all very well to say “don’t fly” – but trips have often been planned months or even years ahead. It’s hard to cancel them: and your insurance may not even be valid if you do. But is there a survival risk? The science is uncertain, but still young, new research is being done all the time.  If I had a big flight planned, I’d keep my eye on things.

As far as being in our own homes is concerned, there’s definitely positive action that can be taken:
– keep your electronics inside the house – don’t put it in a box in the garden, thinking it will be safer. It won’t.
– everything possible should be unplugged – during the worst of the storm, your freezer too, if possible.
– you could make a home-made Faraday cage: instructions in the next post. But bear in mind that you won’t be able to use anything while it’s in there. It does seem to be possible to make a Faraday cage with openings safe enough that the goods inside can be used safely, but I think that’s currently beyond the initial attempts of amateurs like us – like me, anyway.

An exploration of Faraday Cages is coming next, along with car ignitions.


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