Extreme Space Weather Events

After months of hard work the Royal Academy of Engineering have published their report on the impact of extreme space weather events in the UK – the media have reported on it with varying success…    

My office for the past 6 months has been full of talk about this report. The director of my research institute, Prof. Paul Cannon, was the chair of the Academy’s working group on extreme solar weather and so, as you can imagine we’ve talked about it quite a lot!

The report is available to view online at this address, raeng.org/spaceweather, the report looks at the impact of a major solarstorm on the UK infrastructure – GNSS, power grids, avionics and more. All-in-all, we shouldn’t worry! Prof. Cannon said in his press statement:

“Our message is: don’t panic, but do prepare – a solar superstorm will happen one day and we need to be ready for it.”

At this point I’m not going to discuss, piece by piece, what the report says, I’ll wait for you to read it before that discussion.

What I do want to address is how the study is being reported in the media. The bold titles are links to the articles, and are followed underneath by the opening section. Finally a comment or two of my own in yellow.

BBC News – UK ‘can cope with solar superstorm’

If a solar superstorm struck the Earth, the effects on the UK would be “challenging but not cataclysmic”, says a major report.

This is good! It doesn’t exaggerate the facts and quickly comments that the resulting effects would be challenging but not world ending – good word BBC.

Sky News – Solar Superstorm: UK ‘Must Brace For Threat’

Scientists say a radiation blast would not be cataclysmic, but it could cause black-outs and disrupt flights and GPS systems.

Again, this is good. Although Sky’s title is a little more provocative the opening comments get the all important ‘would not be cataclysmic’.

The Guardian – Solar superstorms: UK must brace itself, say engineers

Particles and radiation from a superstorm could lead to blackouts and put one in 10 satellites out of action.

I can’t complain much about this either, interestingly this is the first paper to go straight for the ‘1 in 10’ satellite statistic. This is in the report so I can’t be too critical of it.

The Independent – A solar ‘superstorm’ is coming and we’ll only get 30-minute warning

They cause devastation, occur every 150 years – and the last one was in 1859.

Wow, that is pretty bad. There are actually two truthful comments – or at least partially – we’ll go for those first. “We’ll only get a 30-minute warning”, I believe this is in reference to the ACE satellite at the L1 Lagrangian point. This satellite tells us the direction of the IMF (interplanetary magnetic field) which plays a big part in the potential damage an impact could cause (due to its orientation with the Earth’s magnetic field). We would actually have a lot more notice than 30 minutes as to an incoming CME, but not as to its orientation.

Secondly, “the last one was in 1859”. It is true that the last ‘superstorm’ of the magnitude we are talking about did occur in 1859, called the ‘Carrington Event’.  But the real crux of this article, and the reason it is so very bad is the “[they] occur every 150 years – and the last one was in 1859”, the implication being we are overdue an event of this magnitude. We simply do not know that. The Carrington event is the only known event of this magnitude since we did not have electrical equipment around before to detect consequences. Thus we cannot include, because this event happened 150 years ago, these events are every 150 years. These events could be 1 in 500 year events, 1 in 1000 year events, we simply don’t know. You can not draw conclusions on the regularity of an event if you only have data on one event.

Anyway, that is my highlight of the media reports over. Another post, or two, is due for the contents of the report but I’ll let you read it yourself first (remember you can view it here).

I’ll leave you with my favourite title of the day (I sure hope I get to part of Team Space!), from the Mail Online:

Defenders of the Earth: Space team to set up body to protect Britain

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