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UK takes next steps in preparing for Space Weather events

16 February 2015

Space weather has the potential to have a massive negative impact on space and Earth based systems that we take for granted, such as communications networks.

The report cover image is an artist's impression of events on the sun changing the conditions in near-Earth space (image source: NASA)

A new report out in the UK today (Monday, February 16), based on contributions from over 1,000 members of the public, scientific and government experts and from a series of public dialogue events, offers some key recommendations on best practice actions to deal with the impact of such events in the future.

Key recommendations from the report include:

- The development of an on-going programme of guidance for the public on space weather, that could perhaps use existing key national and regional weather forecasts as its communications channel
- That government should continue to work closely with industries operating systems at risk from space weather to ensure and demonstrate that the UK has overall systems resilience to space weather

The report builds on existing work that has been undertaken on this risk to the UK and has been published on the back of a major national public dialogue project that took place in 2014 and which was aimed at informing and talking with the UK public about the threat of the space weather events on modern society. The report was  published on behalf of a number of major organisations including Sciencewise, the Science and Technology Facilities Council RAL Space team, the Natural Environment Research council (NERC), National Grid and Lloyd’s of London.

Our important national infrastructure has become highly dependent on the communications, navigation, timing, meteorological and other services that are provided by space-based systems. If solar storms were to disrupt these satellite systems for an extended period, then many services that we currently take for granted would be affected. Major solar storms also have the potential to directly affect infrastructure on the Earth itself. Crucial capabilities, such as the power distribution network, could be put at risk by the large induced currents that solar storms can create.

Supported by the Department for Business, Innovation & Skills (BIS), the results of this project will be used to inform future government policy.

The significance of this hazard has been emphasised by the inclusion of severe space weather in the UK National Risk Register (NRR) since 2012. Professor Mike Hapgood,  Head of Space Weather at STFC RAL Space, highlighted the importance of the project:

"We have welcomed the  opportunity to explore how the public feel about the risk from space weather, how we as scientists can explain the real risk and overcome the exaggeration sometimes seen in media stories, and ultimately what are we all prepared to do to reduce the risk."

Mark Gibbs, Head of Space Weather at the Met Office says the Met Office is continuing to develop its space weather forecasting capability to meet customer’s needs. "Space weather can impact the performance of electricity grids, satellites, GPS systems and aviation which, in turn, can impact us all.  This project is helping us to understand how best to communicate this to the public so they get the best and most timely advice and warning of space weather impacts."

There is already huge public interest in space weather and this project has built on that interest and raised wider awareness of the real threat posed by space weather. It has highlighted how academia, industry and government are working together to develop good engineering solutions and better operational procedures to cope with such space weather events.

The general public were invited to take part in a series of workshops and also joined an online discussion dedicated to the space weather dialogue.

The dialogue brought together expertise from the following organisations: Met Office, National Grid, UK Space Agency, British Geological Survey, Staffordshire Civil Contingencies, Reading University, Lancaster University, Cabinet Office, Royal Astronomical Society and GO Science.

The report is very timely following the launch this week of the Deep Space Climate Observatory (DSCOVR) which will, when operational, give forecasters up to an hour's warning on the arrival of the huge magnetic eruptions from the Sun, called Coronal Mass Ejections (CMEs), that occasionally occur.

A copy of the full report can be found here.


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