The UK government have released a document which outlines how they would respond in the event of a major solar storm heading for earth.
The report, called Space Weather Preparedness Strategy, says that humans would have just 12 hours notice in the event of severe space weather (such as solar flares, and CMEs) which would likely see; widespread power outages, flights being grounded, communication devices no longer working, and a breakdown of satellite communications.
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The National Risk Assessment sets out the reasonable worst case scenario for this risk, which is based on the 1859 Carrington Event. However, other impactful if less severe events have been seen regularly since that event. The challenge of space weather events
The main challenges we face in planning for severe space weather events include:
– the difficulty of forecasting events accurately;
– the short warning time to prepare once we have certainty about the speed and size of events;
– understanding potential impacts given the societal and technological developments since the 1859 Carrington Event;
– a lack of capability to monitor the effects of severe events once they start.
The strategic approach to planning for severe space weather events
The Department for Business, Innovation and Skills manages the risk of severe space weather on behalf of the UK and co-ordinates efforts to improve resilience. The Met Office assesses the risk for the National Risk Assessment and operates the UK’s forecasting centre for space weather. The UK Space Agency and the Natural Environment Research Council have a role in developing observational capability. A wide range of departments across Government also have a role to play in preparing for this risk, including the Department of Energy & Climate Change, Department for Transport and the Ministry of Defence. A particular area of focus is the need to build resilience of the UK’s national infrastructure to mitigate any impacts.
Space weather is a risk which particularly affects technology. Building strategic resilience to space weather necessitates taking into account potential impacts on new technologies, especially Global Navigation Satellite Systems and miniaturisation of circuitry.
Finally, UK resilience builds upon the role that Category 1 and Category 2 responders play during emergencies. This is also true of space weather. This will primarily to be achieved through deployment of capabilities in the same way as for other emergencies which lead to power, transport and other disruption.
Assessment of preparedness
Much has been done to increase the UK’s preparedness for major space weather events:
– the National Grid has increased the resilience of its Transmission Network and developed operational plans for severe events;
– the Met Office has opened its forecasting centre in Exeter;
– the UK Space Agency has invested in space weather observation capabilities, raising awareness and in developing modelling and services;
– the aviation sector, which deals with the effects of space weather as an ongoing issue, has been working on how to plan for extreme events;
– central Government have developed co-ordination plans based upon the tried and tested COBR arrangements; and
there has been extensive engagement at research, operational and now
Government level, with international partners, including the US and EU member states. However, more needs to be done especially in sectors which have had lower awareness of the risks posed by space weather, such as the rail and financial services sectors and local responders.
The importance of public communications
As for any risk, communication with the public is an important component in preparing for and responding to an event. But there are specific challenges for severe space weather due to our limited understanding of likely impacts and ability to forecast major events. Not all impacts may happen during every space weather event but pre-agreed messaging is important to allow rapid and effective communication from Government, if and when they do happen. Work has been undertaken to develop and exercise plans to communicate with the public. These plans focus on raising awareness of what the risk means in practice for the public, how the impacts can be mitigated in a similar way as for other, more familiar risks, and effective co-ordination with other countries that might also be affected. They have also been informed by work undertaken by Sciencewise to engage the public on how to plan for the risk of severe space weather.
Priorities for future work
Although much has been done, more work is needed. Priorities for future work are:
– ensuring that research funding is guided by strategic priorities to help increase resilience to space weather;
– work with international partners to develop ways to fill gaps in space and ground capabilities to monitor and forecast severe events;
– build on work already ongoing with a range of sectors to increase awareness of and resilience to the risk of space weather in the UK, especially in sectors which might feel an impact but awareness is low;
– continue to communicate with the public in a way which builds resilience to this and other risks, without causing undue alarm and fits with wider approaches to warning and informing;
– continue international engagement in order to help increase UK resilience; and
– continue to raise awareness amongst local responders to increase their knowledge of and ability to plan for space weather in a way which is coherent with their wider planning for emergencies.