Experts Say Solar Superstorm May Be Imminent: Readiness Is Key
February 8, 2013

Experts Say Solar Superstorm May Be Imminent: Readiness Is Key

[Watch Video: Solar Superstorm]

Lawrence LeBlond for - Your Universe Online

A solar superstorm may be brewing and there is little we can do to prevent it from disrupting our communications and electrical systems here on Earth. But there is more we can do to prepare for such an event, according to a new report by the Royal Academy of Engineering.

Authors of the study said the UK should plan to mitigate the effects of a potentially dangerous solar storm now before it´s too late. While the UK is already better prepared than many other countries, the report said more can be done.

The report calls for the government to create an expert panel (UK Space Weather Board) to formulate a national plan to cope with blasts of radiation and high-energy particles produced by solar superstorms. These storms have the capability of causing major mayhem for our satellites, GPS systems, electrical devices, phone networks, and even the International Space Station (ISS).

The report, Extreme space weather: impacts on engineered systems and infrastructure,” was implemented to help experts from many disciplines work together to devise strategies for dealing with a potentially dangerous solar storm.

Solar storms are relatively common events; for the most part these eruptions of energy occur on a small scale, and many often do not hit earth, traveling harmlessly through space. However, a rarer event, a solar superstorm, has the potential to wipe out communications and electrical systems on the third rock from the sun, causing widespread power outages, and disrupting important communications with airlines, military and other critical systems.

Solar superstorms are estimated to occur every 100 to 200 years, with the last one hitting Earth in 1859–known as the “Carrington event.” And with the sun in the midst of a solar maximum, approaching its most active point in an 11-year cycle later this year, the news of an impending superstorm striking Earth is rather alarming.

It is inevitable that such an extreme storm will occur sometime in the near future, but it is impossible to predict when one will actually occur, and no more than 30 minutes prior to such an event, experts warned.

"The general consensus is that a solar superstorm is inevitable, a matter not of 'if' but 'when?'," said the report.

This is why an expert panel should be implemented to provide leadership of space weather activities to ensure a viable space weather strategy is in place across the government. The authors of the report said more research is needed into the full effects of superstorms.

The UK is already well advanced for the most part; its National Grid has already taken measures to strengthen the electrical grid against such disruption and has strategies in place to mitigate any issues. The report authors said this should be built upon, improving forecasting, engineering and operational procedures.

RAEng recommends that all critical terrestrial mobile communications networks should be able to operate without global navigational satellite systems (GNSS) timing for up to three days should a superstorm occur. They said this should include network upgrades, including those with new 4G licenses, and upgrades to emergency services communications.

The report authors said a solar superstorm has the potential to render GPS and Galileo systems completely inoperable for three days or longer. Such a loss could potentially affect aircraft and shipping communications. Today´s aircraft are not wholly dependent on GNSS and rely in part on other navigation aids, and the authors warn that it is important that these alternative navigation options remain available just in case.

"Our view is that solar superstorms will be a challenge for the UK to deal with, but it will certainly not be cataclysmic," Paul Cannon of Qinetiq and the University of Birmingham, who chaired the space weather working group for the academy, told The Guardian.

"Our motto is don't panic, but do prepare," he added.

While we have yet to have any major disruptions from solar storms, we have had close calls in the past. A solar storm in March 1989 disrupted Canada´s Hydro-Quebec power grid, leaving millions of people without power for up to nine hours.

A similar storm today would be far more disruptive, likely having a huge impact on mobile phone service in many countries.

However, in the UK, mobile service is “fundamentally resilient to space weather because it does not rely on GPS signals for its timing," said Cannon. "Interestingly, in the USA their cellular network does rely on GPS time. The cellular system in the US is far less resilient than ours in the UK."