July 1, 2013
New Program Aims To Understand Effects Of Space Weather
Lee Rannals for redOrbit.com -- Your Universe Online
Scientists are working on a program to better understand how national grids could be affected by space weather.
British Geological Survey (BGS) researchers are conducting continuous measurements of the background electric field in the UK to better understand how the UK National Grid can be interrupted by the Sun. Space weather can take place when the ejection of material from the Sun, or coronal mass ejection (CME), shoots towards Earth.
There is a continuous flow of natural electricity through the rocks and soil in the ground that is created by changing magnetic fields in outer space and in the atmosphere. Under certain conditions, space weather can interact with the Earth's magnetic field causing it to change and create strong electric currents higher in the atmosphere. This reaction can create induced currents in the ground as well.
The size of the electrical currents generated depends on a number of factors, including the local bedrock tip and the amount of water in the ground. The currents can become large enough to cause problems to technology like high-voltage power grids, railway switches and long pipelines.
Researchers are making measurements of the ground electric field in Shetland, the Scottish Border and Devon to help predict the electric field throughout the UK. This study will be able to be used to better understand the impacts of space weather on today's technology.
The new measurements will help confirm that the model-based predictions of the electric field are correct. Having a better understanding of the phenomenon will help to reduce the potential damage to the power grid.
"The electric field measurement system consists of sites of two pairs of electrodes, perpendicular to each other and spaced 100 meters apart. Each electrode is buried one meter below the surface and the voltage is measured across each pair," said BGS researcher Dr. Gemma Kelly. "Society depends on an intricate set of electrical and electronic systems, many of which are vulnerable to adverse space weather. By measuring exactly what happens during a major storm event, we can work on better protection for our infrastructure and reduce the damage to the technology we rely on."
In 2012, scientists warned that a massive solar storm could knock out power grids, communications and satellites within two years. The team predicted a twelve percent chance of a major solar storm every decade.