The UK is prepping for damaging coronal mass ejections

30 Jul 2015

An incredible new report from the UK Cabinet Office has listed the risks that we face when a damaging solar storm eventually heads our way.

Citing coronal mass ejections as the UK’s biggest worry, the report predicts a 12-hour warning ahead of a solar event that could wreck modern communication channels.

Consistently referring back to an event in England more than 150 years ago – the 1859 Carrington Event – that saw massive atmospheric issues on the back of coronal mass ejection, the document reads like an action movie.

Coronal mass ejections are described as “explosive eruptions” that fire parts of the sun’s atmosphere outwards, rarely, but occasionally, to Earth.

Severe impacts

“This solar phenomenon is the most concerning element of severe space weather as it has the potential to cause the most severe impacts.”

It can cause power outages, disrupting satellites and therefore compromising anything from telecoms to weather monitoring.

It also brings increased radiation for aeroplane crew flying around, “particularly over polar regions”, with electrical devices of all shapes and sizes running into difficulties.

Humanity’s problem – beyond the fact that the sun is spewing storms down on us every now and then – is that we cannot yet work out when it’s all going to happen.

Challenges abound

The main challenges we face in planning for severe space weather events are:

  • 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 response is to be three-pronged: “Designing mitgation into infrastructure where possible, developing the ability to provide alerts and warnings of space weather and its potential impacts, and having in place plans to respond to severe events.”

The paper discusses a “reasonable worst case scenario”, which is basically a collection of different solar events.

This is to ensure that “theoretically possible scenarios are discounted” if they require disproportionate funds and resources, in comparison to likely events.

Perfect solar storm

The Carrington Event, which saw a spike in solar activity that hasn’t been seen since, is often described as the ‘perfect storm’, as it included the strongest recorded incidents of solar flare related X-rays, radiation storm and coronal mass ejections.

There is a 1pc chance of this happening in the future, however, other lesser events – such as an event in 1989 in Canada – have been seen.

According to the report, it’s up to the government to prep its citizens with clear and concise information, to avoid extensive panic.

This could be hard, given that it admits at the outset that public awareness of solar weather is miniscule.

Main image via Shutterstock

Gordon Hunt was a journalist with Silicon Republic