Here Comes the Sun

10/05/2019

With World Astronomy Day tomorrow soon our thoughts turned to the risk of space weather and its implications - for resilience planners, their communities and, indeed, all of us.  It’s a fascinating and important risk, so we thought we’d bring it into the spotlight in this blogpost.

 

The first thing that stands out for us is that its inclusion in the National Risk Assessment in 2011 (and in the publically-available National Risk Register the following year) is a great example of practical horizon-scanning at work.  The “weather” in question is natural but especially energetic solar activity that can create high-energy flares, radiation storms and violent massive ejections of parts of the sun’s corona (its atmosphere).  When the energised particles from these events hit the Earth they can, if they have sufficient force, produce significant and damaging impacts.  This will be mainly via disruption of the electrical infrastructure and telecommunications systems that we depend on for many aspects of our normal life and safety.

The fact is that we haven’t yet experienced this at any really worrying levels.  The reasonable worst case is based on the last known really big solar coronal mass ejection.  It happened in 1859 and is known as the Carrington Event.  What the horizon scanners have done is extrapolate from that event (good records and measurements were made), by estimating what the various impacts of a repeat occurrence would be today – with our modern and widespread dependence on electrical and electronic systems. 

It’s interesting to note that ejecta from a solar superstorm in 2012, estimated as similar in magnitude to the 1859 event, missed the Earth by only a very narrow margin.  On that occasion the Earth was in the “right” place in its orbit.  9 days later and we would have had the full force of a “Carrington-Class” event.

The key guidance on this risk is the Space Weather Preparedness Strategy.  It’s available at:

https://www.gov.uk/government/publications/space-weather-preparedness-strategy

When first published it described the main challenge as low awareness of this risk and its implications. The good news is that much has been done to help remedy that.  This guidance spells out what the main impacts are likely to be, what has been done to mitigate those impacts and what the priorities are for on-going work.  It usefully explains some of the complex nuances of this risk.  For example, if such an event damaged the national electricity distribution system, leading to power outages, these would probably happen mainly at the fringes of the grid: in coastal and remote areas. 

So, this is an impact that threatens to spare the main population centres and hit those on the periphery, where some of our most disadvantaged communities are.  This takes us back to first principles in risk perception; risks which seem to be inequitably distributed often need careful communication. But, overall, the guidance points out that our power distribution network is highly resilient.

For emergency management and business continuity practitioners the challenge is the usual one.  This is the need to ensure that the risk is understood and that their response arrangements are mapped (proportionately) to all the many and various foreseeable impacts.  The full details are, of course, in the National Risk Assessment, accessible via Resilience Direct.

Finally, we’d like to draw attention to the wealth of really useful and accessible guidance and information available from the Met Office – which is available on line.  If you are not yet familiar with them, start here:

https://www.metoffice.gov.uk/weather/learn-about/space-weather/met-office-role


Do any colleagues out there have any good practice or insights around this risk and its public communication that it would be good to share?  Let us know and we’d be glad to showcase it for you.