Ageing space weather forecasting satellites pose huge risks to UK economy

Space weather events that frequently occur on the surface or the corona of the Sun, also known as solar storms, can cause severe disruption to essential national infrastructure such as power grids, aviation and satellite communications. These events involve sudden releases of stored magnetic energy far away in the Sun, but the consequences of even one single event could cost the UK economy up to £16bn, shows new research.

The new analysis highlights the implications of failing to replace existing satellite capabilities which are used to monitor space weather phenomena.

Coronal Mass Ejections can affect the Earth’s magnetic field, leading to geomagnetic disturbances, potentially causing severe disruption to electric power transmission networks.

In 1989, a geomagnetic disturbance cause a voltage collapse of Canada’s Hydro-Quebec power grid, leaving 6 million inhabitants without power for 9 hours.

More recently, a Coronal Mass Ejection narrowly missed Earth at the time of London’s 2012 Olympic Games. Had it hit, it could have caused global disruption to electricity networks, along with radiation impacts affecting aviation and satellite systems.

The most severe space weather incident on record is the ‘Carrington event’ of 1859 where geomagnetic storms affected Earth over a six day period, long before electricity and other modern technologies were used extensively in factories and homes. Today modern technology is essential for industry, businesses, schools, hospitals and our domestic daily lives to function normally. However, we lack comprehensive knowledge of how modern technology would respond in a major space weather incident similar in size to the Carrington event. Edward Oughton, PhD, of the Infrastructure Transitions Research Consortium (ITRC), currently at the University of Oxford,  led the risk analysis research while at the Centre for Risk Studies at the University of Cambridge.

He said, “Previous research on the UK’s vulnerability to space weather and its impact in society and in the economy could not provide a solid quantification of the risks and costs involved. i. Our risk analysis produced a method to better assess the likelihood and the severity with which these events will impact us by focusing applying this in our  infrastructure assets, in particular on the interlinked networks of critical power stations.

Catherine Burnett of the Met Office Space Weather Forecasting Unit, adds, “This research assesses the UK’s risk in terms of different capability levels of space weather forecasting, which is especially important given existing monitoring satellites are nearing the end of their lives.”

Failure to prepare for these weather events could mean an impact on the UK’s economy of around £16bn, due to ripple effects on vital infrastructure, businesses and homes.

Edward Oughton adds, “The ‘do nothing’ scenario where the UK fails to invest or invests minimally in replacing satellite monitoring capabilities means existing forecasting skill levels will decline. This increases the risk of critical national infrastructure failure because there may be little early warning that an event is taking place. There would be less time for infrastructure operators to implement mitigation plans.

“If the Earth were to experience a Carrington-sized event without upgrading our current forecasting capability, it could cost the UK up to £16bn in the most severe scenario; investment in maintaining the existing level of monitoring could reduce that figure to £2.9bn, and enhanced investment could reduce the GDP impact to £0.9bn.”

Catherine Burnett from the Met Office explains, “New spacecraft equipped with Heliospheric Imagers and Solar Coronagraphs would give Earth better forewarning of disruptive or catastrophic events (6-7 day forewarning as opposed to 3-4 days) and a higher level of confidence in arrival times on Earth (around 4 hours as opposed to 6 hours).”

A multidisciplinary approach was taken, drawing on methods from space physics, geophysics, electrical engineering, economics and risk analysis including researchers from the University of Cambridge, University of Oxford, STFC Rutherford Appleton Laboratory, British Geological Survey, Met Office, British Antarctic Survey, University of Cape Town, and Airbus Defence and Space. The research was published in Risk Analysis.