Examination of Witnesses (Questions 155-207)
Chair: May I welcome you,
gentlemen, and thank you for attending this session? Perhaps before
we formally start you could introduce yourselves.
Chris Train: I
am Chris Train, National Grid. I am the Network Operations Director
for transmission in the UK, so my responsibility is for the day-to-day
operation of the gas and electricity transmission grids. National
Grid owns and operates the electricity transmission system in
England and Wales and operates the transmission system in Scotland
as being part of the Great Britain system operator. We also have
business in the north-east of the US as well.
I am Mike Hapgood. I work at what is now called RAL Space. It
is the space part of the Science and Technology Facilities Council
at the Rutherford Appleton Laboratory. I am Head of the Space
Environment Group there. I have a wide-ranging interest in all
aspects of space weather. My deepest interest is actually in extreme
events and the physics behind those events. Also, I have a long
involvement with the Royal Astronomical Society. I just stood
down as vice-president in May this year and, obviously, contributed
a lot to their evidence that came in.
Good morning. I am Paul Cannon. I am representing the Royal Academy
of Engineering. With my colleagues we have 25 years or so experience
of giving advice to MOD and ESA on mitigating space weather and
similar space environment effects. Those apply to spacecraft,
aviation and to radio systems.
Q155 Chair: Thank
you very much. Can we start off by asking you how is scientific
advice and evidence being used to assess the risk posed by space
weather events and how this is being used to develop contingency
Shall I kick off? Over the last few months, I and others, like
Paul, have been involved with talking to the Cabinet Office and
others about those risks. We have been putting together an expert
group to advise the Civil Contingencies Secretariat. At the moment
we are bringing that group together awaiting some kind of formal
blessing for it to be an official group, but at the same time
we are developing a list of what we might call "reasonable
worst case scenarios". Because space weather is rather complicated,
there is a whole set of, maybe, several dozen of these scenarios
of different features of the space environment.
Q156 Chair: Professor
Cannon, do you want to add to that?
I would just like to extend that to say, as I said in my introduction,
we have also been working very closely with the Ministry of Defence
in this topic area over many years. At this hearing here today
we are discussing these very large events, these major events,
but over many years the Ministry of Defence has recognised the
importance of the smaller scale events, day-to-day events, and
even the types of events that we have experienced during the space
era, shall we say, from 1960 through to today.
Chris Train: We
have had recent meetings with DECC and relevant agencies to discuss
the potential impacts of higher events than those that were experienced
in 1989. In 1989 we had impacts on our system, and since then
we have put in monitoring activities, measurement activities,
on the network in terms of developing the contingencies. A critical
part of that, I think, has been the early warning. There is additional
analysis to do on the potential for higher scale events, higher
impact events, on the system. We have kicked off a piece of work
to better understand what the potential of such an event would
be on the network.
Q157 Chair: That
leads very neatly to the next point I wanted to ask. What is
the actual risk? How likely is it that we will have a space weather
emergency, how severe could it be and is the Government's contingency
plan sufficiently robust?
I think the easiest way to say it is that it's a work in progress,
I am afraid. I can't give you a definite answer. We are trying
to clarify what these worst cases are in different areas. With
the Grid, we talk about it in terms of the rate of change of the
magnetic field at the Earth's surface. Going back to the 1989
event that Chris referred to, we had a certain level. We believe
the maximum risk is greater than that. In particular, there is
clear evidence from a big magnetic storm, as we call it, in 1921
of a level maybe five times greater than we had in 1989. So it
is that kind of thing. That is for the Grid risk, but
Q158 Chair: Just
on that, if we took the 1921 example where we have some data and
applied it today's infrastructure, are you saying we don't actually
know what the impact would be?
Chris Train: At
this stage we don't know what the impacts would be. All the work
and resilience work that we've been doing to date has been with
respect to the 1989 incident. So, following the heightened concerns
about the potential for a bigger event, we are undertaking work
to understand the impacts on our system. The impacts are very
specific to the network as they are at the time. For example,
the network is configured differently today than it was in 1989,
so some of the concerns and issues that we might have had then
are not the same in terms of the network as it is today.
It is also not necessarily relevant to correlate
what happens, for example, on the Canadian Grid, where they have
experienced problems, with the way that the Grid in the UK would
work. So you have to do the very specific analysis around the
potential impacts on the transmission system here.
I would like to concur with my two colleagues here. It is a work
in progress and it is a particularly difficult work in progress.
If I may, I will give you an example. GPS satellite navigation
is pretty ubiquitous. It is not clear what would happen to the
GPS system if we had a major storm, but it is particularly not
clear what the impact would be in respect of the various systems
that we have in this country. In fact, it would be very hard to
ever be able to work out in detail what the impact would be.
Q159 Roger Williams:
I have a few questions, really, to tease out the state of national
co-ordination as far as these aspects are concerned. The Royal
Astronomical Society has commented relatively unfavourably on
the state of co-ordination in the UK compared with that in America
and some of our European partners. How co-ordinated is the Government's
approach to space weather activities?
I am almost tempted, I am afraid, to say it is work in progress
again. Since the evidence has been submitted, we have actually
made some very interesting progress. There were the meetings here
in Parliament in September over in Westminster Hall, and there
was a workshop organised by the Cabinet Office the next day where
a number of experts, myself, people from the British Geological
Survey and a lot of people from industry as well as Government
came. That was a really useful meeting getting people together.
Within the expert community we had some discussions a few weeks
ago and we were talking with the Cabinet Office last week. We
are trying to set up an expert group that I would chair to actually
bring things together and really try and focus in on what the
science evidence is about the environment. Then we can feed that
to the Cabinet Office, which can then feed it down intoI
think the idea isits sector resilience plans. So we are
Q160 Roger Williams: Do
you think we need a new lead body to ensure that the co-ordination
is working as well as it should, and should the UK Space Agency
be that body?
The experience in the US, which I would suggest to mirror, is
more to have a co-ordination body. A number of groups are involved
in the US; you have NASA, which everybody knows, but there is
also NOAA, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.
They have a very key role. There is also the National Science
Foundation, the military and various organisations across the
US Government. We need to bring those resources together at the
moment. Trying to build a new structure would just divert focus.
Q161 Roger Williams:
You mentioned the model in the USA. Is that something we should
try to emulate?
I think we need to customise it to what are our needs and capabilities.
The idea of pulling together is, in a sense, what we've been doing
behind the scenes in recent weeks, just trying to identify groups
and bring them together. For instance, we have the Met Office
involved in this group.
Q162 Roger Williams:
You mentioned a number of bodies and agencies that are involved.
Some of those are military and some of those are civil. For instance,
some of the knowledge or information that the military might have
may be classified, for instance, or restricted in some way. Do
other bodies and agencies have enough access to that to make it
a sensible response to any event that could take place?
I will take that, if I may. In the USA, which is a good example,
there is interest in space weather. There is a need for space
weather information both in the civilian domain and in the military
domain. They operate separately but together. They operate as
distinct organisations. Some of the information does not transition
from one to the other and some of it does. Certainly, the civilian
measurement instrumentation contributes into the military but,
of course, some of the more applications-driven work doesn't transition
back again. There is always a tension there. That's certainly
Q163 Roger Williams: Mr
Train, would you like to comment on that?
Chris Train: From
our perspective, it is about understanding the science and, therefore,
the probability, the likelihood and the scale. Then we can look
at the specific risks with regard to the energy supply industry
and at the appropriate mitigating measures. Then we have co-ordination
across the energy industry through the Energy Emergency Executive
Committee, which I chair, which means that we then get industry
co-ordination on the resilience plans and the actions to help
to manage any emergency situation.
Can I just pick up on something that Mike said about co-ordination?
One of the issues of space weather and understanding its impact
is that, although we can sum it up in a couple of words and they
are a useful couple of words in terms of the public, there are
very many different aspects to it. I would not want to comment
on the impact of space weather on the Grid because I just don't
know enough about it. Then we have the impact of space weather
on spacecraft, aviation, radio systems, etcetera. No one person
can actually have all of that knowledge.
Q164 Chair: We
are in the realms of a lot of unknowns. Let me just quote from
the Lloyd's Report just published yesterday. In the foreword,
Tom Bolt, the Performance Management Director of Lloyd's, says:
"Nor is space weather a problem that we can consign to the
future, it is something we need to consider now. Scientists predict
a spike in strong space weather between 2012-2015. In terms of
cycles, we are in late autumn and heading into winter."
Is this an insurance company exaggeration to persuade us to part
with larger premiums or is it something that scientifically is
a serious proposition?
I think this is a serious proposition but you have to distinguish
two things. There is the big event, which is really the aim, I
think, of this inquiry, and, as Paul was saying, there are the
more everyday effects. A lot of that report is focused on the
everyday effects. Those everyday effects will become much more
important over the next few years. In terms of response to business,
that is really quite important.
The big event is also more possible. Over the next
few years there is an increased risk of that. We would certainly
expect a greater risk between now and 2015 than in, say, the subsequent
five years and then the risk comes back. It is this question:
when's the big event going to occur and how big an event do we
Don't forget that we were heading towards the same climatology
in space weather 11 years ago. This is an 11-year cycle. We are
coming through to 2012 to 2013 and a peak at the Sun spot cycle,
but there was another one of these 11 years or so ago.
Q165 Stephen Metcalfe:
Could I quickly interject? You said that this is all work in progress,
but there is an inevitability about suggesting that there will
be a major event at some point in the future. I am not sure I
picked it up earlier. Why is it that we are coming at this so
late? We've known about solar weather for 150-something years,
but now it only seems to be on the National Risk Register. What's
happened? You also, I believe, just said that everyday events
are going to become more important in the next few years. Could
you also expand on that for me?
I am sorry, but I have forgotten the first part of the question.
Q166 Stephen Metcalfe:
Why are we coming to it so late or appear to be coming to it so
I think it is more appearance. We have been talking about this
for a long time. I have been involved in these activities for
15 years or so. We had a lot of discussion around the previous
solar maximum, as we call it, 11 years ago. But then interest
decays away. One of the big features about this is how it interacts
with people's psychology. Because the cycle is so long, unless
you are an expert and very deeply involved in it, most organisations
tend to forget it during the quiet years of the solar minimum.
We have had a particularly longit is one of the scientifically
interesting thingsdeeper and longer solar minimum than
we have had for the previous hundred years. Now solar activity
is rising again. We can see it coming over the horizon. It is
helping to focus things. It is also the way the science and our
understanding of the engineering impacts has grown hugely in the
last decade. I think it is just a critical mass. We've reached
that critical mass now.
I would just like to add to thatI don't disagree with any
of thatin respect of the change in technology that we have
experienced over the last 10, 20 years. One of the impacts of
a major solar space weather event would be single event upsets
in electronics. Electronic fabrication sizes have reduced, reduced
and reduced and the currents that you need to actually flip a
bit within the technology have reduced, reduced and reduced. As
we become technologically more adept at providing clever gizmos
and the like, then our resilience to the major space weather events
Q167 David Morris:
Thank you for that. If or should the big event happen, are our
international agencies, in co-ordination with ourselves, able
to cope with it? Are you happy with the ESA being involved in
NASA? Is there an international strategy that will come forward
should something happen?
There are two threads to what's happening internationally. One
is what we call Space Situational Awareness. It is a phrase that's
been developed to emphasise that we need to know what's going
on in space because we have so much infrastructure up there, so
many commercial and operational services that use space. It's
about debris but it's also very much about space weather. So the
US has been building a Space Situational Awareness programme for
some years. In Europe it started under ESA at the beginning of
last year. That is now proceeding. At the moment it is at the
preparatory phase, seeing what can be done and trying to federate
European assets to everybody's benefit. The UK is a member of
that, but because of the way that the BNSC used to operate it
couldn't actually get very much money so we are in at a minimum
level because this is a generic space risk. The old system was
not so good at handling generic issues across space. It was very
good at specialist things like science, meteorology, etcetera.
On the European level we have that.
The other thread is that the World Meteorological
Organization is now getting involved. I am sure the Met Office
will tell you more about that. We are trying to develop co-ordination
through WMO, particularly in terms of identifying better what
measurements need to be made around the world to know what is
going on and how is that data exchanged. We have arrangements
that date back to 1957 coming out of the science community because
of the big programmes that developed in that era. They really
now need to be modernised. That is being looked at, I guess is
the right phrase. Again, I am afraid it is work in progress.
The first point to make, of course, is that we share the ionosphere,
we share space, so we really do need to work with our international
I would also like to make the point that the Space
Situational Awareness programmes, the European one, is an ideal
opportunity to leverage an international programme into a UK programme
and vice versa. If we don't have a UK programme, then our ability
to participate in the European programme will obviously be reduced.
There is a good opportunity here for the UK. I think it is worth
also saying that the UK has a long history in terms of the science
in this area. It has a long history in terms of the applications
of science in this area. So we are very well qualified as a country
to move forward to the benefit of UK Plc.
Q168 David Morris:
Do you think that, currently, at this moment in time, the Met
Office is doing a good job at predicting space weather?
The Met Office isn't really involved in predicting space weather.
The Met Office has an embryonic programme in this area. I would
say that the expertise for space weather in this country at the
moment resides, primarily, in the Rutherford Appleton Laboratory,
in BGS, the British Antarctic Survey and in industry, specifically
QinetiQ. The university sector is also very good in this area.
So we have got good back-up. I don't know whether Mike would like
to say anything else in case I've missed out any groups.
We've done a survey of the assets. There are something like 30
groups in the UK that are active in the area, including, as Paul
says, the Met Officeit is very active, and it is trying
to develop its programme. Again, it goes back to this point about
co-ordination. We have a lot of people involved, we talk to each
other and now we just need to find ways of co-ordinating ourselves
better. Some of that is a bottom-up push from the expert community,
but now we are also getting some pull from Government helping
us with that, and that is a great thing.
Q169 Gregg McClymont:
Can I pick up on something that Professor Cannon said earlier
on, which wasI took it downthat you thought it would
be very difficult to ever work out the impact of what one of these
events would be. I want to broaden that out and ask, do you think
this risk can ever be quantified?
Not wishing to make a joke of this, you could envisage a perfect
storm, but a malignant perfect storm. Lots of the effects, actually,
are relatively small, but if they all come together, you have
a problem. I think that's the point I was trying to make. It's
the integration of effects in one domain of society adding to
another domain adding to another domain and then causing us problems.
I do think it would be very difficult to completely understand
what the effects will be of one of these storms, but there are
common-sense strategies and quite technologically difficult strategies
perhaps to mitigate the effects, and there are things that can
Q170 Gregg McClymont:
How do we quantify the risk? One of the critical things is just
building up the evidence base. There are two main aspects to that.
We do have a lot of historical records of space weather events
going back into the middle of the 19th century. The scientific
community talks a lot about the 1859 event. A lot of mining of
old records has been done and from some of that we have some quantitative
data. However, a lot of it is more anecdotal but it sets a picture.
There are a whole range of, maybe, 30 other events since 1859
that are only partially exploited. I think I've mentioned before
the 1921 event. Our American colleagues have done some interesting
digging into that, either of records from 1921 or records written
later by people who experienced the event, particularly where
a telephone exchange in Sweden was burnt down to the ground because
of the currents induced by space weather in it. That's the historical
The other thingI may be biased a bitis
doing the physics better. We understand the physics of how space
weather works only roughly. It is to develop that, and particularly
to understand how we scale that up to the big events. Is the physics
that we see every day happening in space? You have to remember
that space isn't empty. We have this very tenuous wind that blows
from the Sun to the Earth and that is what brings energy from
the Sun to the Earth in the form of what we call coronal mass
ejections. That's what could cause the perfect storm, as Paul
put it. So how do we understand that?
Q171 Gregg McClymont:
Is it possible, having listened to what you were saying, that
this is as much about, and absolutely justified in this sense,
providing a rationale for space science research as for actually
the potential risk? We know that academics across the land have
to provide some sort of pragmatic and benefit-based calculus now.
I know what you mean, but I think that it is the other way round.
Certainly for me personally, and particularly over the last few
years, the more I learn about the science, the more worried I
get. The two big space weather events of my career were in 1989
and 2003. I had great fun because I could talk about it, and I
could see the aurora and watch what was happening on various things.
I think with the next one I will be much more worried because
I know more. That knowledge is a worrying thing.
Q172 Gregg McClymont:
Just looking at it as a layman, in 1989 it seemed relatively serious
but not Earth-shattering.
Q173 Gregg McClymont:
So I presume that the rationale for seeing this as a serious risk
is the shift in technologies? A power outage in Québec
for a small amount of time, although difficult for Québec,
doesn't strike me as
I was saying about learning more. As an example, there were also
a lot of problems in South Africa in the 2003 events, and that
was subtly different in that it was not the big blackout. We realised
that it could happen in somewhere like South Africa, which is
far from the northern or far southern regions where you have aurora,
which is where we thought this would happen. The other thing about
that was the impact of delayed effects. You had an accumulation
of slow bits of damage in transformers and then, suddenly, in
a few months they lost about a third or a quarter of the South
African Grid and it had serious problems. I think 15 transformers
died in a very short period of time. That caused them big problems.
Like in 1989, that was another big wake-up call. There was another
subtly different risk that we have to think about.
Q174 Gregg McClymont:
Can I ask just one final question. A lot of this has been driven
from America. Would that be a fair way to put it?
Yes and no. The Americans had a big interest in that particularly
because they have their military interest as well as their civilian
interest. I think they are in the lead, but there is huge interest
across Europe. As I have already said, we have a lot of capability
in the UK, but we have our annual European meeting next week in
Bruges in Belgium where about 300 people, some from the US, and
a lot across Europe, will be talking about this. So there is a
big interest, a big drive in Europe.
As to other countries, China started to worry about
that because they are building their Grid, as everybody knows,
and they are seeing problems. I think the Australians also have
a very big interest in this area because they have a big country.
They use all kinds of radar and radio communications, so they
very much worry about the ionospheric area that Paul is expert
Q175 Stephen Mosley:
When we have had incidents in the pastthere have been problems
in Sweden, Canada and South Africawhen we get a space weather
incident, does it affect the whole planet equally or is it geographically
isolated in certain areas? Are there areas more at risk or is
it a case that it is the technology that is being used in certain
areas that has caused a problem?
If we are just considering day-to-day events, then the high latitude
regions, shall we say your Norways and Swedens in Europe, and
your equatorial latitudes, plus or minus 20 degrees of the Equator,
shall we say, are more at risk than the mid latitudes. We are
learning how to mitigate those effects. One of your colleagues
asked what models we have, and the answer is that we have models
to mitigate those effects to some extent.
The big issue is that, if we end up having one of
these really large extreme events, then all bets are off almost.
The high latitude becomes the middle latitude and the equatorial
latitude becomes the middle latitude, and we've got widespread
effects. That's the worry.
Q176 Graham Stringer:
Let's explore that, possibly with Mr Train first. The event in
1921 was five times greater than the one in 1989. How big was
the Carrington event in 1859 compared with what we have had this
We have a problem in that the instruments that existed then actually
went off scale.
Q177 Graham Stringer:
Right. So it was very big?
It was very big.
Q178 Graham Stringer:
What happens to the National Grid if we get something twice as
big as the Carrington event?
Chris Train: That's
the piece of work in progress, I think. In 1989 we had the event
that had an impact on our network. We had two transformers that
had problems. They weren't problems at the
Q179 Graham Stringer:
Was that in East Anglia?
Chris Train: East
Anglia and down in the south-west also.
Q180 Graham Stringer:
I am sorry. I don't want to keep interrupting. That slightly
conflicts with what we were just being told about it being worse
Chris Train: It's
a general statement, isn't it, because part of it is depending
upon the specific orientations of the Earth at the time with respect
to the Sun about where the strength will be? From a Grid perspective,
the induced currents, generally, would be an issue at the extremities
of the network as the currents come ashore. Since 1989 we have
better measurement on the system so we have been able to more
generally get better data looking at the performance of the network
on a more general basis. We are connected with international organisations
that have a better understanding about effects on the different
power grids through the other incidents.
In terms of looking at the specifics of an event
of an order of magnitude bigger than the 1989 event, which was
the highest event for us, that's the piece of modelling work that
Q181 Graham Stringer:
But that doesn't sound very reassuring. Will the National Grid
be there if there is an event of the size of the Carrington event
or bigger? Will we have electricity afterwards?
Chris Train: Will
we have electricity afterwards? Yes, we will. What will be the
impact of that event? There are a number of different things that
have occurred since. One of the problems in 1989 and the evidence
across other parts of the world is that particular configurations
of transformers have more issues. So newer transformers have a
bigger resilience to direct current induced. The size and length
of timing of the induced current is a critical element. The issue
that causes the damage on the transmission system is a heating
of the core by the induced currents on the transformer. These
events are quite erratic. Therefore, the longer it is, the greater
a heating problem will be in the core. If they are very short
bursts, then it is likely not to cause any damage. One of the
things is that we need to better understand the potential impacts
and the science. We have more data but we need to do the analysis.
Q182 Graham Stringer:
But, actually, if we are whacked by something bigger than Carringtonthe
physics of induction is relatively simply, isn't it? What is happening
on the Sun may be very complicated and not understood. Induced
current is something you learn at GCSE level. It will heat up
the transformers and they will break, won't they? They will melt
and we won't have electricity. I am not reassured, really, by
what you say. If it's a short burst, we're okay. If it's a long
burst, we don't have electricity.
Chris Train: You
get a degradation at the core. It is not necessarily a catastrophic
Q183 Graham Stringer:
But it was in Québec, and there were problems in East Anglia
with much smaller events?
Chris Train: It
was actually a different incident in Québec. They didn't
have a catastrophic failure in Québec of a transformer.
What they had was an unstable system that led to system tripping,
which led to the collapse of their Grid. In that sense, it is
looking at the different forms of impact on the network.
Q184 Graham Stringer:
How much warning do you get of these events?
Chris Train: Obviously,
we monitor on a daily basis the occurrence and the data of knowing
when one has occurred. It is between one and three days.
Q185 Graham Stringer:
I was thinking about the future rather than the past.
One thing that often isn't said is when we have a very big event,
we actually get at least some sense of it coming a week or so
in advance because we will see a very large area of activity on
the surface of the Sun, a very big Sun spot group. We have Sun
spot drawings, photographs or whatever for all of these events
back to 1859. So it is about the one certainty we have. We will
see something appear on the edge of the Sun and then rotate into
view. So we have that week when we can have a sense that something
is coming. What we can't predict is the size of the effect it
will give us, partly because will a CME, as we call it, a coronal
mass ejection, actually hit the Earth, or will we be lucky and
it will miss us? An event like that happened in November 2003.
Also, a very important thing is the orientation of the magnetic
field in that coronal mass ejection. If it points southward, we've
got a problem. If it's northward, we are probably okay. That is
really still very hard to predict.
Q186 Graham Stringer:
You say you've got contingencies. Can you be more specific about
what the contingencies are if you think there is a huge solar
storm coming this way? What do you do?
Chris Train: In
terms of the operation of the Grid system we would configure the
system to its most resilient form and so increase the level of
flexibility. If we had outages on the network, we would bring
those back in wherever possible to increase that flexibility.
We would carry more standing reserve on the system, which would
help in a Québec-type scenario, to help to ensure the stability
of the Grid. We might even consider switching out certain transformers
if felt to be particularly vulnerable.
Q187 Graham Stringer:
Just going back to something Professor Cannon said earlier and
what you have told us about the warning system, Professor Cannon
said that the British Antarctic Survey and other bodies were looking
at this. In the written evidence, the British Antarctic Survey
says: "The UK does not have a system of warnings or alerts
in place. It is totally reliant on warnings provided by other
countries such as the Space Weather Prediction Service provided
by the NOAA in the USA which is not tailored to UK needs."
That seems to be conflicting with the verbal evidence you are
giving us this morning. Would you like to comment on it?
I think, at this time, the Americans are very happy to collaborate.
There is a long tradition of collaboration and I got a very clear
message talking to Americans that that had actually increased,
probably about the time Obama was elected, to be honest. I remember
somebody coming to talk to me: the message is co-operation.
Q188 Graham Stringer:
What the British Antarctic Survey seem to be sayingI don't
know quite what this means; hopefully you dois that the
US systems aren't tailored to UK needs. What do you think it means
If I may. A possible example would be that the US systems are
for aircraft communications warnings and are tailored to flying
over the contiguous US rather than flying over European airspace.
So that would be one possibility or one reason for that statement.
Just coming back to your original point about whether
we have a national system for alerts and the like, the answer
is simply no. We have expertise in different areas in this country.
The Met Office was mentioned earlier on, and it is doing a good
job here in exploring the possibility of a national approach to
this, but it could be that this isn't taken under the auspices
of the Met Office. Perhaps it should be under the UK Space Agency,
which was also mentioned earlier on.
As we mentioned before, the European Space Agency has its Space
Situational Awareness programme, which would very much be looking
at things tailored to Europe. Many of the issuesnot all
of themare tailored for Europe, such as those relating
to aviation, because the so-called augmentation systems that help
aircraft use GPS are focused on a European solution. For things
like the Grid, I think we need a national solution because we
have a unique configuration because we are on this island surrounded
by seawater. That has a profound influence on how our Grid responds
to space weather.
Q189 Graham Stringer:
Just a final question. If things go wrong and you get induced
currents and several transformers go out within the National Grid
system, how many spares have you got?
Chris Train: We,
obviously, do carry spare transformers on the network. We have
about 885 transformers and we carry 17 spares for that amount,
but in this kind of situation you are looking at what are the
most vulnerable. We are talking about a network. So we would be
looking at how we could configure the network if there was a problem.
We would also be replacing where we had a problem, so there is
more flexibility than just the 17 spare transformers.
Q190 Graham Stringer:
So it would be simplistic if more than 17 went out?
Chris Train: Not
necessarily, because, for example, under certain circumstances
we will move grid transformers from one part of the network where
you have got other options for providing the power at that part
of the network to another part of the network where you need it
to have more resilience. So it is not as simple as you carry just
17 and if the 17 have gone, then you've got a power outage. We
would manage the Grid and the flexibility of the Grid with respect
to the needs on it. The resilience is higher than that number
Q191 Gavin Barwell:
Can I start with Professor Cannon? You talked earlier about this
concept of a perfect storm, a malign combination of effects, essentially.
Graham has dealt with the issue of the Grid, but, looking at a
severe space weather event, what impact could that have on satellites
and as a result GPS and telecommunications?
It is a complicated answer and it will be caveated. The first
issue would be concern about the integrity of the spacecraft themselves.
Our estimate is that of the order of 10% of the satellites would
be affected during a Carrington-style event. I have to tell you
that that is somewhat less than in the literature, but this 10%
is based upon analyses of spacecraft we have undertaken over many
years. So 10% of the satellites would be affected.
This is a guess. This is an informed guess at this
pointan informed estimate. Of those, some we would probably
be able to bring back on line again. What happens is that you
get single event upsets, charging effects on the satellite, and
a consequence of that is that the satellite goes into crazy operational
states. Sometimes they can be brought back on line. But, remember,
if a lot of satellites are all in trouble at the same time, and
this is the perfect storm problem, then one satellite is hard
enough to bring back on line, but when there are a lot of satellites
that you are trying to bring back on line it's hard work. So that
is satellites in general.
GPS has been mentioned. As we mentioned earlier
on, GPS is really integral to the country's infrastructure. We
really don't know how resilient GPS is. The thing to remember
is that GPS was designed as a military system by the Americans.
We all use it now but it was designed as a military system. Consequently,
GPS is much more likely to survive than the average satellite.
Then, of course, we get to the problem of what happens
to the radio signals as they propagate from these satellites down
to the ground, etcetera. Here again, we have to caveat everything.
I have to caveat my response. I should say that the higher the
frequency that the signals are transmitted, the less effect you
have from the ionosphere through which the signals are propagating;
the lower, the more effect. Most telecommunication satellites
operate at frequencies sufficiently high that the effects will
probably be quite low. If we go to GPS, the signals really will
be affected and there will be various effects, which we can come
back to, if you wish. Depending on the level of accuracy that
you require will determine how long the problems will persist
for. So if you have a very accurate system, the problems may persist
for longer. If you've got a system that doesn't require much accuracy,
the problems will persist for a shorter time. We may be talking
hours, days or possibly a week, but these are estimates. These
are gross estimates: work in progress, as has been said several
Then for normal ground telecommunications infrastructure,
Radio 4, etcetera, the effects will be minimal providing the power
Q192 Gavin Barwell:
Do you want to add to that?
I think that was pretty comprehensive.
Q193 Gavin Barwell:
Okay. Can I come back on one point of detailthe 10% figure?
Is that to do with the distribution of the satellites around the
Earth and those that are caught and those that aren't, or is it
to do with different technologies, different ages of satellites,
so some are more vulnerable than others?
Yes. It is a variety of things. It depends on which orbit they
are in. It also depends on how old the satellites are. Certainly
in terms of ageI didn't mention the solar arraysbut
the power from the solar arrays will be impacted. The solar arrays
are aged in this process. There is a luck aspect to all of this.
All satellites are designed to fly probabilistically for a certain
length of time. They will, sometimes, go down. It's luck or lack
Paul has been saying about the business of recovering satellites,
and I think there is a big issue to stress there. Satellites are
designed to cope with these conditions. We have 40 years' experience.
The key issue here is the operations teams, the engineers in the
control rooms. It's making sure they have the information. They
are really skilled people. They are often dealing with incidents
several times a week on a spacecraft of one level or another.
During a storm those incidents would be much more enhanced. So
it is actually making sure that the engineers have the resources.
As one of them once said to me, they design a spacecraft to survive
these events but they want to know when an event is happening
so that if a spacecraft misbehaves they do the right thing rather
than the wrong thing. That control issue is very important here.
Q194 Gavin Barwell:
This comes back to some of the earlier questions about the degree
to which the UK is dependent on other countries for getting that
Yes. I think a lot at the moment is through the US and Boulder,
although I should emphasise that the US has this centre but they
also collect a lot of data from around the world, including instruments
that Paul and I run. In fact, the head of the centre is coming
to talk to us at the end of the month, I should perhaps add.
Can I just emphasise something which I consider to be really important
in terms of GPS? Everybody worries about GPS and it is right to
worry. In fact, it shouldn't just be GPS, we are talking about
GNSS systems hereglobal navigation satellite systemsso
Galileo falls into that group. GPS GNSS systems are used for timing
as much as for navigation. We think we use it a lot for navigation
because we've got our sat navs in our cars, but timing is really
important for telecoms and various other applications. The absence
of a GPS system, superficially, sounds as if this is a disaster,
but I suspect it is not. The reason I suspect it is not is because
a properly designed system will have what is known as a disciplined
clock within it. That is, basically, an atomic clock that also
has inputs from GPS. GPS gives it long-term stability. It is that
disciplined atomic clock which will be able to run for hours,
days, possibly even weeks and maintain good timing
Q195 Gavin Barwell:
So there is a contingency system there, essentially?
There should be a contingency. I think the question is, is that
contingency in there? Technology would allow us to ride over many
of these problems. My question is, has that been allowed for in
our critical infrastructures?
Q196 Gavin Barwell:
That brings me, quite nicely, on to my last question, which is
to what extent has an assessment been done of whether these contingencies
are in place? You have just said there should be contingencies.
Do we know, for the critical bits of our infrastructure, whether
there actually are contingency systems? Has that assessment been
The first thing to say is that the Government, the Cabinet Office,
have got to grips with this pretty quickly. We have been looking
at this over the last few weeks to months. The answer is that
it is a work in progress. We keep on saying this. We really don't
know. It's an important piece of work in progress but it's a relatively
new identification of a problem. We can't just guess.
My understanding is that within the Civil Contingencies Secretariat
what you say will be taken forward in the coming months.
Chris Train: May
I just also add from an energy industry perspective that we operate
well-practised procedures around contingencies? Business continuity
plans are co-ordinated across the piece. So we are well rehearsed
in terms of managing any potential impact.
Q197 Gavin Barwell:
You have just touched on my final question. I think we have got
the work in progress picture of all of this, but what is the timescale
for that work? You are saying that we are just coming to a high
risk period. How quickly are these sort of assessments planned
to be done? What is the future timescale?
I suspect that you should probably direct that more towards the
Cabinet Office. My understanding, certainly, of the inputs we
are giving is that we have this month, November, to support the
National Risk Assessment by defining what the environment is.
Then that will be taken forward as part of the work for the 2011
National Risk Assessment.
That will probably be quick and dirty.
Q198 Pamela Nash:
I would like to move on to the possible effects of space weather
on aviation now. What research do you know of that is taking place
to look at the effects on commercial aircraft?
There is a variety of things. One of the most important things
is the fact that aviation over the polar regions is most affected
by space weather. One of my colleagues who couldn't be here today,
Bryn Jones, has been involved in what is called the Cross-Polar
Working Group, which has a sub-group on space weather. This is
set up under the auspices of all the air traffic control authorities
for the Arctic region, so Russia, the United States, Canada, Iceland,
Norway and probably somebody else that I have forgotten. They
have specifically had a working group looking at these effects
and trying to develop recommendations. I believe they are very
close now to having the stamp of approval and we might be able
to see them. They are looking at what are the effects of space
weather on radiation in terms of communications.
The radiation storms that we have talked about will
cause radio blackouts of what we call high frequency radio over
the polar regions. When those happen, aircraft are not allowed
to fly within 8 degrees of the Pole if they don't have any communications
to the control centre. You can't use ordinary satellite communications
in that region. You can't see the spacecraft because it would
be below the horizon.
People also worry about the effects of radiation
on aircrew, but I think that communications is the really big
issue. If you can't fly over the Pole, you have got to take a
longer route, you burn more fuel, you spend more time in the air
and you may have to carry fewer passengers and less cargo. So
the airlines involved lose out both waysthey get less income
and they spend more money. That is all being worked through. Basically,
what is going to come out is a series of recommendations on how
this is handled and this will, eventually, feed through the Americans
into the International Civil Aviation Authority.
I think it is worth saying that aircrew are some of the most highly
radiated workers in the world. If you sit up at 30,000 to 40,000
feet for a lot of the time you have a continuous background of
radiation hitting you.
The annual limit for radiation is 1 mSv. Colleagues
of mine at QinetiQ have calculated that, if you had been unlucky
and flown from London to Los Angeles at the time of the time of
the Carrington event, you would have actually received 10 mSv
of radiation. So it is really quite a significant overdose. But,
again, before we get headlines of, "This is a disaster",
if you actually know that this radiation event is taking place,
then what you have to do is reduce the height of the aircraft.
Just coming down 10,000 feet will make an enormous difference
in terms of radiation.
So we get back to the fact that it is good to have
mitigation strategiesit is good to know that you know this
is going to happenand have good engineering strategies.
For instance, a good engineering strategyengineering strategies
are good in all of this, if you can come up with themis
that you have a detector on board the aircraft. The detector detects
these particles and it alerts the aircrew. The aircrew have a
concept of operations that allows them to then decrease their
Q199 Graham Stringer:
Are you saying that all aircraft do have these facilities?
No, they don't.
Q200 Graham Stringer:
Or they should?
They don't. There are groups of scientists and there are certainly
groups of airline staff who would like to have those sorts of
Q201 Chair: But
this has not come specifically out of concerns about space weather
events. It's about general background radiation?
There is the issue of the background radiation and integrating
up the dosage on the aircrew. But, also, if you had this type
of detector, it would be able to mitigate the effects of one of
these extreme events. I should point out that Concorde had one
of these detectors on board because it was actually flying much
higher than normal subsonic passenger airlines of today.
Q202 Pamela Nash:
You have spoken about the radiation detection. Is there anything
else any of you feel that the commercial aviation industry could
do to prepare for an event from the information they have at the
moment prior to those new recommendations?
I think a lot has already been done. If you are flying over the
North Atlantic one of the big issues, again, is space weather
impact on communications. We haven't had much of this over the
last few years because of the solar minimum. When we have a big
solar flare on the Sun you will get one or two hours' blackout
of radio communications. The international procedures for planes
running over the Atlantic do already have provisions for that
kind of thing and if the pilots use their main communication system
there are procedures on how they then cascade back down to use
other systems like satellite communications, which you can if
you are flying at 50 degrees north, or even just talk from aircraft
If that event occurs, then the aviation control authorities
will try and spread the aircraft out more to improve safety margins.
All these contingencies are there, but if you spread the aircraft
out you are simply going to have less volume of traffic going
across the Atlantic, so there will be an impact there in terms
of slowing down transatlantic aviation. The procedures are there
for safety and that's the consequence.
One subtle issue that people are working on now is
making sure that staff today are aware. Some people still in the
system remember these events from 10 years ago. As I said earlier,
because we have this 11-year cycle of solar activity, in a lot
of organisations experience from one solar maximum may not be
properly passed on to the generation looking after the next solar
maximum. I think it is incumbent on experts like us to keep banging
on a bit just to make sure that awareness is there and organisations
pick up on this.
Q203 Pamela Nash:
Finally, just to go back to something you said earlier, will it
sometimes be possible to have about a week's advance notice of
a space weather incident?
For a really big event, we will have a feeling that it is possible.
It is like seeing a storm developing in the Atlantic on a satellite
image and trying to predict if it is going to cause problems for
Q204 Pamela Nash:
I just wanted to ask if you think it would be likely that we would
have enough warning to ground flights if there was an emergency
and a big situation?
No, because the particles from the Sun, which cause problems on
Earth to avionics and aircrew, as distinct from the communications,
travel either at the speed of light or are certainly relativistic,
that is they get here fast so we have got almost no warning at
all. That is why I would subscribe to technological solutions
to dealing with space weather in that context rather than a prediction
and forecasting approach.
Q205 Pamela Nash:
Thank you. Do you have anything to add?
I largely agree with Paul but I think we need both, and I am sure
I can push him to agree to that.
I am sure you can.
The engineering must be your first line of defence. Build something
that will withstand it, if you can do that at a cost that makes
sense, but the second line is to maintain awareness. So if something
does go wrong, at least you have got some idea.
If I can go back briefly to the Québec failure
of 21 years ago, one of the reasons that really stands out about
it is that the guys in the control centre did not know what was
going on. They weren't aware of the risk. So they were sitting
there, everything was running normally and it started to go wrong.
In 92 seconds the whole grid collapsed on them. They just didn't
know what had hit them. So that's why I think awareness is so
valuableto at least have some understanding of what you
Chris Train: I
would concur with that. If you knew there was an event happening,
you would understand that the alarms that you were then getting
on the network were caused by that effect. Therefore, the control
actions you took on the Grid would be different from those taken
if you were not aware.
Pamela Nash: Good. Thank
you very much.
Q206 Stephen Mosley:
We have talked about the effects on national infrastructure.
I believe, Professor Cannon, that you said that with modern microelectronics,
as they get smaller, the voltages decrease and the effect of the
induction effect becomes proportionately greater on that or the
risk to that piece of equipment becomes greater. How will that
affect modern consumer goods, PCs and industrial equipment that
have got microchips in?
It is not my area but I will speak to it briefly. The chip manufacturers
are very well aware of these problems. If we are dealing with
electronics for avionics flying at altitude, they are more likely
to be affected by space weather impact, high energy particles,
than ground level equipment. So the chip manufacturers will build
hardened electronic chips to operate in aircraft; so that helps.
They may actually have triple redundancy voting in the aircraft,
so there will be a voting system in case one of the chips is actually
impacted by the high energy particles.
At ground level the chip manufacturers are also aware
of the possibility of this: "We really just don't want our
PCs to fail." As a consequence, they actually test their
new chip designs to make sure that they will operate for a period
of time, which is rather long, I am sure, without any impact from
Mike might be able to say something because there
is a facility at the Rutherford Appleton Laboratory for actually
testing these chips on board.
At the ISIS facility at the Rutherford Appleton Laboratory, which
is the neutron source, a facility is being developed there called
CHIPIR, which is chip irradiation. The idea is that people will
be able to take chips alongI am not directly involved but
I just know about itand irradiate them. They will have
a higher dose than you would have in normality, so the idea is
that you will see the problems quicker. You will be able to scale
things up to the real operational environment. The whole idea
is to have a facility where you can actually bombard chips with
neutrons, which is what you get on the ground or in aircraft during
radiation. You aren't hit directly by the particles that come
from space; the particles from space hit the atmosphere and produce
great showers of neutrons, and that's what gets into chips in
avionics and also in the systems on the ground.
I don't know if I am allowed to say this, but I will:
there is also a briefing on these issues being organised next
month, a kind of classified briefing, for UK industry. I think
that is DSTL and QinetiQ.
Yes. It is hosted by QinetiQ at Farnborough.
Q207 Chair: That
was extremely useful. Can I thank you, gentlemen, for your contributions.
If, when you reflect on the written transcript, there are other
things you feel ought to be added, please feel free to write to
us. We realise we are in an area of a lot of uncertainties, but
to enable us to make sensible judgments when we write our report
we do need as much help as possible from the experts like yourselves.
Thank you again for your attendance.