Scientific advice and evidence in emergencies - Science and Technology Committee Contents


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.

Professor Hapgood: 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.

Professor Cannon: 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 plans?

Professor Hapgood: 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?

Professor Cannon: 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?

Professor Hapgood: 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.

Professor Cannon: 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?

Professor Hapgood: 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 into—I think the idea is—its sector resilience plans. So we are getting there.

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?

Professor Hapgood: 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?

Professor Hapgood: 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?

Professor Cannon: 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 true.

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.

Professor Cannon: 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?

Professor Hapgood: 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 prepare for?

Professor Cannon: 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?

Professor Hapgood: 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 late?

Professor Hapgood: 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 long—it is one of the scientifically interesting things—deeper 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.

Professor Cannon: I would just like to add to that—I don't disagree with any of that—in 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 reduces.

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?

Professor Hapgood: 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.

Professor Cannon: 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 colleagues.

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?

Professor Cannon: 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.

Professor Hapgood: 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 Office—it 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 was—I took it down—that 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?

Professor Cannon: 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 be done.

Q170 Gregg McClymont: Professor Hapgood?

Professor Hapgood: 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 base.

  The other thing—I may be biased a bit—is 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.

Professor Hapgood: 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.

Professor Hapgood: Yes.

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—

Professor Hapgood: 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?

Professor Hapgood: 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 on.

Q175 Stephen Mosley: When we have had incidents in the past—there have been problems in Sweden, Canada and South Africa—when 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?

Professor Cannon: 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 century?

Professor Hapgood: We have a problem in that the instruments that existed then actually went off scale.

Q177 Graham Stringer: Right. So it was very big?

Professor Hapgood: 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 further north.

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 is necessary.

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 Carrington—the 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 event.

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.

Professor Hapgood: 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?

Professor Hapgood: 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 saying—I don't know quite what this means; hopefully you do—is that the US systems aren't tailored to UK needs. What do you think it means by that?

Professor Cannon: 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.

Professor Hapgood: 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 issues—not all of them—are 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 of 17.

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?

Professor Cannon: 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 point—an 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 times.

  Then for normal ground telecommunications infrastructure, Radio 4, etcetera, the effects will be minimal providing the power continues.

Q192 Gavin Barwell: Do you want to add to that?

Professor Hapgood: I think that was pretty comprehensive.

Q193 Gavin Barwell: Okay. Can I come back on one point of detail—the 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?

Professor Cannon: 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 age—I didn't mention the solar arrays—but 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 of luck.

Professor Hapgood: 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 information?

Professor Hapgood: 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.

Professor Cannon: 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 here—global navigation satellite systems—so 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?

Professor Cannon: 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 done?

Professor Cannon: 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.

Professor Hapgood: 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?

Professor Hapgood: 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.

Professor Cannon: 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?

Professor Hapgood: 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 ways—they 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.

Professor Cannon: 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 strategies—it is good to know that you know this is going to happen—and have good engineering strategies. For instance, a good engineering strategy—engineering strategies are good in all of this, if you can come up with them—is 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 altitude.

Q199 Graham Stringer: Are you saying that all aircraft do have these facilities?

Professor Cannon: No, they don't.

Q200 Graham Stringer: Or they should?

Professor Cannon: They don't. There are groups of scientists and there are certainly groups of airline staff who would like to have those sorts of detectors.

Q201 Chair: But this has not come specifically out of concerns about space weather events. It's about general background radiation?

Professor Cannon: 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?

Professor Hapgood: 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 to 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?

Professor Hapgood: 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 us.

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?

Professor Cannon: 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?

Professor Hapgood: I largely agree with Paul but I think we need both, and I am sure I can push him to agree to that.

Professor Cannon: I am sure you can.

Professor Hapgood: 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 valuable—to at least have some understanding of what you are facing.

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?

Professor Cannon: 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 these particles.

Mike might be able to say something because there is a facility at the Rutherford Appleton Laboratory for actually testing these chips on board.

Professor Hapgood: 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 along—I am not directly involved but I just know about it—and 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.

Professor Cannon: 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.



 
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