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

Memorandum submitted by Magnetosphere, Ionosphere and Solar-Terrestrial (MIST) (SAGE 13)


  1.  The UK, like all advanced countries, is significantly exposed to the risks posed by solar storms (space weather). These can affect a range of advanced technologies including communications and meteorological satellites, aviation, location and timing services (GPS), electrical power grids, and digital and wireless devices.

  2.  Our knowledge of the threat from space weather has developed substantially over the past decade and that better knowledge is driving concerns now that solar activity is rising towards its next maximum, expected in 2012-13.

  3.  The Government has recently begun to engage with UK space weather experts to develop a more coordinated view of the risk from space weather. This should be welcomed and encouraged.

  4.  There should be a national coordination on space weather, akin to that in other advanced countries, to provide a forum that can pull together national needs and link them to national and international capabilities.

  5.  International cooperation on space weather is critical given that severe events threaten the whole planet. This cooperation involves exchange of data, models and research results. UK should contribute at a level appropriate to its technical and economic standing, especially in European activities such as the ESA Space Situational Awareness programme and the EU COST and Framework programmes.


  6.  MIST (Magnetosphere, Ionosphere and Solar-Terrestrial)[1] is an informal community of UK-based scientists with interests in physical processes within the Sun-Earth system and other planets. This area of science provides knowledge that is critical to understanding the impact of solar storms on our planet. The MIST community encompasses about 250 scientists based in 19 groups spread over the universities, NERC and STFC institutes and industry.

  7.  The role of MIST is to help promote its scientific interests to the public, wider scientific community and other stakeholders as well as provide a platform for scientists to present their work to the rest of the UK community. In particular, MIST works closely with the UK Solar Physics community.

  8.  From its inception in 1970, MIST has been strongly linked with and supported by the Royal Astronomical Society.

What are the potential hazards and risks and how were they identified? How prepared is/was the Government for the emergency?

  9.  This memorandum focuses on the effects of solar storms. This is often termed "space weather" in our community and we will use that term in the rest of this memorandum. Annex 1 is a briefing paper on space weather recently produced by our community.

  10.  Space weather may be summarised as severe disturbances of the upper atmosphere and near-space environment that can disrupt technology. These disturbances are already known to have many impacts including:

    — Space-based infrastructure supporting key applications such as communications, meteorology, location and timing, and security surveillance. These are at risk from radiation and electrical charging as well as orbit decay due to atmospheric drag.

    — Aircraft control, navigation and communications. These are at risk from space radiation effects on avionics and aircrew as well as disruption of radio links used for communications and navigation.

    — Location and timing systems (eg GPS, Galileo, eLoran) for a wide range of ground-based services: eg. marine and land transport., mobile phone networks.

    — Power grids and railway signals. Space weather can generate electric currents in long metal structures on the surface. These can disrupt power grids and cause incorrect railway signalling.

    — Digital technology in many ground-based systems. Space radiation can cause errors in the digital chips now used in a huge range of devices. Intense solar radiation storms, such as that of 1956, may cause widespread disruption to these devices.

    — Wireless technologies (mobile phone, Wifi, short-range device control) are at risk from strong bursts of radio noise during intense solar activity. Such bursts may jam wireless links causing widespread loss of service. Service losses may become significant as activity on the Sun ramps up to the next solar maximum.

  11.  Space weather may be regarded as an emerging natural hazard. The UK, like all advanced countries, has become exposed to this hazard through the spread of advanced technologies as outlined above.

  12.  Space weather has gradually been developing as a field of scientific study over the past twenty years, especially following major space weather events in 1989 and 2003. The importance of severe events has also led many scientists to exploit data from records of major historical events such as those of 1859, 1921 and 1956. This research has demonstrated that we need to be concerned about future space weather events, eg. during the forthcoming solar maximum in 2012-13. But much research still needs to be done to fully scope the risk.

How does/did the Government use scientific advice and evidence to identify, prepare for and react to an emergency?

  13.  Government engagement in space weather issues has long been focused on a few specific niches (eg. radio communications) with little or no coordination between niches. This is now changing and government bodies are now building links with the scientific community in order to develop a more coordinated view of the threat from space weather.

What are the obstacles to obtaining reliable, timely scientific advice and evidence to inform policy decisions in emergencies? Has the Government sufficient powers and resources to overcome the obstacles?

  14.  There is a need for a UK national coordination on space weather on lines similar to that coordination undertaken in, for example, Belgium, France, Germany and the US.[2] This would enable a full assessment of both national needs and national and international capabilities to address those needs. A key objective should be to raise awareness in the scientific community on the forms of advice and evidence that will help government bodies.

  15.  Following the recent transfer of earth-orientated solar-terrestrial physics to NERC, the scientific community and NERC have started to explore the possibility of including space weather in NERC's research programme on natural hazards. This can provide a robust intellectual framework for linking space weather research to the needs of government and industry.

How effective is the strategic coordination between Government departments, public bodies, private bodies, sources of scientific advice and the research base in preparing for and reacting to emergencies?

  16.  The proposed national coordination on space weather will address this and should also involve private bodies—in particular companies offering specialist services on space weather risks as well as companies whose activities are affected by space weather.

How important is international coordination and how could it be strengthened?

  17.  Space weather is unusual in that extreme events pose a hazard to the whole planet. Its effects are not localised to particular countries or regions. Thus international coordination is essential—to exchange and share resources such as:

    — data from measurements of space weather conditions, whether made in space or on the ground;

    — environmental and engineering models to assess the risks from space weather; and

    — research results that can improve measurements and models.

  18.  There is a strong heritage of international cooperation in the science of space weather. In particular UK scientists have been actively engaged with their European counterparts for many decades. They also have good links to work in other countries, for example the US, Japan, China, India and Brasil.

  19.  UK scientists have led, and continue to lead, many relevant European projects—via international programmes such ESA and EISCAT, and via EU-funded programmes such as COST[3] and FP7. It is important to sustain UK participation in these programmes.

  20.  International cooperation on space weather is now increasingly focused via the Space Situational Awareness programmes that are underway in Europe and the US. The UK is a member of the European SSA programme,[4] which is an optional programme within ESA, but makes only a minimum subscription. This greatly limits UK participation in, and influence on, the space weather elements of the SSA programme. When economic conditions allow, the UK should participate in that programme at a level much more appropriate to its technical and economic standing.

Magnetosphere, Ionosphere and Solar-Terrestrial (MIST)

13 September 2010

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