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
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)
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
What are the potential hazards and risks and how
were they identified? How prepared is/was the Government for the
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
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
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
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
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.
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
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
bodiesin 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 essentialto exchange and share resources
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
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 projectsvia international
programmes such ESA and EISCAT, and via EU-funded programmes such
and FP7. It is important to sustain UK participation in these
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,
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
Magnetosphere, Ionosphere and Solar-Terrestrial (MIST)
13 September 2010
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