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

Memorandum submitted by the UCL Institute for Risk & Disaster Reduction (SAGE 17)


  University College London (UCL) ( is an academic powerhouse and one of the world's leading multidisciplinary universities. It is ranked fourth in the 2010 QS World University Rankings, second only to Cambridge of the UK universities. UCL is a world leader in the fields of hazard, risk and disaster reduction, with at least 70 academics across 12 departments and seven faculties involved in world-class research and practice in these areas. The UCL Institute for Risk & Disaster Reduction (IRDR) ( was launched in 2010 with the aim of maximising the impact and value of UCL activities in risk and disaster reduction, and to increase and enhance interdisciplinary collaboration and cooperation. As part of UCL's commitment to addressing global issues and global problems, the IRDR also seeks to contribute to the UCL Grand Challenges of Global Health, Sustainable Cities, Intercultural Interaction and Human Wellbeing.


  Researchers and practitioners at UCL were involved to some degree in the responses to both the Icelandic ash crisis and the swine flu epidemic. Submissions from individuals, guided by the questions raised in the Committee's enquiry announcement, are provided in the relevant sections below. Additionally, submissions are provided from UCL experts in relation to the potential threats presented by cyber attacks and solar storms. General issues, relating—in particular—to threat recognition, preparedness and the importance of international coordination, are addressed separately.


Submission from Professor Bill McGuire. Co-director of the UCL Institute for Risk & Disaster Reduction & Co-director of the UCL Environment Institute.

  During the 2010 Icelandic ash eruption crisis, I was a Member of the UK Government Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (SAGE), established within a few days of the effects of ash being felt in UK airspace.

  Iceland is home to 18 volcanoes that have erupted—some of them many times—since the island was settled in 874AD. Volcanic activity in Iceland is typically effusive (in other words is dominated by the production of lava flows), but more explosive events are not uncommon. In this sense the 2010 activity of Eyjafjallajökull cannot be regarded as unusual and volcanic events comparable to this occur in Iceland every 20-40 years. The questions posed by the enquiry are particularly pertinent to the exposure and vulnerability of the (volcano-free) UK to volcanic activity beyond the country's borders. My views, in response, are provided below:

What are the potential hazards and risks and how were they identified?

  While many UK volcanologists and others in the UK scientific community are and were aware of the potential hazard presented to the UK and UK air-space by eruptions in Iceland, knowledge of this hazard, and associated risks, do not appear to have penetrated government circles. Notably, the threat from remote volcanic eruptions was not included on the National Risk Register, although I am given to understand that this situation will now been remedied.

  The generation of an ash cloud across the UK and much of Europe as a consequence of an eruption in Iceland is far from unprecedented. A number of ash horizons preserved in the peat-lands of Scotland and northern England, testify to Icelandic eruptions around 4300, 2176, 1150, and 500 years ago that deposited ash across parts of the UK, while Iceland-sourced ash layers are also found in Ireland, Germany and elsewhere in Europe. In 1875, the explosive eruption of Askja, resulted in visible ash falls across Norway and Sweden, and most recently, in 1947, a moderate eruption of Hekla produced significant ash across the region. In the context of aviation safety, the critical difference between 1947 and 2010 was the advent and rapid expansion of mass air transport.

  The danger presented by ash clouds to jet aircraft has been recognised for more than 30 years, and following two near-fatal encounters between ash and large, passenger aircraft in the 1980s, an international protocol was established that required air traffic managers to divert aircraft if a discernable ash cloud was evident. While this protocol functioned well in the open skies of regions of high volcanic hazard, such as South East Asia and Alaska, across the crowded and confined UK and European airspaces, enforcement of the protocol required the closure of air space while there was discernable ash in the atmosphere. The reason for this was primarily the fault of the airline community, which had failed to agree a safe, lower limit of ash in the atmosphere that would allow aircraft to continue to fly in dilute ash clouds remote from the erupting volcanoes. In this context, the opening up of airspace was only permitted following the establishment of ad hoc ash safety limits, drawn up by the airlines and aircraft manufacturers.

How prepared is/was the Government for the emergency?

  The government was not at all prepared for the emergency, and as pointed out above, the threat from Icelandic ash is not included in the 2010 National Risk Register. Whether or not specific departments (for example, the Department of Transport), or individuals within departments, were aware of the threat is not known. Certainly, in a report that I wrote in 2007 for the Ministry of Defence, on future geophysical threats in Europe and its neighbours, the potential threat to aviation from Icelandic eruptions was mentioned.

  The Eyjafjallajökull volcano is currently quiet, but the potential threat from ash and volcanic gases from Iceland and elsewhere remains. For Iceland, there is good evidence to suggest that volcanic activity since AD1200 has a 130-140 year periodicity, with intervals of lesser activity lasting 50-80 years alternating with higher activity of similar duration. Since 1980 Iceland may have entered a new cycle of more frequent activity, which could equate to 6-11 eruptions per 40 years. The sources of future ash hazard across the UK and Europe may be volcanoes located outside Iceland. Within the north Atlantic and the western half of Europe there are a number of volcanic regions that have the potential to produce highly voluminous ash plumes that reach high altitude. In particular the Azores (eg, Furnas), the Canary Islands (eg, Tenerife), Italy (eg,Vesuvius, Campi Flegrei and Etna) and the Aegean (eg, Santorini) are worthy of mention.

  Coupled with appropriate meteorological conditions, there is no doubt that future explosive eruptions in Iceland and elsewhere have the potential to cause further disruption to air transport. It is not possible, however, to predict either when this will occur, or at what scale. A worst-case scenario, however, could be provided by the 1783 Laki eruption in Iceland.

  The Laki event lasted for over six months, ejected more than 15 km3 of lava, and produced more than eight million tonnes of fluorine, which resulted in the deaths of 50% of the island's livestock. This, in turn, led to serious famine and the deaths of between a quarter and a third of Iceland's inhabitants. In the UK and Europe, the 120 million tonnes of sulphur gases ejected into the atmosphere led to a persistent sulphurous haze that resulted in widespread respiratory problems and many thousands of excess deaths—perhaps up to 23,000 in the UK alone. The sulphur haze also affected the European and North American climate for several years, leading to an extremely cold winter in 1783-84. In North America, the Mississippi froze at New Orleans and ice was reported in the Gulf of Mexico. A repeat of the Laki eruption could again have serious health consequences for the very old, very young and infirm, result in weather conditions detrimental to UK industry, and generate ash clouds capable of closing UK airspace and, potentially, curtailing or stopping air traffic on the polar routes, perhaps for months.

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

  As the threat was not identified in advance, the government's response to the emergency was purely reactive. In relation to geological and meteorological aspects of the crisis, individual scientists were invited to join SAGE, under the leadership of Government Chief Scientific Advisor, John Beddington. The nature of the invitation process was not clear, but appears to have been focused on scientists already known to the government and to the Office of the Chief Scientific Advisor (for example, I was a member of the Natural Hazards Working Group, established in the wake of the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami under the leadership of David King). During the course of the crisis, the SAGE grew by the addition of further scientists on the recommendation of those already on-board.

What are the obstacles to obtaining reliable, timely scientific advice and evidence to inform policy decisions in emergencies?

  Access to reliable and timely scientific advise during an emergency, such as presented by the Icelandic ash, is hamstrung to a considerable degree by the failure to recognise in advance the cause of the emergency and—therefore—by a complete absence of preparedness. As a consequence, particularly in a rapid-onset emergency such as that triggered by the Icelandic ash, the government is always playing catch-up. It takes days to establish a SAGE to address the problem, and longer for its members and associated government officials to come up to speed in relation to the characteristics of the emergency. Consequently, it is possible for an emergency to come and go with such rapidity that advising scientists have little or no role to play. This problem can only be solved by: (i) making concerted efforts to identify and evaluate all possible threats; (ii) establishing for each, and in advance, groups of relevant scientists who have given a commitment to provide advice; (iii) ensuring that communication mechanisms are established that permit advising scientists to be contacted rapidly.

Has the Government sufficient powers and resources to overcome the obstacles?

  In principle, yes. As mentioned above, the Icelandic crisis arose primarily from the failure to recognise the threat in advance, which resulted in the absence of any real effective preparedness. Had the threat been recognised and considered prior to the arrival of the ash, then the opportunity would have existed for government to talk with scientists, airlines and aircraft manufacturers to identify potential obstacles and to plan for how these could be overcome. In such circumstances it is highly likely that the absence of a safe ash limit would have been identified as a problem and addressed in good time.

For case study (ii) was there sufficient and timely scientific evidence to inform policy decisions?

  My opinion is that the scientific advice provided via SAGE was sufficient to inform policy decisions during the crisis. In terms of timeliness, however, such advice would have been far more useful in advance of the event.

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?

  In relation to volcanic threats, the strategic coordination between government departments, the scientific community and research base and private bodies (in the latter case the airlines and aircraft manufacturers) was poor to non-existent prior to the Icelandic ash crisis. Links have now been developed, however, which—if built upon—can support a pro-active approach towards managing such hazards in future. Since volcanic threats to the UK are sourced outside national boundaries, cooperation with relevant organisations in those countries that host volcanoes that are potentially hazardous to the UK is particularly critical (see below).

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

  International coordination is critical to reducing the risks presented by volcanic eruptions in other countries to the UK, its business sector and its population. Firstly, links need to be improved with the relevant scientific bodies (volcano observatories and national weather services), so as to improve provision of notice of unrest at volcanoes that may present a threat to the UK. At the same time, communication mechanisms should be established that ensure that this information reaches those in government who need to know. Secondly, international coordination is required in order to establish safe ash thresholds that permit commercial flights to continue where dilute ash clouds are present. In this regard, the current ad hoc limits, established in the heat of the crisis, need to be re-evaluated, and limits set that are based upon considered scientific and engineering studies. While this should be the responsibility of the international airline community, evidence of the past slow response to the problem suggests that "encouragement" from national governments may be required.

NB. The UCL IRDR report: Volcanic Hazard from Iceland: Analysis and Implications of the Eyjafjallajökull Eruption (eds: Sammonds, P, McGuire, W J & Edwards, S) can be downloaded at:


Submission from Professor Martin Utley. Director, UCL Clinical Operational Research Unit.

  During the 2009 swine flu pandemic I served on the Critical Care Working Group convened by the Department of Health. My involvement stemmed from work that I'd been doing since late 2008 with intensive care consultants at Great Ormond Street Hospital on the topic of triage in the context of an influenza pandemic. Reflections below represent a personal view and I'd not claim any authority on these matters. I work closely with the Health Protection Analytical Team within DH so have some (limited) insight into what was going on behind scenes.

How were potential hazards and risks identified?

  Pandemic influenza was reasonably prominent in the National Risk Register.

  The clinical community was making its own preparations, in part stimulated by development of the national plan.

How prepared was/is the government?

  Well prepared, but it is probably fair to say that the planned response was geared to a more severe avian flu scenario.

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

  A considerable amount of work had been done by DH/HPA linking with mathematical epidemiologists and others, which is hardly surprising given SARS and previous avian flu outbreaks. Emerging advice was assimilated reasonably well as far as I can tell—the decision to go against the reported advice to close all schools seemed carefully considered (and with hindsight vindicated).

What are the obstacles to obtaining reliable, timely, scientific advice and evidence to inform policy decisions in emergencies?

  Analytical capacity within Government departments is severely stretched, despite the fact that these are the people with the skills and experience of interpreting/packaging scientific advice in a way that can inform policy.

For case studies 1. and 2. was there sufficient and timely scientific evidence to inform policy decisions?

  In relation to swine flu (case study 1), my view is that most policy decisions were evidence based, albeit geared to a more severe pandemic.

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?

  One point I'd make here is that there are/were problems around the interpretation of model output and public bodies had difficulties interpreting/using the "worst case scenarios", which DH decided (correctly in my view) were the only estimates worth sharing.


Submission from Dr. Peter Trim. Centre for Advanced Management & Interdisciplinary Studies, Birkbeck College.

  Dr. Trim is co-author of: Strategizing Resilience and Reducing Vulnerability (ISBN: 978-60741-693-7). He is a member of the Information Assurance Advisory Council (IAAC) Academic Liaison Panel and has contributed to the Global Forum for Law Enforcement and National Security and contributed to a security agenda for the Prime Minister. One of his areas of expertise is in reducing organizational vulnerability through countering cyber attacks. Dr. Trim makes the following points in relation to the cyber attack threat:

    — At present, it can be argued that governments are not engaging with the private sector (which owns a high percentage of the nation's critical information infrastructure) as fully as they should and that much more needs to be done to advise society of the potential risks associated with cyber crime. Issues such as identity fraud, social networking activities and the international dimensions of cyber crime all need further attention.

    — Law enforcement agencies need greater powers and more resources in order to effectively tackle cyber crime.

    — Universities need to be investing in facilities and staff to provide increasing numbers of skilled graduates that are better able to deal with cyber attacks than is the case at present.

    — There needs to be greater cooperation between national governments and more active participation between the private and public sectors (eg sharing information and knowledge in relation to trends, threats and solutions).

    — Society in general needs to be educated to appreciate what security is and in particular needs to better understand what information security and information assurance entail.

    — It is frustrating and worrying that some criminal acts do not carry sufficient penalties to deter people from undertaking internally orchestrated fraud.

    — More attention needs to be paid to rogue governments and how they aid terrorist networks and organized criminal syndicates.


Submission from Professor Christopher Owen. Head of Space Plasma Physics Group, UCL Mullard Space Science Laboratory, and colleagues.

  This submission deals specifically with the potential threat of solar storms to the UK. Herein, the term "solar storm" is used to mean all phenomena driven by enhanced activity at the Sun that can have a measureable effect on the Earth environment, specifically in terms of space-based infrastructure (eg GPS and communication satellites), other navigation systems, power transmission systems, trans-polar airline flights, etc. Members of the UCL/Mullard Space Science Laboratory (Department of Space and Climate Physics) have much accumulated scientific experience of these phenomena, specifically in the areas of the origin of solar activity (within the Solar Physics Group) and its effect on the near-Earth space environment (within the Space Plasmas Group). Most recently, joint efforts between the groups have been aimed at understanding how phenomena originating at the Sun evolve as they propagate out through interplanetary space and towards the Earth. In this document we attempt briefly to indicate where this expertise may be put to use in understanding the risks to UK society and infrastructure that are associated with enhanced solar activity or solar storms.

Defining the problem: solar storms: phenomena and associated risks

  Solar activity affecting the near-Earth Space environment can be classified in three main ways. Firstly, Solar Energetic Particle (SEP) events occur when penetrating high energy particles (a form of radiation) are expelled from the Sun during solar flares and fill much of interplanetary space, including that near the Earth. Secondly, the Sun sporadically expels vast amounts of hot, dense plasma, together with its associated magnetic field, sometimes at speeds in excess of 1000 kilometres per second. Such events are termed "Coronal Mass Ejections" (CMEs) and, although many head harmlessly away from the Earth, those that are Earth-directed are capable of inducing major and damaging changes to the Earth Space environment. Finally, extended periods of particularly fast solar wind flows are known to be a major contributor to enhancement of dangerous fluxes of radiation belt electrons and can persist much longer than CMEs.

  The magnetic field of the Earth provides a "bubble" around the planet, known as the magnetosphere, which in some circumstances is able to mitigate, but not completely eliminate, the effects of solar activity from those parts of space that currently host significant levels of human activity (eg the geosynchronous orbits that hold telecommunications satellites or low-Earth orbits used by the space shuttle, surveyor satellites (eg climate change) and navigation (GPS) satellites). For example, energetic particles from SEP events are largely excluded from the magnetosphere and have a limited number of entry routes, which are generally confined along the magnetic field lines descending into the polar ionosphere and atmosphere. These can, however, provide undesirable radiation doses to passengers, and particularly crew, flying frequently on transpolar airline routes. They may also damage electronic systems and stored software codes on polar orbiting satellites. Knock-on effects from such damage have the potential to severely damage or destroy the spacecraft if critical systems are affected.

  Secondly, CMEs that encounter the Earth system also have the potential to disrupt infrastructure through the coupling of the magnetic fields of the CME with that of the Earth itself. In some circumstances, this can result in a "stirring" of the terrestrial magnetic field, which may cause very high voltages to build up within the magnetosphere and ionosphere, and a very significant build up of energy within the night-side magnetosphere. Ultimately, this energy has to be shed by the magnetosphere, resulting in intense electric currents flowing in the magnetosphere and auroral-zone ionosphere (under these circumstances the auroral zone often descends to UK latitudes), in disturbances to the terrestrial magnetic field and in the acceleration of particles to very high energies. Many of these particles subsequently can be trapped within the Earths radiation belt regions for many weeks after the passage of the initial solar disturbance, and can readily affect space-based electronic systems and software throughout that period.

Some of the risks to human technology and society are:

    — Loss of spacecraft due to effects of enhanced levels of penetrating radiation (eg deep dielectric charging within semiconductors and single event upsets within memory chips). Loss of individual spacecraft due to such effects is known to have occurred in the past, with consequent loss of capability, or the necessity to re-assign that functionality to other spacecraft, or to replace the spacecraft completely. However, a major "storm" has the potential to knock out networks of satellites, such as those involved in the delivery of GPS, communications, TV and telephone signals. Modern society's dependence on satellite infrastructure is very extensive and pervasive—much of it is taken for granted. Solar Storms have the potential to be a common-mode failure for many of these space assets with dire consequences to transportation, defence, telecoms, etc. Replacing key elements of this infrastructure would take months or years, which could have long-term effects on our defence and navigation systems, and our general society, while expensive spacecraft are built and launched. More often temporary losses of service will occur when spacecraft operations are interrupted by radiation induced anomalies. This is naturally less expensive than a defunct spacecraft, but still may have significant commercial impact for the operator and users. High radiation belt particle fluxes (especially protons) and SEP's will also damage solar arrays and thus reduce spacecraft lifetimes accordingly.

    — Large voltages being induced in power lines and pipelines beneath the current systems driven in the ionosphere. Again there are documented cases of large areas (eg most of Quebec during a storm in 1989) being left without power after these induced voltages knocked out power substations, transformers and relays during a solar/magnetic storm. During large storms these current systems, and associated auroral activity, can descend to UK latitudes, and thus provide a potential risk to UK infrastructure. Although such damage to the national power grid may not immediately seem as expensive to repair than damage to satellites, even several days power outage during repairs is likely to be both very costly to the economy and very inconvenient to the populace.

    — To date the risks associated with solar storms have been realised only in confined instances. The last recognised "perfect storm" occurred in 1859, which, of course, predated the current technological and space age and before the development of national scale power grids. However, there were recorded problems with the then nascent telegraph systems at that time. Moreover, solar activity is known to strongly vary during an approximately 11 year cycle, with the next "solar maximum" predicted to occur in mid-2013. It should be noted that the Sun has recently come out of an unexpectedly prolonged and particularly deep minimum, in which there was almost no solar activity for several years. This was both unpredicted and unprecedented in the space age, indicating that despite experiencing several solar cycles during this era, our ability to predict the general level of solar activity across this cycle is rather poor. In particular we have yet to gain the "prior experience" on which to base our expectations for activity as the Sun rises from the current deep "minimum" to "maximum" over the next few years.

Responses to questions posed by the Committee:

How are potential hazards and risks identified?

  As documented above, the potential hazards and risks associated with solar activity are, in general terms, understood on the basis of scientific study and limited previous experience. The general conditions which lead to solar activity having a significant effect on the Earth are understood, and there have been a number of examples of spacecraft being lost and power systems being destroyed by these effects. The times of heightened risk can generally be identified as those years in which the Sun passes through the solar maxima (although there is no guarantee of only low-activity at other times). What is lacking is the ability to specifically identify a period of particular risk with more than a few days notice. A fleet of scientific spacecraft continues to monitor the Sun, and can provide an identification of, for example, a potentially hazardous CME leaving the Sun a few days before it will reach the Earth. We cannot yet determine, however, the likely level of coupling of such a CME with the Earth system until it reaches our most Sunward satellites, about an hour before reaching Earth. Thus the knowledge of whether this will pass harmlessly or initiate a major magnetic storm within the Earth system can currently only be established about one hour before the event. We continue to study this scientifically, in an ongoing effort to understand and predict both the timing and nature of CMEs and their coupling to the Earth system. For example, better understanding how regions of solar activity evolve towards eruption could lead to warnings about a month ahead of time through identification of potential "problem" regions during their previous rotation across the face of the Sun. In addition, understanding how the magnetic orientation of the ejecta relates to the observed conditions in the solar active region would allow a better prediction about how effectively these ejecta will disrupt the near-Earth space environment, and thus the level of the potential hazard to spacecraft and power systems.

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

  The UK government does not currently support a coherent civilian program to identify and assess near-term risks associated with solar activity (given the risks to satellite technology and navigation systems it would be understandable if there existed a military capability in this area, but we are not aware of this). Currently warnings of increased risk come from the agencies of other governments (eg NASA and NOAA in the USA, see eg or through the actions of individual scientists who are engaged in the ad hoc monitoring of the Sun for research purposes. No formal channels of communication for warnings exist, however, and no strategy for government action in the event of an identified high-risk period has been developed. At present satellite operators and power companies either ignore the potential problem, or have their own bespoke solution to monitor and assess the risk. Moreover, little work has been done in fully assessing our dependency on space assets and how this might be mitigated in the case of a major failure. For instance, it is difficult to answer the question "what would be the consequences of losing GPS for six months?"

What are the obstacles to obtaining reliable, timely, scientific advice and evidence to inform policy decisions in emergencies?

  The biggest obstacles in obtaining scientific advice during emergencies associated with solar storms are the lack of dedicated real-time monitoring and the short timescales involved. Monitoring could be achieved semi-automatically if relevant and currently existing observational datasets could be assembled at a single location and routine algorithms developed to test for potentially hazardous conditions. An automated alert to a duty officer or scientist would initiate human assessment of the situation until the alert is past or until a formal warning to interested parties (eg satellite operators, power companies, and even members of the public wishing to observe the aurora in the UK) needs to be issued to initiate implementation of contingency plans. However, even if continuous monitoring identified each potential solar storm, we currently expect only to be able to provide accurate warnings of its geo-effective coupling with about 1 hour notice. Hence policy decisions and these contingency plans need to be prepared in advance, such that a coherent response can be initiated immediately the occurrence of a significant and geo-effective storm is confirmed.

Has the government sufficient powers and resources to overcome the obstacles?

  In principle, yes. Real-time monitoring of solar activity and its effects on interplanetary and near-Earth space, specifically for the benefit of the UK, could be undertaken using currently available international scientific assets. A small team would need to be established to set-up and run the monitoring centre, and would need to be resourced sufficiently in order to routinely gather and assess available data sets. Since the activity would be sporadic, with several alerts per month at solar maximum, this team could usefully be drawn from the pool of current UK researchers in this field and/or attached to a University group engaged in research into solar activity and its effect on the Earth system, perhaps using PhD students as duty scientists in the first instance. Lines of communication to potentially vulnerable parties would need to be established for rapidly distributing information about alerts.

  Reducing the obstacle of short lead-times for accurate predictions of hazardous events can only be achieved through dedicated research into the detailed nature of solar activity, its evolution through interplanetary space and its effect on the Earth environment. Although the UK is already strong in science related to this field, we have yet to generate the detailed level of understanding required to make sufficiently accurate predictions in the days or weeks ahead of a hazardous event. Indeed the focus of this research has been to understand the underlying science rather than to predict and identify mitigating actions. The government currently funds such research through the UK Research Councils, but could usefully increase funding to research specifically related to enhancing our predictive capability, perhaps through a programme which specifically links researchers with the monitoring centre for the duration of their funded project. This research effort should also address the likely degree and probability of extreme events. An example of extremes is the biggest solar flare on record, which occurred in 2003 and had a massive CME. This was significantly bigger than the 1989 events that affected Quebec, but fortunately was not Earth-directed and did not affect us.


  As, in absolute terms, we have not been monitoring solar activity for very long (only a few decades), we most likely do not yet know the full range of behaviour within the capability of our Sun.

  Development of a mature and accurate monitoring and prediction system could in time provide a financial return on the investment as interested parties (satellite operators, power companies and their insurers) learn that valuable assets can be protected from damage and loss through the use of these predictions to initiate contingency plans. This could perhaps be done through the introduction of a subscription system for alerts.

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?

  At present there is little coordination within the UK in relation to preparations for a "perfect" solar storm. The UK has no dedicated monitoring of solar activity in the civilian arena. The UK has no assessment of potential damage to its assets should a storm of the 1859-class occur during the next solar maximum. The UK has no strategic line of investment aimed at developing a useful prediction capability, nor in providing support for the sciences that underpin the understanding of these phenomena and thus offer the path to better predictive capability. Despite an increased emphasis on "impact", the UK research councils currently spend considerably less money on understanding our local star, the Sun, and its effects on Earth, than they do on understanding phenomena far beyond the solar system. This is despite the fact that the former could potentially have a devastating effect on our economy and lifestyle tomorrow, whereas the astrophysical phenomena we are so interested in occurred long, long ago. We thus conclude that the UK is not at all prepared to deal with a major solar storm and will have to assume the full risk of a potentially costly aftermath unless it is prepared to support some disaster preparations in this area.

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

  At present international coordination is critical to this area. The observations and data sets necessary to monitor and predict the effects of solar activity are largely derived from a wide variety of scientific spacecraft which are either assets of another country (eg NASA missions) or are only partly supported by the UK (eg ESA missions and bi-lateral missions). Withdrawal of access to these observations by international partners would leave the UK vulnerable to unmonitored solar activity. Although such withdrawal would seem unlikely at present, the UK could act to secure its position through the deployment of its own monitoring satellite(s) or by sponsoring development of small monitoring packages which could be deployed "piggyback" on larger commercial spacecraft. Investment in the development of miniaturised sensor packages would be an important step in establishing this latter capability. This would also provide the UK with a more significant contribution to bring to the table when considering the international collection of assets required to fully monitor solar activity and understand and predict its effect on the Earth and its technology systems.

  It should also be noted, in terms of providing an improved national or international effort in this area, that ESA have a growing "space situational awareness" activity ( which the UK has not yet signed up to, as we understand it. Given that the UK already invests heavily in ESA, this may be a cost-effective collaboration in which the country could participate.


  The increased reliance of UK society on high-tech space-based assets for communications, navigation, defence and information gathering creates a greater risk of disaster should these assets be lost or significantly damaged by the effects of solar activity on the near-Earth space environment. Isolated examples of such losses have occurred in recent decades through the loss of power grids and individual satellites. We have not, however, suffered a storm of the 1859-class during the space age, so the losses have been relatively light. Over the last few years the Sun has unexpectedly been extremely quiet, indicating that we really have little idea how active it might become as it rises to "solar maximum" over the next three to four years, or what extremes of behaviour we might see as we experience the effects of future solar cycles. A "perfect storm", which will result in significant loss of UK and other assets, is a possibility. Developing a strategy for enhancing our predictive capability and establishing a system to recognise hazardous periods and initiate contingency plans requires modest investment, but given the relative cost of replacing just one satellite in space (>>£100 million), has a very high probability of significant value returned on that investment. The UK government would be well advised to consider investment in such capability.

  Footnote: A report of the results of a recent US National Academies workshop on the societal and economic impacts of extreme magnetic storms is available at

Submission from Professor Alan Aylward. Head of the UCL Atmospheric Physics Laboratory.

  Professor Aylward's expertise lies in so-called "space weather" (changing environmental conditions in near-Earth space, governed to a large degree by changes in solar activity) rather than in preparedness in relation to extreme space weather events. Nevertheless, he makes the following points in response to the Committee's request:

    — I don't think there is a specific government organisation that would have responsibility to respond to a serious solar storm—or who would have responsibility for effecting a warning and distributing it to relevant bodies. The Met Office has taken some initiatives in this area, but has not been very successful in getting funding. As such, the Met office is following the US Model, within which space weather forecasts are seen as logical extensions of terrestrial weather forecasts.

    — The fact the Sun seems to be very quiet at the moment doesn't necessarily mean that a "big" event couldn't happen. The great solar storm of 1859 (sometimes known as the Carrington storm), which was so intense that the current induced in telegraph wires almost electrocuted some of the operators, actually occurred in the middle of a rather unexceptional solar cycle.

    — Our communications and power systems are probably more susceptible to big current surges now than they were in Carrington's time. There are unlikely to be events that we couldn't deal with as long as we were prepared (the event that "killed" the Canadian grid in the `80's is unlikely to have the same effect again because the Canadians have upgraded their systems)—but new and critical technologies, such as the GPS system have never been effectively tested for such contingences.

    — There is a new European Space Agency initiative on Space Weather (or Space Situational Awareness as the current buzz phrase goes: ) but the UK has not bought into this at the level of other countries and our contribution—despite historic strength in this area—is minimal. It should be possible to set up warning systems for intense CMEs or growing solar strength but the UK government is not likely to be a priority recipient of the necessary data at its current level of interest.

    — By subscribing to the ESA Space Situational Awareness programme (which is fairly low cost and could be done fairly cheaply, especially if we insisted on getting our "juste retour" from it) we would have access to a great deal of data needed to make decisions. Then the possibility of having a nominated Space Weather Awareness Centre (or whatever you may want to call it) comes into play. This could be set up in the Met Office or in one of the major research groups where a lot of the expertise would be to hand and where the monitoring could be done cheaply using research students.

    — As with (terrestrial) weather prediction models can play an important part and continual forecast models could be run to try out different scenarios and try to "nowcast" the space weather. While it is true we currently only get an hour's warning of the most geoeffective CMEs, work with the STEREO space mission (to which the UK contributes) has begun to show ways that we may get some warning of what is going on once a CME leaves the Sun. Predicting a CME's path is currently very inaccurate, but some warning is better than none. Also modelling of different scenarios (including those that have not yet occurred since the start of the "Space Age") will help to build up a portfolio of predictions about how bad things could be, with suggestions for mitigation procedures that could be enacted immediately a situation arose. For example, tabulating the area affected by solar proton events could produce a "safe latitudes" and "safe altitudes" guide for aircraft operators: modelling of induced currents under a range of input and response conditions could inform power companies as to where their major vulnerabilities lie, and whether mitigating procedures could be brought into play when large events were predicted. The British Geological Survey already sends out warnings to oil companies and others about disturbances to the geomagnetic field (the oil companies use the field direction to guide their drilling rigs) but I am unaware that they have a predictive capability or have done work on "Perfect Storm" type conditions.

    — A lot of work has been done in a research capacity that addresses some of these issues, but what is needed is a government initiative to establish a commercially and societally aware infrastructure designed to use this knowledge. I would have thought the MoD would have already been switched on to this since they could lose security capability if a Skynet or other military satellite was crippled. There is a reluctance of commercial companies to contribute to the infrastructure as long as the government is paying. The data from the ionosonde chain was used by the MoD and companies like BAe and the aircraft companies, but they would not contribute to the cost of running them until PPARC/STFC decided to close them as national facilities. Reluctantly some users have now started to contribute, though not at the level that is needed to continue a full service, but it may be possible to boost this if government guidance is issued.


  In relation to the government's use of scientific advice and evidence in emergency situations, four general points seem to merit highlighting:

    1. Threat identification. While some threats that are capable of leading to emergency situations are widely recognised in advance (eg swine flu), and possible consequences reasonably well constrained, others (eg Icelandic ash) are not. Threat awareness is critical if there is to be effective preparedness. This, in turn, is crucial, if an emergency situation is to be handled effectively and in a reasoned manner, as opposed to in a purely reactive and ad hoc way. It is recommended, therefore, that the National Risk Register is re-evaluated, and scientific advice sought in order to ensure that—in future—it is far more inclusive in relation to potential threats to the nation. Such an evaluation may be undertaken by a panel along the lines of the Natural Hazards Working Group, which reported to the government in 2005 a strategy for addressing the global threat of extreme geophysical hazards.

    2. Scientific advisory panels. Because some emergency situations may be very short-lived, consideration should be given to establishing—in advance—appropriate advisory panels and determining their composition. Some thought should also be given, perhaps, to the mechanism by which panels are filled which, currently, appears to be pretty ad hoc.

    3. Channels of communication. By their very nature, advisory panels have to be small. As a consequence, however, they are exclusive, with most scientists in the relevant field having no involvement. There may be an argument for providing a mechanism whereby scientists in the field are able to communicate their ideas and concerns to the panel and, through it, the government.

    4. International cooperation. As many of the threats to the UK have an international dimension, international collaboration and cooperation would seem to be of critical importance. Through limiting engagement with initiatives designed to address future threats that have the potential to be particularly damaging to the UK, notably in the case of solar storms, the government may be making it more difficult for future emergencies to be tackled effectively.

EDITOR: Professor Bill McGuire. Co-director, UCL Institute for Risk & Disaster Reduction & Co-director, UCL Environment Institute

CONTRIBUTORS: Professor Alan Aylward. Head of the UCL Atmospheric Physics Laboratory

Professor Christopher Owen. Head of Space Plasma Physics Group, UCL Mullard Space Science Laboratory

Dr. Peter Trim. Centre for Advanced Management & Interdisciplinary Studies, Birkbeck College

Professor Martin Utley. Director, UCL Clinical Operational Research Unit.

UCL Institute for Risk & Disaster Reduction

13 September 2010

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