Memorandum submitted by SolarMetrics Limited
This submission is for the Science and Technology
Committee inquiry, examining the Government's use of scientific
advice and evidence in emergency situations. Specifically, this
letter addresses these issues with relation to the potential emergency
situation that solar storms could cause.
The views expressed here are those of SolarMetrics
Limited, a UK company that specialises in the field of space weather,
space radiation and solar activity, and the impacts these have
upon commercial operations, safety, people, the environment and
the technological systems used in civil and military aerospace.
The term solar storm, while it articulates an
image of something that most people can relate to, is both an
oversimplification and misleading particularly when the term is
hijacked by the media for sensationalising news stories. It will
be important that Government departments, public and private bodies,
scientific advisors and the research base, all work together to
make sure that better definitions are agreed for the various aspects
of solar activity and space weather, and how they impact systems.
The space weather hazards and the systems they can impact are
quite diverse: therefore, correct terminology, as well as correct
cause and effect will need to be stressed by all that understand
these issues in order to help decision-makers enact good policies.
1. What are the potential hazards and risks
and how were they identified? How prepared is/was the Government
for the emergency?
A solar storm is a generalisation for a number
of different phenomena that can take place in the space environment
that exists between the Sun's surface and the Earth's protective
magnetic field, known as the magnetosphere. The phenomena that
concern aerospace operations most are those that increase the
radiation environment, and those that disrupt operational systems.
The most important phenomena are Solar Energetic
Particles (SEPs), Coronal Mass Ejections (CMEs), geomagnetic storms
and sub-storms (and more directly, the ionospheric disturbances).
(Note: Galactic Cosmic Rays (GCRs), which originate from exploding
stars outside our solar system, also affect technological systems
and endanger human life and health, but their effect can be considered
as a longer term manageable risk rather than causing emergency
situations due to a sudden storm onset.)
These different storm phenomena mentioned above
can impact on aerospace operations in different ways. The hazards
include the direct effects on avionics, communications and GPS
navigation systems, and the indirect effects upon the airspace
management through loss of critical infrastructures, ie, the National
Many communication systems utilise the ionosphere
to reflect radio signals over long distances. However, if the
ionosphere becomes disturbed by storm activity, HF or low VHF
radio communication at all latitudes can be affected. If the effects
become especially strong, it can cause a total communications
blackout. Even modest storms that occurred during the last solar
cycle (23) produced disturbances that lasted for many days and
affected traffic flow rates over and around UK airspace because
Air Traffic Control (ATC) had to increase separation between aircraft
entering the North Atlantic Track System. When very energetic
particles enter the atmosphere over the Polar Regions, the enhanced
ionisation produced at these low ionospheric altitudes (50-100
km) is particularly effective in absorbing HF radio signals and
can render HF communications impossible throughout the Polar Regions.
Airlines, on polar flights, have diverted flights due to HF communication
loss, which have caused en route time penalties of up to 180 minutes.
Disruption to communications from severe solar
storms (ie 1859) would likely render large airspace regions unusable
for many days, in a similar way to the recent Icelandic volcanic
Satellite communication coverage is not yet
global, it can also suffer degradation or outages, and airborne
installations are not sufficiently widespread to make it a viable
replacement for HF.
The electronic components of aircraft avionic
systems are susceptible to damage, and/or incorrect logic processes,
from the interactions with high energy particles from SEPs and
CMEs (and GCRs). And as these micro-electronic components become
increasingly smaller then the risk of damage also increases dramatically.
Awareness of damage to, or failure in, electronics
became more widespread with the start of the launch of satellites.
Satellites incorporating sensitive Random Access Memory (RAM)
chips have had upset rates from one per day at quiet times to
several hundred per day during SEP events. Aircraft in-flight
measurements of Single Event Upset (SEU) sensitivity in 4Mb SRAM
produced a rate of 1 upset per 200 flight hours, and agreed well
with the expected upset rate variations due to changing latitude.
Research has already shown that 100MB of modern RAM found in laptops
and PC's may suffer upsets every 2hrs at 40,000ft, or 1 upset/minute
in 1GB of memory due to the 1989 SEP event.
Known failures in commercial airliners auto-pilots
and flight instruments have occurred during non-storm conditions.
Australian air accident investigation of flight QF72 includes
single event effects as one of the causes it is investigating
of major SEP events (1989, 1972, 1956, and 1859) to reflect the
possible radiation environment at aircraft altitudes suggests
that such storms could cause irreparable damage to many onboard
flight and engine critical components, posing significant flight
The principal space weather hazard to humans
is exposure to cosmic radiation while flying, which is caused
primarily by GCRs. The dose rate at an altitude of 39,000 ft (12
km) in mid-temperate latitudes is typically up to about 6 microSieverts
(microSv) per hour, but near the equator only about 3 microSv/hr.
Typically, a London to Los Angeles flight in a commercial aircraft
accumulates ~65 microSv (6 microSv/hr); however, the solar cycle
can give plus or minus 20% variations in dose from solar minimum
However, of concern are those SEPs that increase
the dose at aircraft altitudes. Using data collected onboard aircraft
and then modelled to large SEP storms (ie, 23 February 1956, 29
September 1989) it is estimated that the additional radiation
dose received at 40,000ft (12km) on a subsonic transatlantic flight
would have been approximately 10 mSv and 2 mSv respectively.
Under present ICRP guidelines, the recommended
dose limit for the general public is 1mSv, and for aircrew in
the EU a maximum working level of 6 mSv has been adopted by the
Future airspace management is reliant upon the
increasing use of GNSS for navigating aircraft so that the separation
between aircraft can be reduced, to position the aircraft on approach,
and for landing in all weather conditions. However, the accuracy
of the satellite signals, which must pass through the ionosphere,
is affected by ionospheric variations due to storm activity. Dual-frequency
satellite receivers actually measure the effect of the ionosphere
on the satellite signals and can better adjust to, but not eradicate,
these difficult circumstances.
The WAAS was commissioned in 2003 for use in
all phases of air navigation, which through the implementation
of GNSS Approach with Vertical Guidance (APV), to provide users
with the capability to fly approaches with vertical guidance throughout
the U.S. national air space to 250 feet above a runway, even in
conditions of poor visibility. Quarterly performance reports have
shown that the WAAS system generally meets or exceeds these requirements.
However, the performance reports also verify that one of the greatest
challenges for WAAS is maintaining continuous APV availability
during extreme geomagnetic storm events. During the extremely
disturbed days of October 29 and 30, and November 20, 2003 the
APV service was unavailable over the entire contiguous U.S. (CONUS)
region for periods of approximately 15 and 10 hours, respectively.
Until recently, the ionosphere has been considered
as the sole source of space weather effects on GNSS signals, systems,
and navigation accuracy. New research (Klobuchar et al, 1999;
Cerruti et al, 2006) now suggests there is a different class of
space weather effects on these signals: solar radio bursts. Solar
radio bursts affect the GNSS system by attenuating the carrier-to-noise
ratio, thereby degrading the received signals. These bursts can
have durations from tens of seconds to a few hours. In December
2006, there was widespread loss of the GPS signal over the US
caused by such and event.
The plans for SESAR (EU) and NextGen (US) will
address critical safety and economic needs for civil aviation
in future years. However the impact of space weather and severe
solar storms upon a more highly integrated infrastructure and
more technologically susceptible aircraft will potentially cause
greater disruption and reduced safety. It must be recognised that
space weather forecasting and warnings must be integrated into
The impact of severe solar storms upon critical
National infrastructure like the electric grid is currently undergoing
close scrutiny. The widespread loss of electricity even for a
short period would have serious consequences for all aspects of
society. Air traffic contingency planning would likely manage
to safely recover all aircraft on to the ground, albeit with severe
disruption to operations and people (ie, post 9/11 airspace closure
over the US). However, if the loss of power grids extended over
continents, and was so severe that restoration and repairs were
to take weeks or months, then the ability for aviation to function
would all but cease.
The awareness and understanding in the UK aviation
community (civil and military, CAA, NATS, operations and senior
managers) of the space weather environment and the potential hazards
from severe solar storms upon technology and operations is considered
to be extremely poor. (Note: Space sector operators and manufacturers
(satellite operators, avionics) are likely to be more aware, but
they tend to operate in isolation, and are reluctant to admit
to any issues due to commercial sensitivities.)
Presently, in the event of a solar storm that
had a major impact upon aviation, the UK response could only be
totally reactive and would likely be ill-informed and ill-judged.
UK aviation does not receive space weather information or warnings
as standard practice. The UK Met Office does not do space weather
per se for aviation operations. It would be up to the CAA and
NATS, in the first instance, to resolve immediate operational
matters that were directly affecting safety, but they would affectively
be making decisions without any real understanding and without
developed hazard mitigation strategies and protocols.
The recent problems experienced with the Icelandic
volcanic ash with regard to understanding of preparedness provide
a good analogy to the solar storm. However, even in that case
where there were established ICAO, UK and airline, procedures
and checklists, the ability to clearly assess the hazard and understand
whether safe operations could go ahead was severely lacking. Therefore,
given that there is less understanding and awareness of solar
storms, and there are as yet no ICAO (see 5 below) or National
procedures in place, the ability to react effectively to this
emergency would be poor.
2. How does/did the Government use scientific
advice and evidence to identify, prepare for and react to an emergency?
UK Cosmic Radiation Advisory Group (UK CRAG)
In May 2000, EU Directive "96/29/EURATOM
of 13 May 1996 laying down basic safety standards for protection
of the health of workers and the general public against the dangers
arising from ionising radiation" was implemented in to
the UK Air Navigation Order. Article 42 of the Directive imposes
requirements relating to the assessment and limitation of air
crew members' exposure to cosmic radiation and the provision of
information on the effect of cosmic radiation.
The majority of UK airlines did not have the
relevant in-house expertise to understand this cosmic radiation
science and the medical implications of radiation exposure and
protection. In order to guide the UK airlines with implementing
correct compliance policies for this ANO, a Government led (DfT)
Cosmic Radiation Advisory Group was created in Sep 2000. The UK
CRAG comprised CAA, HPA (then NRPB), space weather academia and
industry, airlines and union representatives.
Although UK policy on compliance requirements
for monitoring of air crew exposure is considered overly slack,
the CRAG did provide informative guidance material on the protection
of air crew from cosmic radiation, but only where the radiation
was GCR in origin. Although increased radiation doses received
from SEPs is included in the material, and numerous SEP events
occurred during the CRAG's five year sitting (it was never formally
disbanded), the ability of the Group (and desire by some members)
to provide useful and timely information for the airlines was
never fully exploited. As Solar Cycle 24 gets under way it would
be advantageous to resurrect the UK CRAG, strengthen its terms
of reference and implement a technical activity programme for
investigating solar storms that affect human exposure.
The UK CRAG, in its past form, would not be
considered appropriate to tackle the other, wider reaching, hazards
of solar storms upon operations and flight safety. Nor tackle
the future space weather requirements specified by NextGen and
SESAR. In order to model the risk and evaluate vulnerabilities
from solar storms upon every facet of daily operations and air
traffic infrastructure on a National (and European) scale then
the Government should consider convening relevant expertise from
academia, government and industry and reinsurance.
3. 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? For case studies (i) and (ii) was there
sufficient and timely scientific evidence to inform policy decisions?
There is no doubt that space weather is in its
infancy still, but information, forecasting and warnings are available
in some form and can be made available to the operational and
policy decision-makers. This can only happen once the UK develops
a coordinated National space weather approach for all impact areas.
In order to achieve this there has to be a highly
visible and high-level supported education and outreach programme
(see Terminology above).
Aviation is another area, like power grids,
where space weather scientists have a fairly mature understanding
of the threat. But by fairly mature, it is meant that we know
enough to know that we need to know and do more. Again the analogy
with the volcanic ash issue would appear to be relevant in that
we thought we knew enough to work a plan. And the plan was found
wanting because we needed to know and do more.
However, reliable and timely information that
a solar storm is about to occur, what its magnitude and severity
of impact will be on different systems is currently not possible.
Therefore, as well as coordination of assets, the Government will
need to renew investment in Solar Terrestrial Physics, such that
the UK's world-leading research can continue to make a difference
by providing hazard and disaster information where and when it
As well as improving our understanding the Government
should lead discussions amongst all impact stakeholders about
defining and collecting operational data that can be used to assess
the different impact areas, cost of improved services, and return
on investment. The UKSA, NERC and MOD should also link aviation
(and other impacted areas) space weather cost benefit analysis
to UK requirements for ongoing consistent data collection from
ground and space.
Like volcanic ash, improving the understanding
of the space weather hazard should be considered in the context
of environmental monitoring (air pollutants, radiation, weather,
etc). Every aircraft should be aware of, and be able to monitor
the environment it is flying through and communicate that to other
aircraft and a wider-area network fed to the ground. Network centric
operations are nothing new: the concept has been under development
by the military for many years already. Consider what we would
know already about the disappearance of flight Air France 477
in the South Atlantic if aircraft communicated the full picture.
The idea of such a network is already envisaged
for NextGen and SESAR. The required improvements in weather data
assimilation and forecasting, as well traffic free-flow management
can only happen by turning every aircraft into a "node"
and then communicating the "big" picture in real-time.
Implementing a network for environmental monitoring,
regardless of target data, would be quite feasible: aircraft manufacturers
and airlines already carry out certain levels of airborne systems
monitoring. Although getting there buy-in to extend this monitoring
for other processes would be difficult in the current financial
markets. However, if the longer-term benefits of NextGen and SESAR
are to be realised then the industry will have to become willing
SolarMetrics deploys radiation monitoring equipment
onboard aircraft and spacecraft specifically to assess the radiation
environment. We believe there is a valid argument for installing
real-time communicating radiation monitors onboard every aircraft.
Only by pursuing this goal will it be possible to provide reliable
and timely information to the pilots, controllers and dispatchers
in the event of significant or severe solar storms, such that
better operational decisions can be made. Besides enhancing the
capabilities of space weather forecasting and warnings, this real-time
data has also been identified as potentially beneficial for climate
4. 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?
Action for a National Space Weather Programme
Meetings have already taken place between a
number of UK space weather experts together with representatives
of NERC and UKSA with the aim of exploring how to progress UK
space weather activities in the context of NERC and of UKSA. On
the NERC side a particular aim was to discuss how to propose that
space weather be added to the scope of the Natural Hazards programme.
It was recommended that the space weather community should establish
a formal body to represent and promote space weather understanding
in the UK. This body should be inclusive of all the UK community
affected by space weather (not just aerospace) and be able to
engage at National and European level.
Discussions also touched on the involvement
of MOD in space weather issues. The MOD does support a number
of space weather activities, but this support is rather patchy
and it tends to come as a side effect of other programmes. There
appears to be a lack of MOD coordination and an excessive dependence
on the US. Currently, the MOD uses space weather predictions provided
by the US Air Force Weather Agency, but was unaware that those
US predictions are based, in part, on data from UK indigenous
sensors. In a public planning document the MOD argues that US
space weather measurements in UK were essential to national security,
but in another part would not support similar but better run UK
measurements. It seems that at a high level the MOD fails to grasp
the need to trade UK-sourced space weather data and services with
the US. With an ever increasing need for better Space Situational
Awareness in the US, UK and NATO, the MOD and UK plc is not well
placed to make the most from the emerging opportunities.
Coordination of all these agencies and efforts
into a National Space Weather programme as part of the UK Space
Agency is considered highly beneficial.
5. How important is international coordination
and how could it be strengthened?
International coordination on space weather
and the hazard mitigation strategies and technologies required
for global air travel will be vitally important.
The UK space weather community already participates
in many international activities: working with COST, DoD, ESA,
FAA, JPDO, NASA, NATO, and many others.
In the US, a policy workshop report (American
Meteorological Society and SolarMetrics, 2007) on "Integrating
Space Weather Observations & Forecasts into Aviation Operations"
presented recommendations that, if implemented, could increase
the safety, reliability, and efficiency of civil aviation operations
through more effective use of space weather forecasts and information.
The AMS Policy Program and SolarMetrics developed this workshop
as part of a broader three year policy study, funded by the National
Science Foundation, and endorsed by the FAA, to examine policy
issues in implementing effective application of space weather
services to the management of the aviation system.
American Meteorological Society and SolarMetrics'
follow on work to this policy report has been the defining and
writing of aviation space weather user requirements that the FAA
is now incorporating into a "Concept Development Plan for
a current space weather capability in the National Airspace System".
NextGen is also including elements of these requirements into
their weather development programme.
In addition, the FAA has been tasked by ICAO
to develop the aviation operational requirements for space weather
information that are to be ready as an amendment by 2011, endorsed
in 2014, and officially implemented into ICAO Annex 3 Standards
and Recommended Practices (SARPS) in 2016.
And from the 60th session of the WMO Executive
Council in Geneva, June 2008: "In view of the considerable
impact of Space Weather on meteorological infrastructure and on
a growing number of human activities
the Council fully endorsed
the principle of WMO activities in support of international coordination
in Space Weather."
Considering the extent of the above international
activity in space weather for aviation it is extremely important
that the UK Government begins to participate in this arena.
Thank you for the opportunity to comment to
Captain Bryn Jones
13 September 2010