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

Memorandum submitted by SolarMetrics Limited (SAGE 18)

  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 Grid.


  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 ash closures.

  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 ( Modelling 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 safety hazards.


  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 to maximum.

  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 airlines.


  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 these systems.

  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 is needed.

  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 participants.

  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 issues.

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 this inquiry.

Captain Bryn Jones


SolarMetrics Limited

13 September 2010

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