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

Memorandum submitted by the British Antarctic Survey (SAGE 21)


  The response here is directed to case study questions on solar storms where the British Antarctic Survey has particular expertise. It is supplementary to the input from the Research Councils UK.


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

  Solar storms are a source of Space Weather disturbances that disrupt modern technology at the Earth. The term Space Weather is more generally used, and will be referred to here. Space Weather is described more fully in POSTNOTE 361 (July 2010) "Space Weather".[6]

  Over the last 30 years our society has become much more reliant on technology that is susceptible to Space Weather, particularly satellites, power networks and aviation on polar routes. This trend is likely to increase, for example there has been a 10 fold increase over the last 10 years in patents to exploit the satellite-based global positioning system (GPS).[7]

  Large space weather events occurred in 1989, which caused power blackouts across the North-Eastern Canada, in 2003, which affected more than 30 satellites resulting in loss of service and satellite capacity, and in 2005, which disrupted trans-Atlantic aviation. The largest event on record occurred in 1859. If a major event like this occurred today it is most likely that there would be widespread disruption to the following systems:

    — Satellites (including failures) and satellite services caused by energetic particles and increased radiation.

    — Power generation and electrical distribution grids as a result of geomagnetically-induced currents (GICs) in transformers.

    — GPS navigation signals as a result of ionospheric disturbances.

    — Aviation through disruption to communications and increased radiation.

    — Secondary systems that depend on the above, such as financial services.

  In the past, large events have destroyed infrastructure on the ground and in space. The time to replace infrastructure following a major event, for example, to replace transformers in the national power grid or satellite capacity, could be significant and lead to knock-on effects. It takes about two years to order and replace a power transformer and longer for satellites. If several satellites and or transformers were lost in a major event it would take years to replace the infrastructure. It is essential that sufficient capacity is held in reserve for critical systems.

  Space weather hazards have been identified as a result of basic research into Solar Terrestrial Physics (STP). For example, the British Antarctic Survey has shown that there is a higher risk of satellite damage during geomagnetic storms at the Earth, and that the risk varies with the 11 year solar cycle. The risk will increase over the next few years as the sun becomes more active.

  Research shows that the hazards to ground based systems and aviation peak at high latitude and over the polar regions, whereas the hazards to spacecraft peak in the Van Allen radiation belts. The UK has considerable experimental facilities in the polar regions, access to satellite data, computer models and scientific expertise that can be used to address Space Weather. There is a need to provide strategic funding for these activities otherwise they will come and go according to scientific priorities rather than a national need for hazard assessment and mitigation.

  The UK does not have a system of warnings or alerts in place. It is totally reliant on warnings provided by other countries such as the Space Weather Prediction Service provided by NOAA in the USA which are not tailored to UK needs.

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

  The Government has only just started to recognise the risks associated with Space Weather through the National Risk Register.

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?

  The UK has a major investment in industries that are affected by Space Weather including satellite construction and satellite services, power distribution, aviation, and insurance. For example, the UK space sector accounted for 9% ($11 billion) of the global market in 2007.[8] The UK has the expertise and knowledge to help protect these assets, but it is not organised and several areas need to be developed. For example, more research is required, particularly on geomagnetic storms, models to forecast risk and assess hazards are needed, and a strategy to respond to extreme events is required. This could be achieved through a UK Space Weather programme that works in collaboration with other countries but which is tailored to meet the national interest.

  Space Weather affects a broad range of industries and organisations such as the MoD, space agencies, funding agencies, scientists and others. The UK lacks a body that could respond to an emergency or that could provide a source of authoritative advice. The UK Space Agency provides a new opportunity to bring together these different areas to coordinate activities.

  Research funding is split between the Natural Environment Research Council (NERC), which funds Earth orientated solar terrestrial physics, and the Science and Technology Facilities Council (STFC) which funds space based activities. These Research Councils have different research priorities. There is a need to develop a research strategy for solar terrestrial physics in support of Space Weather hazards and risks which could be part of a national Space Weather programme.

  Most measurements are done by instruments designed and operated for scientific research which may not provide long-term continuous monitoring tailored for hazard warning or assessment. The NERC has a framework to support such long-term environmental observation as part of a national capability which could be utilised for Space Weather.

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?

  Strategic coordination for Space Weather emergencies has yet to be put to the test, but without a recognised coordination structure in place it is likely to be problematic.

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

  Space Weather is a global problem. International collaboration is essential and cost-effective in providing access to Space Weather measurements, expertise, and other resources worldwide worth many times the national investment. However to safeguard continued access it is important to contribute to this international effort at an appropriate level.

  The EU has recently allocated €22 million to space hazards including Space Weather through the Framework 7 programme (FP7). The British Antarctic Survey is leading one FP7 project to protect space assets and contributes to other projects in Europe and the USA.

  The European Space Agency (ESA) has a new Space Situation Awareness programme (SSA). The UK could make the most of its membership of the ESA by fully signing up to this programme which would allow the UK to lead ESA-SSA projects. This would bring a UK dimension that meets the needs of UK industry and give them a competitive edge.

British Antarctic Survey

14 September 2010

6 Back

7   News briefing, Nature, 466, 12 August 2010 Back

8   Department for Business, Innovation and Skills, "The Space Economy in the UK: An economic analysis of the sector and the role of policy", Feb 2010. Back

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