Bracing ourselves for a solar superstorm

This blog introduces Prof Paul S Cannon, QinetiQ employee and Senior Fellow, Director of the Poynting Institute at the University of Birmingham, and Chair of the Royal Academy of Engineering Study on Space Weather.

The Royal Academy of Engineering has recently published a report, ‘Extreme space weather: impacts on engineered systems and infrastructure’, which represents the first UK in-depth assessment of the potential impacts of solar superstorms.

It was my pleasure to lead a team of cross-disciplinary experts in the compilation of this report, which suggests that although the UK is better prepared than many countries to deal with solar superstorms, there’s room for improvement. We’ve recommended that the government creates an expert panel – the UK Space Weather Board – that would formulate a national plan to cope with the effects of huge blasts of radiation and high-energy particles from the sun.

solar image

Explosive eruptions of the sun’s energy that cause minor solar storms on earth are fairly common. Superstorms, on the other hand, are rare and occur perhaps only once every century or two; the last true solar superstorm, the ‘Carrington event’, was in 1859. However, a solar superstorm is inevitable at some point and will degrade the performance of the electricity grid, satellites, GPS systems, aviation and possibly mobile communications.

I believe that our study, with its strong engineering focus, is the most extensive of its type to date. The two challenges for government are the wide spectrum of technologies affected today and the emergence of unexpected vulnerabilities as technology evolves. The Academy recommends that government sets up a space weather board to oversee these issues.

Our message is: Don’t panic, but do prepare – a solar superstorm will happen one day and we need to be ready for it. Many steps have already been taken to minimise the impact of solar superstorms on current technology and by following the recommendations in the report we anticipate that the UK can further minimise the impact.

Read the Academy’s full report on extreme space weather.

Read the Academy’s summary report on extreme space weather.

QinetiQ’s expertise in space technology has prompted a wide variety of successful collaborations between QinetiQ Space and the European Space Agency: read more about them here.


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