Space weather – what can one say? First, the term is a brilliant piece of marketing. In space, no rain falls and no snow drifts. Instead, subatomic particles sway in magnetic breezes. There are even some nice effects, like the aurora, when things hot up. But despite its apparent obscurity, space weather has become big business.
The term “space weather” really covers all aspect of the Sun’s interaction with the Earth except for the actual flow of heat and light. It’s analogous to the weather because it is seasonal, albeit over the 22-year solar cycle rather than annually, because it involves small particles driven by strange forces, and because the effects can be severe when it really gets going.
Until the 19th century, space weather was not a problem. Then it started to be noticed, especially when the telegraph system was developed. Charged particles from the Sun could create big currents in cables that extended thousands of kilometres across the Earth. Things came to a head in 1859 when a massive storm on the Sun was found guilty of mass disruption of the communications system. As my friend Stuart Clark explains in his book The Sun Kings, the connection between the aurora bright enough to read by, the telegraph disruption and the solar activity was regarded at first as more or less science fiction. It took some perseverance by astronomer Richard Carrington to prove its reality.
Fast forward to 2013 and space weather is on the UK National Risk Register. A big Carrington-like event could
mess up electronics, close down power supplies, kill satellites, and so on.
A specialist discussion at the Royal Astronomical Society last week focused on getting space weather experts and the users of their results closer together. The amazing range of concerns that the topic raises was the first thing I noticed. The electricity transmission industry,
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for example, needs to know about the electrical resistance of the Earth’s crust, and all because of space weather. If the ground is nice and conductive, the incoming charged particles will make a current within the Earth. If not, they’ll use the power lines, with hideous results – see the 1989 shutdown of the Quebec power system or the Halloween Storm of 2003.
I was especially interested in two presentations about aviation. In 2000, fewer than 500 commercial flights crossed the north polar regions. In 2010 it was over 10,000. Planes on these routes use high frequency radio, which works by bouncing off the ionosphere, a charged layer of the Earth’s atmosphere. When there is severe space weather, this method stops working, so the planes have to fly father south. The result, says Farideh Honary of Lancaster University, is an extra $40k per flight in fuel. So she and colleagues are developing a predictive model to reduce the number of these diversions. Lancaster and Leicester universities have all kinds of kit (Riometer, anyone?) scattered in the polar regions to gather data and feed the models.
Clive Dyer of Surrey University pointed out that people in aircraft (or spacecraft) are also vulnerable to uncharged particles – neutrons – from solar activity. So is electronic equipment. In 1991, the number of errors induced in one flight control computer by this bombardment led to its being withdrawn from service. Dyer has flown many other bits of electronics on Concorde and other aircraft to
measure the damage from these particles. The hazard is so severe that the UK’s Royal Academy of Engineering says that during big solar storms, it may be wise to land aircraft rather than take a chance on their computers getting the plane to its destination. Then of course, modern warfare depends on intelligence from aircraft (AWACS and the like) that are jammed with electronics, which Dyer says can also suffer when the space weather turns stormy. Accidental missile launch, anyone?
All this and damage to human DNA as well. No wonder journalists love space weather, or at least its possible effects. They are a truly modern affliction for the human race. They could be severely damaging, and are problematic to design out or mitigate. Electricity supplies, computer chips, GPS, flying, high-tech warfare, satellite TV, even cars, washing machines and other devices containing electronics; doing without them wouldn’t send us back to the stone age, but it would put us into a real-life rerun of those TV programmes about life in Edwardian England.