back to article Now UK must look out for crappy SPACE weather - engineers

Britain needs immediate plans on how to defend itself against extreme solar superstorms, the Royal Academy of Engineering has warned. Solar superstorm effects In a rather doom-heavy missive (PDF, 2.8MB), the RAE has said that although Blighty is better prepared than some other countries when it comes to the off-chance of …


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  1. Anonymous Coward
    Thumb Up

    I want the job

    Space Weather Board, what a great idea, to keep an eye open for a 1 in 200 year event. Obviously this will require me to be employed on a generous "commercial equivalent" salary, and a pension scheme as gold plated as the principla civil service pension scheme. You lot won't be expecting 100% accuracy, given the experimental nature of space weather forecasting, so I could be the man for you.

    I will, of course, also be available at extra cost as a "talking head" for TV and radio, to fill slow news days after a modest solar flare event.

    1. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      Re: I want the job

      A 1/200yr event has a 30-50% chance of it occurring in a lifetime.

      A 1/200yr event grossly inconveniencing 60m people has a an average inconvenience roughly comparable to 300,000 people a year

      300k people could pay £1/year each to get £300k/yr, and fund some guys to coordinate space weather research and make recommendations quite easily.

      I pay considerably more on house/contents insurance, and to fund the NHS/social services which I may or may not ever need to rely in very much.

    2. Steven Jones

      Re: I want the job


      According to the following report, there were about 45,000 fires in dwellings in the Britain in 2010/11. Given that there were something over 26m households in the country, that implies a chance of a fire in a dwelling in any one year of rather less than 1 in 550.

      I assume on the basis you think a 1 in 200 chance per annum is not worth spending money on, that you have also forgone fire insurance on any property you might own.

      1. Steven Jones

        Re: I want the job - miised link

        Oops - missed the relevant link

      2. Anonymous Coward
        Anonymous Coward

        Re: I want the job

        Your analogy and logic are flawed. Every few hundred years the UK has suffered moderately damaging earthquakes, and there's chances of tsunami, or volcanic climate change, but we don't fund people to sit on their backsides pretending to forecast them.

        1. Steven Jones

          Re: I want the job

          Untrue - our universities are stuffed full of academics looking at those subjects. We may have no active volcanos, but we were most certainly affected by a recent one in Iceland and a lot of work has gone into studying the effects on air traffic, forecasting clouds and under what conditions aircraft might still fly scheduled services.

          As for Earthquakes, then you clearly missed the fuss over fracking and the rules that have been put in place regarding "artificial" quakes.

          Also, potentially vulnerable infrastructure is assessed against these risks - including tsaunamis. Following Fukishama, coast nuclear power stations were further risk assessed against the danger of tsunami. Indeed, here is the official report.

          Whilst we don't have an early warning system for tsunami, there is are those campaigning for it.

    3. Wzrd1 Silver badge

      Re: I want the job

      It's not a 1 in 200 year event. After the 1859 Carrington event, there was another in 1882, 1921, 1960 and 1989.

      Since 1859, less severe storms have occurred, notably in 1882, 1921 (May 1921 geomagnetic storm), with disruption of telegraph service and inititation of fires, and 1960, when widespread radio disruption was reported.

      GOES-7 monitors the space weather conditions during the Great Geomagnetic storm of March 1989, the Moscow neutron monitor recorded the passage of a CME as a drop in levels known as a Forbush decrease.

      On March 13, 1989 a severe geomagnetic storm caused the collapse of the Hydro-Québec power grid in a matter of seconds as equipment protection relays tripped in a cascading sequence of events. Six million people were left without power for nine hours, with significant economic loss. The storm even caused aurorae as far south as Texas. The geomagnetic storm causing this event was itself the result of a coronal mass ejection, ejected from the Sun on March 9, 1989.

      But, hey, do what you want. Have your government not make plans or make any effort at mitigation. Then, when one finally does occur, your nation can sit in the dark for weeks to months.

      Beside satellites, there are also power lines, power transformers, telephone switches, telephones, etc that are vulnerable. A Carrington event type geomagnetic storm would burn those systems completely out and it could potentially be years to replace it all.

  2. Anonymous Coward

    Tin foil hats

    they block solar radiation, why not cover everything in tin foil?

    1. NomNomNom

      Re: Tin foil hats

      the costings are prohibitive

    2. Lars Silver badge

      Re: Tin foil hats

      Yes, I have had to sleep without one, now for many years (women and their follies, you know), but what about now, any chance of having a warning in advance night times. Worried.

    3. Katie Saucey

      Re: Tin foil hats

      In the A.C Clarke "A Time Odyssey" series, that's pretty much what solves the problem, most of London gets covered with an enormous dome to protect against the world ending solar event. Of course the rest of the world gets scorched and the Firstborn eventually end up sending Mars to oblivion, but London turns out OK.

      1. Dave 126 Silver badge

        Re: Tin foil hats

        Re Tin Foil Hats:

        This is a classic, I first saw in Victor Lewis Smith's Private Eye series, though it would qualify for a near-Darwin Award. On the dangers of protecting your body with flexible materials:

        Man Sues Tom Ridge Over Duct Tape Fears

        Corona, CA - Tom Ridge's advice to Americans to stock up on duct tape and plastic has sparked a lawsuit which has been filed against him, the Department of Homeland Security and President George W. Bush.

        Steven J. Bosell, the owner of B & B Construction in Corona, California, has filed a lawsuit claiming emotional distress, personal injury and sexual dysfunction after he wrapped his "privates" in duct tape to protect them from a biological attack.

        "After watching Mr. Ridge on television advising us to stock up on duct tape and plastic, I went to the local Costco and bought $100 worth of duct tape to protect myself", Bosell said. "When I got home, I taped up my windows and doors. After I did that I realized if survivors like myself are going to reproduce and populate the Earth after a biological attack, we have to protect our privates as well."

        Bosell claimed in his lawsuit he wrapped his "privates" in duct tape as test of "Homeland Security". When he tried to remove the tape, Bosell injured himself when the tape began peeling off skin and body hair. After calling an ambulance, Bosell was taken to the hospital where the doctors and nurses laughed at him.

        "I told the doctors and nurses at the hospital if they laughed, I would file a lawsuit against them and the hospital. They laughed anyways and I now have another lawsuit pending" Bosell said with tears streaming down his face. "They went out their way to make me look like a fool. Once I saw the doctors scalpel go toward my privates, I totally lost it and blacked out".

        Also named in the lawsuit is the President of the United States, George W. Bush. "President Bush is just as liable for injury to my reproductive future because he hired Mr. Ridge to run the Department of Homeland Security and Mr. Ridge gave the nation bad advice. They also make me look like a fool." Bosell sobbed.

        The Department of Homeland Security and the Bush Administration have no comment on Mr. Bosell's lawsuit.


        unverified by Dave 126

        1. Ed_UK

          Re: Tin foil hats

          "Man Sues Tom Ridge Over Duct Tape Fears"

          Funny, but fake.

          Not to say there aren't any real Darwin Award candidates out there.

  3. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    My impression was that it was mostly quite a positive "we're doing better than everyone else" report...

  4. Sloping Shoulders

    How many others read this and went to look up the Carrington Event?

  5. Michael H.F. Wilkinson Silver badge

    The horror, the horror

    of not being able to use twitter, facebook, ......

    Oh, wait. I don't have accounts there.

    but wait. No REG!!!!


    1. Peter2 Silver badge

      Re: The horror, the horror

      What is actually the threat?

      Huge EM fields wiping magnetic storage? Possible, but SSD's don't get hurt when intentonally trying with a deguasser (We didn't think so, but c'mon, had to be tried!) so I wouldn't imagine that a solar flare presents little threat to a SSD if we transitioned in that direction.

      Power spikes? Is this more than a UPS can smooth out?

      Communications down copper wires being scrambled? Use fibre.

      This sounds like a threat that we have the ability to deal with already, to be honest.

      1. Anonymous Coward
        Anonymous Coward

        Re: The horror, the horror

        "Power spikes? Is this more than a UPS can smooth out?"

        Yes, by quite a bit. The Carrington event induced so much current into telegraph lines that the batteries exploded and caught fire, arcs were jumping out of keys, and some operators were able to disconnect the battery and operate solely on the induced current on the lines.

        Were such an event to hit today, it would induce enough current on long distance transmission lines to fry the transformers. Without the transformers, you have NO power. If we had an event of that size today, the power companies would have to do one of:

        A) Decide a day in advance to disconnect all the long feed lines, shut down the power plants (since there would be no load for them to feed), wait out the storm, then take days to bring the power plants back on line, re-stabilize the grid, and reconnect. During that time, everybody is blacked out, and $deity help your career if you guessed wrong about the storm's magnitude and shut down when you didn't need to.

        B) Hope that nothing goes wrong, and if it does, watch the pretty sparklies as the grid Roman-Candles and spend months waiting for the factories that build transformers to catch up with the backlog (assuming they can: it takes electricity to make transformers, and if the transformers feeding the plants that make transformers go boom....)

        1. Norman Hartnell

          Re: The horror, the horror

          Rather than disconnect everything, electricity companies actually connect as many lines as they can so that the induced power has many routes to dissipate through, rather than concentrating down a few and blowing them out.

          1. Jess--

            Re: The horror, the horror

            from memory the connect everything approach is the plan in the UK, although part of the reason the uk is in a good position to weather an event like this is because the electricity supply is truly a national grid in that power fed in at any point can be consumed at any other point (in theory). also by having a large grid the odds are that where you have a large peak on one part of the grid you also have a large trough elsewhere and plenty of links between the two areas to allow them to equalise.

            other countries with multiple smaller power networks would not do so well because they simply do not cover a large enough area to be able to dissipate the effects.

        2. Anonymous Coward
          Thumb Up

          Re: The horror, the horror

          The humble water resistor.....

          2 giant copper bars hanging into 2 rivers / estuaries / ports - about 20 - 200KM apart = instant power bleed / dump from the mains.

          = pretty easy.

        3. John Brown (no body) Silver badge

          Re: The horror, the horror

          @David D. Hagood

          "Were such an event to hit today, it would induce enough current on long distance transmission lines to fry the transformers."

          According to the BBC take on this story, the UK power network is a lattice structure and so quite resilient to one of these events whereas the Canadian system is point to point and so quite vulnerable. The UK network would likely have some smaller, localised power failures but not a large scale cascade type failure.

  6. Simple Si

    Best Form of Defence... to ATTACK. Therefore, we must destroy the Sun to prevent any further acts of terror from this death star.

    1. NomNomNom

      Re: Best Form of Defence...

      pray to Apep

  7. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    All Hail Telstar 1 !


  8. Tanuki

    200 to one?

    Whereas the chances of anything coming from Mars are...

    1. Irongut

      Re: 200 to one?

      1,000,000:1 Which makes it guaranteed to happen.

      200:1 is much less likely.

  9. TRT Silver badge

    Does this mean we need to build more...

    Space Hardened Information Technology to put into orbit?

    1. John Smith 19 Gold badge

      Re: Does this mean we need to build more...

      "Space Hardened Information Technology to put into orbit?"

      No. Sadly there's plenty of that already in orbit.

  10. M Gale

    Why would a mobile network depend on satnav anyway? The base stations are somewhat fixed in place, and you don't need 1cm positional accuracy in order to fart out radio waves.

    1. The Mole

      They don't want it for the position, they want it for the accurate clock signal to ensure all parts of the network are in sync.

      1. M Gale

        I'm pretty sure that the GPS constellation isn't the only accurate time source out there, even if it is a handy one. Hell, you can buy your own 1-second-in-1,000-years atomic clock for about $6k USD. Not cheap, but you don't need many.

        In fact, I have to wonder why the mobile operators haven't got into positioning systems? They know where the masts are, and radio navigation can be accurate enough even with the transmitters on the floor. Note, actual radio navigation, not the "you're somewhere within a mile or so of the mast" Google Maps thing. Make it work a bit like LORAN and offer it as a "get an extra-quick position fix" service to customers, who might be individual consumers who have it bundled onto a plan with a phone that can use it, or who might be TomTom, Garmin, etc.

        1. John 62

          mobile networks getting into positioning?

          they already have: it's called Assisted GPS

        2. Jess--

          "Hell, you can buy your own 1-second-in-1,000-years atomic clock for about $6k USD. Not cheap, but you don't need many"

          Errrr you would need one for every cell tower so that's roughly 23,000 atomic clocks needed for the uk alone (and that's assuming the 23000 towers figure is current) or a $638,000,000 investment compared to a $230,000 investment using off the shelf gps based time receivers.

          given the situation where there is enough em radiation around to knock out gps time (which only needs a single sat in view) it's likely that the radio side of the cell tower is likely to be swamped with RF anyway, so the loss of timing is unlikely to be an issue because the tower would probably be unable to receive a phone anyway.

        3. Swarthy

          Maybe these should be in Base Stations

          Chip-Scale Atomic Clocks

          That article is Dated May 2011, and quotes $1500, so they should be cheaper now.

          1. Jess--

            Re: Maybe these should be in Base Stations

            I will admit that I didn't look into the costs of atomic clocks (I just used the previous comments costing) but even if you allow for the cost having dropped by a third from the price you quoted to $1000 it's still hard to weigh that cost against a $10 part that gives the same accuracy under most conditions

          2. Lars Silver badge

            Re: Maybe these should be in Base Stations

            And I thought the clock has been kept in Paris all these years.

    2. Pierre Castille

      Time not position

      Navsats provide base stations with a very accurate/precise time signal. If you know where you are the system will tell you what time it is to within a few nanoseconds.

  11. RainForestGuppy

    What's the problem??

    In the event of a solar superstorm, I'll just do when it normally rains i.e duck into the nearest pub and wait till it passes.


    1. NomNomNom

      Re: What's the problem??

      there won't be any beer once the power goes out

      1. RainForestGuppy

        Re: What's the problem??

        That's why I live in the countryside.

        The local has beer straight from the barrel, and we have enough raw materials to make our own when it runs out, plenty of wood for fire, and lots of sheep, cows, chicken (and horses for the burgers) to throw on the BBQ.

        You townies will be eating each other 20 minutes after you lose your mobile signal.

        Now Get ORF my land!!

  12. SirDigalot

    why do I get the feeling, when they say that the uk is better prepared in theevent of a storm, they are blowing smoke out of their arse? half the time they cannot get the basic tv/mobile/cable/internet services to work without the space storm, imagine how blissfully quiet life would be for a while if mobiles and such did not work for a time, people might even drive a bit better with no distractions...

    and we would not have to listen to all the politicians waffle on about what they are (not) doing during the time of crisis

    1. Yet Another Anonymous coward Silver badge

      UK prepared

      Today a solar superstorm disrupted rail transport, caused several mobile phone networks to fail, disconnected whatever-NTL-is-called-today and led to increased rainfall.

  13. Code Monkey

    What is that thing in the top left? THAT'S NO MOON!

  14. M7S

    nice to see the National Grid are prepared for this

    but a bit of wind and snow still foxes the system up.

  15. ISYS

    Update required

    Somebody needs to inform the Royal Academy of Engineering that the Space Shuttle is very unlikely to be affected these days ;-)

    1. hplasm

      Re: Update required

      I think TELSTAR is out of commission at the moment too...

  16. Tom 7

    It's been the wrong kind of Sun for a while!

    The post is required, and must contain letters.

  17. Anonymous Coward

    ...and conceivably mobile communications

    "What?... Sorry... I'm in the middle of a solar superstorm here. Call me back..."

  18. Chad H.

    Backup for GPS

    That would be a map, compass, and window, right?

  19. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    I'm increasingly worried about pianos falling from the sky. We need a body set up to investigate means of protecting the uk in the event of a major Piano Event. About $100M should be enough to begin with, payable direct to my bank account...

    1. Thorne

      "I'm increasingly worried about pianos falling from the sky"

      Don't buy a Morris Marina

  20. Kevin McMurtrie Silver badge


    I looked at the PDF briefly (as fast as it could scroll) but didn't see how this relates to humans. Perhaps The Reg could bring out the Playmobil set for those of us with a short attention span?

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