Tuesday, October 7, 2014

UK to open 'solar storm' centre

A new forecast centre dedicated to space weather is due to officially open in Exeter later.


The Met Office Space Weather Operations Centre is designed to protect the UK's economy and infrastructure from severe events caused by space weather.


The term describes the disruptive influence that activity at the Sun can have on Earth.


The worst 'storms' can disturb satellites, power grids and radio communications.


As with terrestrial weather, the Met Office has been asked to co-ordinate operational forecasting.


It has been doing this now for a number of weeks, working with experts across the UK and in the US, which has had a prediction service for many years.


Wednesday's event, led by the Science Minister Greg Clark, will formally inaugurate the British centre of excellence at the meteorological office's Exeter HQ.


Solar storms are now listed as one of most serious threats on the National Risk Register, along with flu and volcanic eruptions in Iceland. These phenomena are considered to have the potential to cause major economic upheaval, and the government has ordered contingencies be put in place to help protect the UK.


Space weather has long been recognised as an issue, but experts say our increasing dependence on technology has made modern society more vulnerable.


Explosive eruptions from the Sun can have a wide range of effects on modern infrastructure.


A large solar flare can induce huge currents in electricity networks, leading to power outages that can last hours, days and even weeks.


Scientists recall a particularly powerful event in 1859. Described by the English astronomer Richard Carrington, this outburst buffeted the Earth's magnetic field, producing spectacular auroral lights. The electric fields generated in wires were said to have caused fires in some telegraph stations.


Lloyds of London, the insurance market, completed a study in 2012 that examined how the US power grid would cope with a repeat event.


It concluded that the damage to critical transformers could leave some consumers with no networked electricity supplies for a period between 16 days and anywhere up to two years, resulting in economic losses that run from $0.6 trillion to $2.6 trillion.


Jonathan.Amos-INTERNET@bbc.co.uk and follow me on Twitter: @BBCAmos