A ‘solar superstorm’ could disrupt satellite navigation systems, electricity supplies and high-frequency radio communications in the UK - but the nation’s mobile phone networks should be largely unaffected.
That’s the message from the Royal Academy of Engineering, which has just published an in-depth assessment of the potential impacts of solar superstorms. These rare events - unlike other solar storms - occur every few hundred years and often miss the Earth. However, a major solar storm in 1859, known as the ‘Carrington event’, caused telegraph systems to fail and resulted in bright aurorae being seen around the world.
The Academy warns that a solar superstorm is inevitable and will adversely affect the electricity grid, satellites, GPS systems and aviation. Disruption to global navigational satellite systems would also affect other services that rely on them for timing or positioning, such as the TETRA handheld radio system.
Although the 3G CDMA base stations used by some network operators in the USA, Eastern Europe and the Far East take advantage of GPS satellites for timing and synchronisation, the UK’s 3GPP-based systems don’t require GPS support.
Professor Paul Cannon FREng, Chair of the Academy's working group on extreme solar weather, said “The UK is one of a small number of countries taking this risk seriously. 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 across government departments. 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.”