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Measurements help defend grid against space weather

Last Updated on Friday, 28 June 2013 14:38
Published on Monday, 01 July 2013 23:01

Since the invention of the telescope four centuries ago, astronomers have become more aware of the active nature of the Sun, and how events on its surface can affect the Earth. One of the most dramatic of these is ‘space weather’, when the ejection of material from the Sun can cause a host of potentially damaging effects, from knocking out satellites to overloading electrical power grids on the ground. In an effort to protect the UK National Grid from this phenomenon, scientists from the British Geological Survey (BGS) are carrying out the first programme of long-term continuous measurement of the background electric field in the UK to better understand how it fares during space weather events. BGS researcher Dr Gemma Kelly will present results from the new project at the RAS National Astronomy Meeting in St Andrews, Scotland.

Kelly electricFieldMap smallA snapshot of the electric field strength across the UK during the geomagnetic storm of 17 March 2013. The blue areas are where the field was most strongly negative and the red areas are where it was most strongly positive. This electric field causes currents to flow in any conducting structures, including the power grid. Credit: British Geological Survey©NERC. Click for a larger imageOn any given day there is a very small continuous flow of natural electricity through the rocks and soil in the ground beneath our feet. This electrical current, created by changing magnetic fields in outer space and in the atmosphere, is harmless. Under certain conditions – during a geomagnetic storm - things can be very different. These storms are triggered when magnetic fields and particles from the Sun interact with the Earth’s magnetic field causing it to change very quickly in the space of a few minutes. When this happens, strong electric currents high in the atmosphere can create induced currents in the ground.

The size of the electrical currents generated depends on a number of factors, such as the local bedrock type and the amount of water within the ground. The ground currents can become large enough to potentially cause problems to technology such as high-voltage power grids, railway switches and long pipelines.

To better understand when and how these electric currents form and flow, the British Geological Survey (BGS) is now making measurements of the ground electric field at three sites in the UK (Shetland, the Scottish Borders and Devon) - the first long-term continuous measurements of this kind in the UK. Monitoring the electric field at the three sites will help BGS to predict the electric field across the entire UK, which will be used to better understand the impacts of space weather on our technology.

In her work at the BGS, Dr Kelly and her colleagues use numerical models based on UK geology and measurements of the magnetic field to make predictions of the electric field. The new measurements of the electric field will help confirm that the model-based predictions of the electric field are correct. Knowing where large currents flow is important for reducing the potential damage to the power grid. For example, six million people were without power for around 12 hours in Quebec in 1989, following damage to a transformer caused when ground electricity leaked into the system after a major space weather event.

Kelly - ElectricFieldProbes smallTwo of the measurement electrodes at Lerwick observatory in the Shetland Islands. Credit: British Geological Survey©NERC. Click for a larger imageDr Kelly explains the basis of the new project: “The electric field measurement system consists of sites of two pairs of electrodes, perpendicular to each other and spaced 100 metres apart.  Each electrode is buried one meter below the surface and the voltage is measured across each pair.” Although this sounds straightforward, the project could prove invaluable. “Society depends on an intricate set of electrical and electronic systems, many of which are vulnerable to adverse space weather. By measuring exactly what happens during a major storm event, we can work on better protection for our infrastructure and reduce the damage to the technology we rely on.”

 

 

 

 

 

 

 


Science contacts

Dr Gemma Kelly
British Geological Survey
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Media contacts

Dr Robert Massey
Royal Astronomical Society
Mob: +44 (0)794 124 8035
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Anita Heward
Royal Astronomical Society
Mob: +44 (0)7756 034 243
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Ms Emma Shea
Head of Development Communications
University of St Andrews
Tel: +44 (0)1334 462 167
Mob: +44 (0)785 090 0352
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Landline numbers in NAM 2013 press room (available from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. from 1-4 July, 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. 5 July):

Tel: +44 (0)1334 462231, +44 (0)1334 46 2232

Clive Mitchell
BGS Press Office
Nottingham
Tel: +44 (0)115 936 3257
Mob: + 44 (0)7815 537 439
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Twitter    @CliveBGS

Sarah Nice
BGS Press Office
Nottingham
Tel: +44 (0)115 936 3605
Mob: +44 (0)7989 115657
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Twitter    @Sarahnice1

Lauren Noakes
BGS Press Office
Edinburgh
Tel: +44 (0)131 667 1000
Mob: +44 (0)7772 043 180
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Twitter    @Laurennotes

 

 


Images and captions

 

 

https://www.ras.org.uk/images/stories/NAM2013/2July/Kelly_electricFieldMap.jpg
Caption: A snapshot of the electric field strength across the UK during the geomagnetic storm of 17 March 2013. The blue areas are where the field was most strongly negative and the red areas are where it was most strongly positive. This electric field causes currents to flow in any conducting structures, including the power grid. Credit: British Geological Survey©NERC

 

https://www.ras.org.uk/images/stories/NAM2013/2July/Kelly%20-%20ElectricFieldProbes.jpg
Caption: Two of the measurement electrodes at Lerwick observatory in the Shetland Islands. Credit: British Geological Survey©NERC

 


Further information

 

The data can be viewed on the BGS website at www.geomag.bgs.ac.uk
For additional information go to: http://www.geomag.bgs.ac.uk/research/electric_field.html

 

 


Notes for editors

 

The British Geological Survey (BGS), a component body of the Natural Environment Research Council (NERC), is the nation's principal supplier of objective, impartial and up-to-date geological expertise and information for decision making for governmental, commercial and individual users. The BGS maintains and develops the nation's understanding of its geology to improve policy making, enhance national wealth and reduce risk. It also collaborates with the national and international scientific community in carrying out research in strategic areas, including energy and natural resources, our vulnerability to environmental change and hazards, and our general knowledge of the Earth system. More about the BGS can be found at www.bgs.ac.uk

The Natural Environment Research Council (NERC) is the UK's main agency for funding and managing world-class research, training and knowledge exchange in the environmental sciences. It coordinates some of the world's most exciting research projects, tackling major issues such as climate change, food security, environmental influences on human health, the genetic make-up of life on earth, and much more. NERC receives around £300 million a year from the government's science budget, which it uses to fund research and training in universities and its own research centres. www.nerc.ac.uk

Bringing together more than 600 astronomers and space scientists, the RAS National Astronomy Meeting (NAM 2013) will take place from 1-5 July 2013 at the University of St Andrews, Scotland. The conference is held in conjunction with the UK Solar Physics (UKSP: www.uksolphys.org) and Magnetosphere Ionosphere Solar Terrestrial (MIST: www.mist.ac.uk) meetings. NAM 2013 is principally sponsored by the RAS, STFC and the University of St Andrews and will form part of the ongoing programme to celebrate the University’s 600th anniversary.

Meeting arrangements and a full and up to date schedule of the scientific programme can be found on the official website at http://www.nam2013.co.uk

The Royal Astronomical Society (RAS: www.ras.org.uk, Twitter: @royalastrosoc), founded in 1820, encourages and promotes the study of astronomy, solar-system science, geophysics and closely related branches of science. The RAS organises scientific meetings, publishes international research and review journals, recognizes outstanding achievements by the award of medals and prizes, maintains an extensive library, supports education through grants and outreach activities and represents UK astronomy nationally and internationally. Its more than 3500 members (Fellows), a third based overseas, include scientific researchers in universities, observatories and laboratories as well as historians of astronomy and others.

The Science and Technology Facilities Council (STFC: www.stfc.ac.uk, Twitter: @stfc_matters) is keeping the UK at the forefront of international science and tackling some of the most significant challenges facing society such as meeting our future energy needs, monitoring and understanding climate change, and global security. The Council has a broad science portfolio and works with the academic and industrial communities to share its expertise in materials science, space and ground-based astronomy technologies, laser science, microelectronics, wafer scale manufacturing, particle and nuclear physics, alternative energy production, radio communications and radar. It enables UK researchers to access leading international science facilities for example in the area of astronomy, the European Southern Observatory.

Founded in the 15th century, St Andrews is Scotland’s first university and the third oldest in the English speaking world. Teaching began in the community of St Andrews in 1410 and the University was formally constituted by the issue of Papal Bull in 1413. The University is now one of Europe’s most research intensive seats of learning – over a quarter of its turnover comes from research grants and contracts. It is one of the top rated universities in Europe for research, teaching quality and student satisfaction and is consistently ranked among the UK’s top five in leading independent league tables produced by The Times, The Guardian and the Sunday Times.

The University is currently celebrating its 600th anniversary and pursuing a £100 million fundraising campaign, launched by Patron and alumnus HRH Prince William Duke of Cambridge, including £4 million to fund the creation of an ‘Other Worlds’ Think Tank and Observatory. The new think tank and Observatory project will extend the University of St Andrews’ flagship work on extra-solar planets, and provide a creative environment for problem-focused research, education and continuing public engagement.

For further information go to: www.st-andrews.ac.uk/600/