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Space storms could threaten the UK power grid

Last Updated on Monday, 12 April 2010 13:11
Published on Monday, 12 April 2010 13:07

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A team of British scientists at Lancaster University and the British Geological Survey (BGS) in Edinburgh have developed a new model that shows the widespread impact inclement space weather could have on the UK. On Wednesday 14th April, team member Katie Turnbull will present the results at the RAS National Astronomy Meeting (NAM 2010) in Glasgow.

Image: Bad space weather caused by high levels of solar activity can impact on power grids here on Earth. Credit: K. Turnbull / J. Wild / ESA

Space storms could threaten the UK power grid
Royal Astronomical Society Press Release
RAS PN 10/30 (NAM 15)
9th April 2010
EMBARGOED UNTIL 0001 BST, 14th April 2010

 

Space storms could threaten the UK power grid

Changes in the space environment caused by the Sun can lead to periods of bad “space weather”. As well as driving intense displays of the northern lights (or aurora borealis), this can generate unexpected currents in electricity distribution grids that could lead to blackouts and damage to valuable infrastructure with potentially high cost to the global economy.

 

Now a team of British scientists at Lancaster University and the British Geological Survey (BGS) in Edinburgh have developed a new model that shows the widespread impact inclement space weather could have on the UK. On Wednesday 14th April, team member Katie Turnbull will present the results at the RAS National Astronomy Meeting (NAM 2010) in Glasgow.

 

Bad space weather can cause fluctuations in the Earth’s magnetic field (geomagnetic storms) that lead to Geomagnetically Induced Currents (GICs) in power grids. These currents have previously been blamed for blackouts in Canada and Sweden and are suspected of damaging power transformers in countries at lower latitudes. Large GICs have even been recorded in Scotland.

 

To prevent future blackouts, understanding how GICs occur is vital. The model developed by the British team, the most sophisticated yet developed, takes magnetic field measurements from all over the UK and combines them with the BGS’s 3D model of how the ground beneath the UK conducts electricity, in order to estimate the currents induced at over 250 locations in the high voltage national grid.

 

The new work provides further evidence that the size of the unwanted current depends not only on the severity of the geomagnetic storm but also on the configuration of the power grid and the direction and fluctuation speed of the electric fields produced. For many years, it was thought that only countries located at high latitudes (near to the Earth’s magnetic poles) were at risk, but this is now known not to be the case. While the basic physics that links solar activity to our electricity grids is broadly understood, the interaction between natural and man-made systems makes it hard to quantity the risks.

 

Results to be presented at the conference will compare simulated GICs in the UK grid model with those actually measured during a geomagnetic storm in February 2003. The simulated and measured currents are similar, but the model suggests that high currents are likely to be induced at several locations in the grid where GICs were not being monitored by the power industry at the time.

 

Although in this case no damage was caused, the scientists plan to use the model to learn how the UK grid might respond to possible future space weather events. Damaged transformers are not cheaply or easily replaced and some scientists and engineers are concerned that a major disturbance, like the severe magnetic storm that followed the solar flare observed by English astronomer Richard Carrington on the morning of 1st September 1859, could interrupt the worldwide electricity supply network by simultaneously disabling hundreds of transformers.

 

Known as the Carrington flare, this was the first flare ever observed and the storms around that time were the first recognised space weather events. In a related presentation on Thursday, Ellen Clarke and colleagues at BGS and co-workers at the British Antarctic Survey and the University of Otago in New Zealand have estimated the strength of the solar flare witnessed by Carrington.

 

They correlated recent flares of known X-ray strength against the related magnetic variation, or ‘solar flare effect’, which is seen in geomagnetic records. The team then used this relationship with the measured Carrington ‘solar flare effect’, recovered from the 150 year old geomagnetic recordings made at Greenwich and Kew observatories and now held in the BGS archives in Edinburgh. They estimate that the Carrington flare must have been about twice as large (in X-ray flux) as the flare that preceded the largest geomagnetic storm of the last 10 years and that affected the Swedish power grid.

 

150 years ago the effect of GICs was limited to causing chaos in the telegraph network, but a storm like this would today have a wider impact. The US National Academies estimate the cost of such a future severe geomagnetic storm scenario hitting the USA to be 1-2 trillion dollars in the first year. Depending on the damage, they believe that full recovery could then take 4-10 years.

 

Lancaster University scientist and team member Dr Jim Wild stresses the wider importance of the group’s new research. “The science is still in a relatively early stage and we're only just starting to understand the interplay between complex natural and manmade systems”.

 

BGS Geomagnetism team leader Dr Alan Thomson added “a major objective is to shed light on the impact of both everyday and extreme space weather on our technologies and therefore to be better aware of the risk”.

 

“Research in this area spans space science and geophysics – we hope that this kind of multi-disciplinary science will be a priority for the UK’s newly-launched Space Agency” added Dr Wild.

 

IMAGES AND MOVIES

 

Download press release text and accompanying image from http://www.dcs.lancs.ac.uk/~wildj/NAM/

 

Image Caption: Bad space weather caused by high levels of solar activity can impact on power grids here on Earth.

 

Image credit: K. Turnbull/J. Wild/ESA

 

This is also be available from http://www.astro.gla.ac.uk/nam2010/press.php

 

CONTACTS

 

Dr Jim Wild
Space Plasma Environment and Radio Science Group
Department of Communications Systems
InfoLab 21
South Drive
Lancaster University
Lancaster LA1 4WA
Tel: +44 (0)1524 510545
E-mail: This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.

 

Dr Alan Thomson
Geomagnetism Team,
Earth Hazards and Systems,
British Geological Survey
Edinburgh
Tel: +44 (0)131 650 0257
E-mail: This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.

 

Katie Turnbull
Space Plasma Environment and Radio Science Group
Department of Communications Systems
InfoLab 21
South Drive
Lancaster University
Lancaster LA1 4WA
Tel: +44 (0)1524 510540
E-mail: This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.

 

Ellen Clarke
Geomagnetism Team,
Earth Hazards and Systems,
British Geological Survey
Edinburgh
Tel: +44 (0)131 650 0233
E-mail: This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.

 

NAM 2010 Press Office (12th – 16th April only)
Room G358
Gilbert Scott Building
University of Glasgow.
Tel: +44 (0)141 330 7409, +44 (0)141 330 7410, +44 (0)141 330 7411

 

Dr Robert Massey
Press and Policy Officer
Royal Astronomical Society
Mob: +44 (0)794 124 8035
E-mail: This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.

 

Anita Heward
Press Officer
Royal Astronomical Society
Mob: +44 (0)7756 034 243
E-mail: This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.

 

NOTES FOR EDITORS

 

RAS NATIONAL ASTRONOMY MEETING (NAM 2010)

 

The RAS National Astronomy Meeting 2010 will take place from 12-16th April at the University of Glasgow. The conference is held in conjunction with the UK Solar Physics (UKSP) and Magnetosphere Ionosphere and Solar-Terrestrial Physics (MIST) meetings. NAM2010 (www.astro.gla.ac.uk/nam2010/) is principally sponsored by the Royal Astronomical Society (RAS) and the University of Glasgow.

 

THE ROYAL ASTRONOMICAL SOCIETY

 

The Royal Astronomical Society (RAS: www.ras.org.uk), 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, recognises 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 3000 members (Fellows), a third based overseas, include scientific researchers in universities, observatories and laboratories as well as historians of astronomy and others.

 

THE UNIVERSITY OF GLASGOW

 

The University of Glasgow (founded 1451) is one of the world’s top 100 research universities with more than 70 per cent of its research rated as world-leading or internationally excellent. The Physics and Astronomy Department is one of the top four in the UK’s major research-intensive universities, the Russell Group.

 

The conference comes to Glasgow during the 250th anniversary year of the founding of the Regius Chair of Astronomy at the University of Glasgow, first held by astronomer and meteorologist Alexander Wilson in 1760. The present incumbent is Prof. John Brown, 10th Astronomer Royal for Scotland.

 

THE BRITISH GEOLOGICAL SURVEY

 

The British Geological Survey (BGS), a component 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 UNIVERSITY OF OTAGO

 

The University of Otago is New Zealand's oldest university. Located in Dunedin, Otago is the southern-most University of the country, with more than 20,700 students and 3700 staff. In New Zealand, universities are institutions where teaching is primarily undertaken by those engaged in research and scholarship. As New Zealand's oldest university, Otago has a long established tradition of research excellence. Since its foundation in 1869, the University has steadily increased its teaching and research activities, while building on its original strengths, including Physics. More information on the University of Otago can be found at: www.otago.ac.nz