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Impact of space weather threat examined

March 10, 2011


Professor Hapgood examines the linkage between the science of space weather and its impact on technological systems, potential impact of Solar weather on orbital and ground based systems including power, energy and communications – as well as atmospheric physics.
Space weather is concerned with disturbances in Earth’s upper atmosphere and in near-Earth space that can disrupt the advanced technologies on which our society now relies. A proper understanding of space weather requires us to bring together a range of scientific, engineering and economic expertise, emphasizing the role of the electromagnetic force in many of the physical processes that cause space weather.
One example is the crucial role of plasma physics within the sources of space weather on the Sun, in the transmission of energy from the Sun to the Earth via the solar wind and Earth’s magnetosphere.
Another is the role of the electric currents that naturally flow with near-Earth space and whose enhancements cause many of many space weather phenomena, such as the induced currents that threaten the operation of electric power grids.
On the engineering side, the lecture outlines the impacts of space weather on a wide range of advanced technologies including space systems, power grids and satellite navigation systems. It shows how serious risks from space weather have emerged over the past fifty years as advanced technologies have permeated modern societies – and that we have now reached a point where these risks are receiving serious attention from academia, industry and government.
Good engineering design must be the first line of defense against space weather, and engineering must be backed by situational awareness of conditions in space to enable a second line of defense through operational procedures. Illustration of these points includes key examples of how space weather effects are mitigated and how they may be tensioned against costs (and thus the economic impact of space weather).
Looking to the future, there are the key areas where action is needed to improve protection against space weather. The most important of these is to raise awareness of space weather outside the expert community, so that operations staff and decision-makers in sectors at risk are aware of the potential threat.
On the research side, we need a better understanding of many features of space weather: the background science, the engineering impacts, and, most importantly, the economic impacts. The latter is particularly challenging area for space weather because of the current limited availability of quantitative data.
The lecture includes some discussion of Lord Kelvin’s scientific work in this area, in particular of his theoretical objections to the hypothesis that what we now call space weather has its origin on the Sun. We will show how Kelvin’s arguments were well-based on late nineteenth century understanding of electromagnetism – and how the development of plasma physics in the twentieth century has resolved the objections that Kelvin raised (thereby transforming our understanding of the interactions between Sun and Earth).

About the speaker

Professor Mike Hapgood is Head of the Space Environment Group at RAL Space, the space research and technology department of the Science and Technology Facilities Council. He is also a visiting professor at Lancaster University working with the Space Plasma Environment and Radio Science Group.

Mike is an internationally recognized expert in space weather, with a deep interest in understanding how the science links to practical impacts. He has over 30 years experience in solar-terrestrial physics, both ground- and space-based, working on projects such as EISCAT and Cluster.

Over the past decade Mike has led several major ESA space weather studies and served as chair of ESA’s Space Weather Working Team (2006-2009). In the latter role he led European lobbying actions that supported the inclusion of space weather in the 2010 Framework 7 call. He is now leading SWWT activities to lobby for inclusion of space weather in FP8.

One of his major scientific interests is to understand and apply the physics that controls extreme space weather events. He participated in the 2008 US National Research Council study on the economic and societal impact of such events (the only European to do so). More recently he has acted as an expert adviser to UK government activities that are assessing the risks that extreme space weather poses to our country.

He is also working with Lloyds insurance to raise awareness of the wider impact of space weather on business activities. Mike also has a long involvement in Royal Astronomical Society (where he was secretary 1998-2008 and vice-president 2008-2010). He is also current (2008-2011) chair of MIST, the community group that works to coordinate the activities of the UK solar-terrestrial physics community and that is closely linked with RAS.

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