How Prepared Is Earth For A Space Weather Disaster?
A-Level Extended Project Qualification
The study of space weather is one of the newest fields in physics and astronomy, yet potentially one of the most dangerous. Our understanding of the mechanisms that drive the Sun and thus space weather systems is limited, which means are ability to forecast and defend against a possible disaster is hindered. This report will discuss the history of space weather events on Earth, and the damage they can inflict, as well as examining the technologies currently in place to monitor and analyse the Sun to forecast emanations. It will also explore future and proposed projects for defending against space weather, and assess what impact they may have in protecting the Earth from a potential Solar disaster.
The report concludes that our current understanding and systems to protect against space weather would not be sufficient to mitigate the effects of the most ferocious of solar storms. However our forecasting ability and processes to prepare for a solar flare or CME are much more comprehensive than one may first imagine, and for the most part there is a structure in place to defend against most solar threats. Furthermore, the report highlights the commitment from governments across the globe to improving our ability to prevent a space weather disaster. It suggests that the on-going research and future proposed projects will undoubtedly lead to Earth being well guarded from a space weather disaster.
To most, terms such as space weather, geomagnetic storms and solar flares are fictions, merely the domain of disaster blockbusters. I believe this is a gross misinterpretation of what is considered one of the highest priority natural hazards by the UK Government. A space weather disaster, I believe, is one of the most under-appreciated threats to life on Earth as we know it. Through this project, I wish to discover exactly what damage a space weather event can cause, what precautions we have in place to mitigate these effects, and overall whether the UK and indeed the world are prepared for a space weather disaster.
Before we can discuss the impacts of space weather, we must first ascertain a grounding in what space weather is: fundamentally, the interaction between solar emanations and the Earth’s magnetic field. The Sun is a hot, massive ball of mainly hydrogen gas, so hot in fact that most of the atoms break apart into charged particles — a state known as plasma. These moving charged particles generate a magnetic field which in turn generate electric fields, creating a dynamo. This results in the Sun having a constant magnetic field which “leaks out” across the Solar System, and a constant, steady stream of charged particles emanating from the Sun in what’s called the solar wind.
The Solar Wind would’ve stripped the Earth of its atmosphere long ago if not for its natural defence — a magnetic field acts as a barrier against the oncoming solar wind, funnelling charged particles along the filed lines and in toward the poles. These charged particles interact with the upper atmosphere and excite gas molecules, which in turn release energy in the form of a photon. With billions of these collisions occurring at a given time, enough photons are released for the effect to be visible in the night sky. The different gas molecules emit different wavelengths of photons, which we see as ribbons of green, blue and red. This is the aurora, the most obvious space weather phenomena, but only the surface of a much more complex system.
Within the Sun, the high energy charged particle move randomly and each generate their own magnetic field, which combine to generate the Sun’s overall magnetic field. The random movement of the particles, however, forms “knots” (properly known as flux ropes) in the magnetic field where charged particles start to build up. Eventually these magnetic structures become too stressed and realign into a more natural configuration and release large amounts of energy and the trapped particles.
The energy is released in a solar flare, a wave of electromagnetic radiation that races across the Solar System at the speed of light. This wave “sweeps up” the protons emanated in the solar wind and cause a solar proton storm. These protons, travelling at large fractions of the speed of light, can travel the 1.5×108 km from the Sun to the Earth in less than ten minutes, and provide an early warning for an even larger emanation headed toward Earth.
The trapped charge particles now eject from the surface of the Sun in a Coronal Mass Ejection (CME), an immense cloud of hot plasma that is hurled in a single direction, travelling at over a million miles per hour. CMEs can take anywhere from one to three days to reach Earth, but when they do their effects can be far more devastating. The CME on impact will compress the Earth’s magnetic field, causing a shockwave, transferring large amounts of energy into the magnetosphere. The magnetic field of the CME and the magnetic field of Earth can overlap and stretch the field away from the Sun, all the energy and charged particles now being trapped within Earth’s magnetic field. Eventually too much stress is put on the magnetic field and it “snaps” back, explosively releasing the energy toward Earth, resulting in a geomagnetic storm.
The study of space weather is still in its infancy, and humanity has only really experienced one large-scale solar storm — the 1859 Carrington Event, where a coronal mass ejection induced currents in the magnetic field that led to aurorae being recorded as far South as Cuba. In this era, only the telegraph system was affected, inducing electric shocks in anyone who tried to operate it due to the immense currents flowing through the wires, but if such an event was to happen today, how would our technology-dependent civilisation cope? I think it is vital to assess what impact a space weather disaster could have on the modern world, and what systems are in place to mitigate its effects.
Although I knew I wanted to focus my EPQ on the study of space weather, it took some time to formulate my exact question. However, through reading articles and journals on the subject, it soon became apparent that there was a lot of mixed opinion on how prepared we, as a country and as a planet, are prepared for a space weather event. Could one of these cosmic events spell out our premature doom? I became intrigued with learning more about this and so pursued research how prepared we are for a space weather disaster.
I began by watching a short film on the topic produced by the online scientific broadcaster, Kurzgesagt Videos, which gave a general overview of the topic of space weather and what threats it poses. Although this is a secondary source made for a layman audience, the researchers for the projects are very detailed and thorough and cited all of their sources used in the video. This then provided an opportunity to look in greater detail at some of the statistics and points raised in the film.
One number that particularly shocked me was the probability of a solar flare or coronal mass ejection striking the Earth within the next fifty years was fifty-percent. I was keen to pursue where this number came from and its legitimacy before I cited it in my project, and this led me to the video’s associated references. I found that the particular website came from an article published by a NASA scientific outreach branch in 20149. The article itself is a second-hand source, using material originally published in the February 2012 issue of the scientific journal Space Weather — On the Probability of Occurrence of Extreme Space Weather Events. The Space Weather journal is a publication of the American Geophysical Union, an international and non-profit research group where all publications are peer-reviewed. The article now is eight years old, and indeed in July 2012 a Coronal Mass Ejection was a “near-miss” from hitting the Earth, and the data from this even surely would’ve had an affect on the author, Riley’s, calculations. Furthermore, records of space weather events have only been kept since the Carrington Event of 1859, and photographic monitoring of the Sun since the next year. This limited data set means Riley has had to extrapolate data to produce his final value, which inherently introduces error and uncertainty. That said, Riley combined multiple data sets to generate his value, taking observational data of solar flares and the velocities of Coronal Mass Ejections at different points in time, and combining them with data about he effects felt on Earth — namely geomagnetic storms and changes in nitrate levels in ice cores. Using multiple sources of data recorded by different organisations independently increases the credibility of his value, however Riley acknowledges not all the sources are perfect; there is still skepticism from ice-core chemists that fluctuations in nitrate levels are the result of space-weather events3. Overall, the probability is to be taken with some doubt, but equally provides a good indicator for how the chances of a space weather event are not to be taken lightly.
Next I needed to find out more about the potential damage a space weather disaster may cause. Mainstream and popular media sites suggest the damage would be tremendous; the New Zealand publisher Stuff suggested the United States alone could face damages of anywhere from $500 billion to $2.7 trillion. However, this article provided no references for these estimations. The prestigious insurance agency, Lloyd’s, however, provided similar figures in its publication Solar Storm Risk to the North American Electric Grid, and this report was made in collaboration with Atmospheric and Environmental Research, an agency that consults with agencies such as NOAA and NASA as well as private firms to anticipates risk from climate and weather. These figures then can be taken to be reliable. The Lloyd’s publication also suggests that twenty-to-forty million people in the US alone could be affected by power outages for a period anywhere from sixteen days to two years6. The variation in these estimates is of course a result of not having any data or experience in recent history to base predictions off of, and so are highly speculative in their answer.
I wondered, however, whether this quite pessimistic view off the potential effects of a space weather event on our electrical infrastructure was shared across the entire scientific community, and consulted with a space weather forecaster for the MetOffice to ask his opinion. He suggested that these figures are often skewed to highlight just how terrible a truly “worst-case scenario” would be (a more intense solar storm than the Carrington Event), however neglect to mention how small the probabilities of such an event occurring are. Furthermore, different nations have different procedures in place to mitigate such effects and will also experience different consequences based on their geography and infrastructure. Most articles and research into the effects of space weather tend to focus on the impacts of the United States, a reasonably Northernly country and so in closer proximity to a magnetic pole, and so subject to more intense effects of a geomagnetic storm. A country on the equator would not be so badly affected by a space weather event. I decided to research the UK’s planned response to a space weather event and consulted the Space Weather Preparedness Strategy, published by the UK Government Department for Business, Innovation and Skills. In this paper, they highlight the reoccurrence of a Carrington Event has 1% annual probability8 and how they have used less severe but more recent data points to generate this estimation. The report also emphasises the difficulty in generating useful numerical values associated with probabilities and impacts of space weather events and so as a source is more useful in showing its shortcomings.
Finally, I had to look at sources discussing historical space weather events. I discovered spaceweatherarchive.com, a website featuring numerous articles discussing historical and more recent space weather events. The blogposts are detailed however all based off of secondary research of others. Furthermore, the site is operated and all articles published by only one author, so there is no peer-reviewing of pieces before publication. The author does however provide hyperlinks to all of his sources for further reading. Spaceweatherarchive.com informed me of lots of smaller space weather events which have happened in more recent history which I then researched individually. A 2017 article in The Economist, How To Predict and Prepare For Space Weather, discussed how in 2003 a minor solar storm had caused 4,096 votes to be added to a candidate’s total in a local Belgian election. The Economist is a respected and reputable financial magazine and in the article quoted Bharat Bhuva, a professor of electrical engineering speaking at an annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science. The article then is rooted in scientific research. I also discovered solarstorms.org, which contained a complete timeline of “Space Weather History”. Though this provides a comprehensive and detailed list of space weather events, no sources or citations are given with them to indicate where the author learnt of these events. Thus, the source is not entirely reliable. However, it provided a good starting point to then conduct my own research of some of the lesser known historical space weather events. I found drawings taken from multiple journals of eyewitness in Japan in 1770 where they saw bright red lights in the night sky. Although at this time the understanding of space weather and what was causing these lights was still a mystery, modern scientists have concluded that these lights seen in East Asia were very likely the result of a solar storm at that time. More detailed than painted depictions of the aurorae, Captain Cook observed these lights while in Indonesia and recorded the exact angular height of the aurora as “reaching in height about twenty degrees above the horizon”. Retrospectively, modern scientists have been able to use this data to estimate the strength and size of the 1770 solar storm, and though Cook’s figure is only an estimate, it provides more of an insight into solar storms of the past.
I also needed to gather information on the richest space weather data source to-date, the 1859 Carrington Event. I searched for primary accounts of experiences of the events and found a report in the Baltimore American and Commercial Advertiser of a “magnificent display of the auroral lights”. The city of Baltimore is well out of the auroral zone, generally considered to be between sixty and seventy degrees of latitude North, so records of such bright and vivd auroral displays give a suggestion as to the intensity of the solar storm. Being a primary source, there is also no chance of misinterpretation by historians of events and so is a reliable indicator of how profound and noticeable an effect the CME had on the residents of the city. I also found a paper, Duration and Extent of the Great Auroral Storm of 18597, which took eye-witness accounts and records of the Carrington Event and fed them into an algorithm to generate a database of auroral sightings across the Earth at different points in time. This data was then used to generate a model of auroral visibility across the Earth during early September 1859 and suggests aurorae would’ve been visible in regions as far South as twenty-degrees North, in the region of Panama and Colombia. However, this model is taken by extrapolating data mainly recorded in Northern Europe and America so we cannot be sure the effects of the CME would be as far reaching as this. Furthermore, the authors acknowledge in their paper that 1859 was well before the unification of time across countries and the formation of definite timezones, therefore there is likely to be a lot of disparity in recorded times of events.
Overall, any information or publications about space weather events and the potential impacts are severely limited by our lack of data on the subject; though we have sophisticated techniques for modelling possible effects, this is no substitute for raw observation. That said, there is a clear trend across sources that large-scale space weather events are possible and they are likely to happen again.
For almost two-hundred-and-fifty years, humanity has grappled with the threat of space weather on technology and society. The Carrington Event of 1859 was the first solar storm to have a damaging effect on technology, causing telegraph systems to be overloaded and unusable, rendering long-distance communication impossible for a period. There were also reports from telegraph operators of the systems sparking and in some cases causing electrocution. In the mid 1800s, the telegraph system was the only large scale electrical infrastructure across the Earth, a so-called “Victorian Internet”, so though the effects were profound ultimately they were not life-changing. Indeed, in theory solar storms on a similar scale to the Carrington Event or larger have occurred multiple times throughout humanity’s history, however our technological abilities had only developed far enough for the damage to be noticeable in the mid-19th Century. The Sun is known to have an eleven-year cycle of activity levels, and though the link between this and large-scale solar storms isn’t yet understood properly, it can be inferred that solar storms are a regular occurrence and this then raises the question — when can we next expect one, and what will be the consequences?
Our reliance on technology since the Carrington Event has increased exponentially, and a global overload of electricity grids caused by geomagnetically induced currents would be devastating. Smaller space weather events in more recent history can give us an indication as to how powerful a large-scale solar storm would be, but before we explore these it is important to have a grounding in how the effects of space weather are measured.
Solar storms and space weather can be measured using the Disturbance Storm Time Index, or Dst. This is a value based on the stability of the Earth’s magnetic field recorded across by magnetometers in multiple nations on an hourly basis since 1957. The scale is measured in nano-Teslas, nT, the unit of magnetic field intensity. All values are generally negative, and generally the Earth experiences activity in the order of -50nT that cause aurorae. Any storm that results in a Dst value of -250nT or below is considered a “super storm”. To date, there have only been thirty-nine “super storms” by this scale, with the Carrington Event of 1859 the most intense with a minimum estimated Dst of -1710nT.
Since 1859, Earth has encountered multiple, smaller solar storms but with effects far more pronounced due to our increasing reliance on technology. In May 1921, the United States was badly affected by a solar storm that generated currents great enough to spark fires, including in Grand Central Terminal. Modern estimates put the Dst index value of this storm as around -907nT, slightly less than that of the Carrington Event. However, sixty years of technological progress has made the impacts of the storm significantly more damaging: the telephone systems in New York City, still in their relative infancy, were damaged, as were the telegraph systems which the railways depended on. This disruption led to some sources referring to the event as the “New York Railroad Storm”.
Approximately seventy years later, the Earth was struck by another solar storm in March 1989, with a minimum Dst index value of -589. Though with just over a third of the intensity of the Carrington Event, the 1989 solar storm had far less trivial effects. Aurorae were visible as far south as Texas and Cuba, and there was some fear that red glows in the sky were the result of a nuclear war. The most significant effects however were experienced by the Canadian province of Quebec, where on the 13th of March the Hydro-Québec power utility grid was overloaded. The geomagnetic-induced currents led to a sustained power-failure of nine-hours that affected six million people, and led to businesses and transport links closing, including Dorval Airport. If the effects had been felt a few degrees further south in some of the U.S’ East Coast cities, estimates suggest the storm could have caused $6billion worth of damage. The storm also had a noticeable effect on humanity’s infrastructure above the Earth’s surface: the GEOS-7 weather satellite experienced five-years of solar panel degradation in just seven days and lost half of its mission life. It also caused delays to the Space Shuttle Discovery mission STS-29, when a sensor in one of the tanks supplying hydrogen to the fuel cells showed unusually high pressure readings.
The 1989 “Quebec Blackout”, as it is known, is perhaps the most severe solar storm in recent history, but not the only one. In 2003, a minor solar storm of Dst intensity −383, added 4,096 false votes to a local election in Belgium. Most ominously, in July 2012 the Earth had a “near-miss” from a super solar storm only comparable to the Carrington event, which would have registered -1200nT on the Dst index had it struck the Earth9. Fortunately, the storm was caused by a coronal mass ejection that passed through the orbit of the Earth but approximately nine days after the Earth was there — a close shave when one considers the Sun has an eleven-year cycle of activity which is unpredictable at best. The STEREO-A satellite observed the CME and recorded it as travelling between 1800 and 2200 miles per second, meaning it could travel the distance from the Sun to the Earth in as little as 12 hours. Our realistic window of time between detecting this CME and it colliding with Earth would be slightly shorter, raising the question are we prepared enough to react to such an event in such a small period of time?
These past events paint a picture of humanity’s lack of preparation to mitigate the effects of a solar storm, however I think this is an unfair assessment. Figures such as the United States’ potential damages reaching $2.7trillion suggest that the effects of large-scale solar storm have to be dire, but work in the field of solar science is constantly evolving and there are now more systems in place than ever to analyse, forecast and mitigate the effects of space weather.
We have only been monitoring solar activity and space weather intently since Richard Carrington’s initial observations in 1859, and so have only experienced 24 full, eleven-year solar cycles as of 2020. In this time, however, our methods and technology for analysis and forecasting has improved dramatically. Carrington observed the solar flare by projecting an image from his optical telescope, trained on the Sun, onto a white screen. Eighteen hours after the flare, the first sign of a geomagnetic storm was compass needles spinning erratically and the telegraph system failing. Since Carrington and his contemporaries made the link between solar activity and geomagnetic disturbances, systems have begun to be put in place to monitor both aspects.
Now, nations operate a slew of magnetometer observatories across the world that all feed data back to generate real-time values for the Disturbance Storm Time Index. The British Geological Survey alone is responsible for nine observatories across the world that can generate near real-time data on geomagnetic activity. A magnetometer’s configuration is similar to that of a transformer: they contain two cores made of a ferromagnetic material, each with a coil of wire wrapped around them. Through one wire is passed an alternating current, which induces an alternating magnetic field in the other. The magnetic field should induce an identical alternating current in the second coil, however it never will due to the interaction between the induced magnetic field and the Earth’s magnetic field. The difference in phase and intensity between the two currents can then be measured and interpreted to understand the strength and characteristics of the geomagnetic field at that point. Magnetometers, then, rely on much the same physical principles as compass needles, but humans have developed the technology to be able to exploit this effect to generate tangible, qualitative data.
One area of great activity in space weather forecasting is Antarctica. The Seventh Continent is “a natural reserve, devoted to peace and science” and “scientific observations and results from Antarctica shall be exchanged and made freely available”. To this end, many nations have set-up space weather monitoring facilities at their research stations in a joint effort to increasing our understanding of the subject. The Antarctic lends itself to the study of solar storms due to its proximity to the South Pole, as well as the lack of electronic signals to cause interference.
The British Antarctic Survey operates its Space Weather Observatory programme from the Halley VI Research Station, situated on the Brunt Ice Shelf. Halley is the operation-centre for a dozen low-powered magnetometers, specially designed to run from solar-panels and detect currents in the ionosphere, where satellites orbit, located across the continent.
Another vital piece of equipment stationed at Halley is the microwave radiometer. When the charged particles ejected from the sun “falls” into magnetic pole above Antarctica, it excites the gas molecules in the mid to upper atmosphere. The microwave radiometer focuses on the area 35-90km above the surface, where the charged particles can produce potentially harmful radicals that don’t occur naturally. One such is nitric oxide (NO) which can be very harmful if it reaches the ozone layer of the atmosphere, where it contributes to its breakdown.
The NO molecules absorb certain frequencies of microwaves incident from space, and the radiometer can detect this as “absorption lines” on the spectrum. The unique absorption spectrum indicate to scientists the levels of NO in the atmosphere and with it tell us more about space weather activity. The radiometer itself relies on an incredibly sensitive detector that has to be supercooled to -269ºC.
An ingenious method of monitoring space weather is using Very Low Frequency (VLF) radio, which is anywhere from 200 – 10000 Hz, but most activity is in the range of 400 – 5000 Hz. Nearly anything with an alternating current passing through it will produce a signal in these low frequencies, and so the currents induced in our upper atmosphere also do. Halley is home to the Halley VLF receiver, a dedicated series of antennae linked to a global network, tuned to listen to the currents in the upper atmosphere. These arrays record and map lightning strikes around the world and study changes in the upper atmosphere caused by interactions with the solar wind leading to induced currents. The Halley VLF receiver is just one part of a global spanning, with stations from Hawaii to the Lake District.
These projects all display a widespread commitment to increasing our understanding of space weather and a realisation of how important the subject is to our future. However, Earth-based technologies are limited to being reactive systems to a solar storm — we can study the effects of the storm after the fact and use this knowledge to help forecast, but we can’t know for sure when a storm will hit. For that, multiple space agencies from across the world have invested in space-based technologies to allow us to detect coronal mass ejections and solar flares before they reach Earth.
The Solar Terrestrial Relations Observatory (STEREO) mission launched in October 2006, comprised of two near identical solar observatories placed into heliocentric orbit. The first satellite, STEREO-A, was inserted into an orbit inside the Earth’s, meaning it moves faster, while STEREO-B’s orbit is outside the Earth’s, so it moves slower. This leads to the satellites being able to view two different areas of the Sun at the same point in time, allowing the first stereoscopic and 3D images of the Sun to be generated. This has allowed scientists to gain a much more detailed understanding of activity on the surface of the Sun and look for patterns in solar behaviour in relation to solar storms. Arguably the most vital contribution of the STEREO mission, however, came in 2012, when the STEREO-A satellite was directly struck by the largest solar storm since the Carrington Event9. As aforementioned, the data generated from this fortuitous impact (if ominous, considering STEREO-A orbits in the plane of the Earth, therefore if the coronal mass ejection had occurred as little as nine days earlier, it would’ve struck our planet) has generated invaluable data on the effects of coronal mass ejections.
The STEREO missions, however, are just the beginning of humanity’s commitment to understanding our Sun and space weather. As evidence of how this is a global issue to be tackled, NASA and ESA have collaborated on the Parker Solar Probe/Solar Orbiter mission. The Parker Solar Probe has been specially designed to go closer to the Sun than any spacecraft before it, and collect data that is simply impossible to achieve from anywhere else. The PSP has already given us insights into the behaviour of the Sun’s magnetic field, revealing it to be far more volatile close to the surface, constantly switching in orientation. Furthermore, data from PSP is making scientists question our understanding of the solar wind; rather than the accepted model of a steady stream of charged particles, data suggests solar winds can flow in spikes and bursts.
Placing cameras on a spacecraft at such proximity to the solar surface would be futile, so to give context to this data and provide visual clues to the Sun’s activity, a partner satellite is required with a larger orbit. ESA’s Solar Orbiter, launched February 2020, is a space-based laboratory dedicated to learning more about the mysteries of the Sun that drive space weather. The Solar Orbiter is home to a series of imagers and magnetometers that will be able to provide unprecedented detail in images of the solar corona and solar wind to compliment data from the PSP. The PSP and Solar Orbiter are a great commitment from their respective space agencies to preparing for space weather, coming at an estimated total cost of over $2 billion.
The PSP and Solar Orbiter is the latest mission to study the Sun, but it won’t be the last. Space agencies across the world have committed to future missions to explore the Sun and its affects on Earth. Perhaps the most exciting future project to study space weather is the ESA Lagrange Mission. Aimed to play a major part in ESA’s Space Weather Network, the Lagrange Mission would insert a spacecraft in the L5 Lagrange Point, a point in space where the gravitational forces of the Earth and the Sun balance each other to create a stable point of orbit. This would mean the Spacecraft would have a constant, “side-on” (with respect to Earth) perspective on the Sun and so would allow us to detect any dangerous activity before that area of the surface rotates to be facing Earth. It would also allow us to see any Coronal Mass Ejections heading toward Earth with much greater clarity and earlier due to the unique perspective.
These multi-national efforts to increase our understanding of space-weather highlight the widespread commitment to the study from governments and space agencies across the Earth. Indeed, in September 2019, the UK Government committed a £20 million funding boost to predicting severe space weather events and protecting British satellites. Furthermore, developments in machine learning techniques promise to increase our forecasting ability to up to seventy-two hours ahead. Machine learning programmes can recognise patterns and causality in large datasets that it would be simply impossible for a human to, extending our time to prepare for a space weather disaster from hours to days.
Unfortunately, many of these projects are still merely proposals, or at the most in their infant stages of collecting data. The L5 Mission, for instance, is still yet to even be confirmed and developed, so it is not unreasonable to not expect a launch of the craft until the next decade, if it is approved for funding at all. That said, it is clear that recently there has been a real focus from governments and space agencies on solving the problem of space weather. Through a commitment to developing technologies to collect and pool data, we have learnt more about our Sun and space weather in the last twenty years than in the two millennia before.
Before starting this essay, I was expecting that my research would uncover a complete lack of preparation on global governments’ parts for a space weather disaster. However, what I discovered was much to the contrary; despite what tabloid newspaper headlines suggest, there is a widespread acknowledgement of the potential severity of a solar storm to the modern world. Measurements and data collected on the Sun and its affects on the geomagnetic field have increased tremendously since the Carrington Event in 1859, especially in the last twenty years also. The various space-based missions deployed by global space agencies also demonstrate a great commitment (both with time and financially) to space weather as a study and preventing a possible disaster.
That said, there is still a long way to go with the study of space weather. Our forecasting abilities are still relatively primitive, especially when compared to terrestrial meteorology, where we can predict weather systems with reasonable accuracy 10-14 days into the future. With space weather, we may currently have only as little as 15 minutes warning before the first signs of a solar storm heading toward Earth5. This is, of course, after the first solar flare has been produced by the Sun; we have no way of knowing before-hand for certain if a flare or CME will be produced and is Earth-bound. This is just a limit of the lack of data and sophistication of our models; we never know for certain about terrestrial weather, either, but the probabilities of our forecasts being correct are much higher than with space weather. The future of the study of space weather is bright, however, as proposed projects — including ESA’s L5 mission — are sure to increase our forecasting ability dramatically, perhaps allowing us to predict at a similar timescale to weather on Earth, providing ample time to prepare electrical infrastructure for a storm on the scale of the Carrington Event.
Although, then, I would conclude that at the moment the Earth would not be prepared for a severe space weather disaster, that has to be followed by an assertion that technologies in this sector are only getting better, and space weather is being paid its due attention as a threat to our Earth. Though perhaps now we may suffer greatly from an extreme solar storm, our current systems are capable of predicting and mitigating the effects of most space weather threats. Furthermore, I am confident that over the next decades our understanding of the Sun and space weather will be such that we can forecast over a greater period of time to greater accuracy to predict and prepare for the strongest of solar storms in good time.
I found the advice of MetOffice experts invaluable in guiding my research, providing a different, more informed perspective on space weather technologies than what can be found online. If I were to go back and complete my project again, I would certainly approach experts far sooner as their input allowed me to focus and narrow my argument and supporting research. Furthermore, I would’ve liked to explore the effects of low-level space weather, such as how astronauts and high-altitude pilots have an increased chance of cancer due to exposure to charged particles from solar flares and wind. This project has taught me valuable skills in the art of writing and research for reports; this was my first time using a referencing system for my sources, and having to conduct a research review. Moreover, writing about complex physics in such a way as to be accessible to any audience has improved my own understanding of the topics. I am now more confident in my own knowledge in space weather and feel much more informed about how we are working to protect our planet against it.