Be prepared stormy space weather ahead
Sat 06 Nov 2010
Problems with aircraft communication or navigational systems; malfunctioning satellites and GPS systems; shutdown of power grids - these are all potential impacts of the increasingly turbulent space weather forecast over the next few years.
While it may sound like a scenario from the realms of science fiction, the expected increase in solar activity may have a considerable impact on the Earth, according to a new 360 Risk Insight report from Lloyd’s.
What is space weather?
Space weather is an all-encompassing term to describe various disturbances that occur in near-Earth space, many of which have the potential to disrupt modern technologies. These include solar winds, coronal mass ejections, solar radiation storms, magnetic storms and solar radio bursts.
They are all events that are not just of interest to astrophysicists and astronomers, but should be of increasing concern to businesses generally. The Lloyd’s report, ‘Space weather: its impact on Earth and implications for business’, says that businesses should be looking at ways to assess and mitigate space weather risks now as we enter a period of increased solar activity associated with the peak of the 11-year solar cycle – expected between 2012 to 2015.
This is not the Millennium Bug all over again – space weather is a known risk and there are numerous reported incidents of damaged power grids, satellites and aircraft in recent times. But the report suggests that the impact may be greater during this cycle because of the emergence of vulnerable technologies and the growth of inter-connected systems on which businesses rely.
Planes, trains and automobiles
So who might be most affected? Some sectors are likely to be impacted more than others.
Satellites are clearly vulnerable to disruption by space weather, but so are aircraft. The problem is that it interferes with navigation. Another problem for airlines is that space weather can also increase radiation levels onboard planes. This is especially true for long-haul flights because they fly at higher altitudes and this risk requires continued close surveillance by airlines.
It is not just airlines that are affected - all GPS systems are vulnerable to space weather which means that the road and maritime transport industries could also be adversely affected. Even railways could be disrupted, as space weather can also cause incorrect signal settings on lines.
Not surprisingly, the telecommunication industry may feel the effects of space weather. Mobile phone links are vulnerable to interference from solar radio bursts, and there is also a threat to wireless communication, including wireless internet.
“There is growing concern that the coming solar maximum will expose problems in the many wireless systems that have been developed and grown in popularity during the quiet solar conditions that have prevailed over recent years,” the report says.
The good news is that in all of these areas, there are the means to mitigate the effects of space weather, but they need to be properly identified and put into practice, and that will often involve additional costs.
Disruption for many
Disruption of the power grid could cause massive disruption for all businesses. According to the report, there is growing evidence that space weather modulates the performance of power grids. “In the worst case, it can produce excessive vibration and heating that can permanently damage transformers. In most cases, protection systems will detect problems and switch off systems before serious damage occurs. However, this may lead to a cascade effect in which more and more systems are switched off leading to complete grid shutdown,” the report says.
The report also stresses that a major space weather event in this period could cause widespread disruption to unprepared businesses. The key word being “unprepared”. There is much that can be done to mitigate the risks, and in key sectors such as energy, aviation and communication this is already a high priority, although the report suggests that more could be done in these sectors.
The ideal response to space weather risks is to build robust systems that can operate through bad space weather conditions, but this requires a trade-off between the costs of robustness and the value of the services to be provided.
Businesses need to be able to access information on space weather conditions and monitor the situation in order to mitigate the risks.
The report adds that the insurance industry has considerable experience of insuring space assets and includes the risk from space weather in its pricing. It points out that there could be a wider business opportunity in extending insurances to cover space weather threats to terrestrial assets and services.
Storm clouds gather
But what are the chances of a major solar storm creating widespread disruption on earth? Very small, says Lloyd’s space underwriter David Wade of Atrium Space Insurance Consortium (ASIC) - but a single, large, anomalous event could have profound effects if it were to occur, he adds.
Wade says that the failure of a power grid due to space weather, which happened in Canada in 1989, could happen again on a massive scale, creating chaos in the social and business infrastructure that we all take for granted. “This really is probably one of the worst case, low frequency, high severity events that insurers can contemplate,” he says.
The satellite industry, which has experienced benign loss activity for the last three years, will almost certainly feel the impact of more space weather losses, Wade predicts. One satellite, Galaxy 15, was put of action earlier this year by a geomagnetic storm.
“In the years ahead, as we pass through the Solar Max, I would expect to see more anomalies on satellites. Satellites are designed to survive in the space environment so not all anomalies will translate into claims - but I don’t expect to see the recent run of practically no in-orbit claims continue,” Wade warns.