Space weather risk to airlines

Posted by Emma Woollacott

Air crew and frequent fliers could run health risks from space weather, according to a report from insurers Lloyds.

'Space weather: its impact on Earth and implications for business' warns that the effects of such phenomena as solar winds, coronal mass ejections, solar radiation storms, magnetic storms and solar radio are likely to increase as solar activity reaches a peak between 2012 and 2015.

"Space weather can... increase radiation levels onboard planes," Lloyds warns. "This is especially true for long-haul flights because they fly at higher altitudes and this risk requires continued close surveillance by airlines."

Planes are also at risk from interference with navigation, as are any  business that relies on GPS. Even railways can be disrupted, says the report, as space weather can cause incorrect signal settings on lines. The satellite industry will be one of the worst victims, says space underwriter David Wade of Atrium Space Insurance Consortium (ASIC). One satellite, Galaxy 15, was put of action earlier this year by a geomagnetic storm.

And the telecommunications industry could be set for problems, with mobile phone links and wireless internet vulnerable to interference from solar radio bursts.

"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.

There's growing evidence that space weather modulates the performance of power grids, producing excessive vibration and heating that can permanently damage transformers. In most cases, protection systems will detect problems and switch off systems before serious damage is caused; however, this can lead to a cascade effect in which more and more systems are switched off leading to complete grid shutdown, the report says.

Lloyds reckons that the chances of a worldwide event are low - but that it could be catastrophic if one did occur. "This really is probably one of the worst case, low frequency, high severity events that insurers can contemplate," says Wade.

NASA and ESA recently put into operation a new Automated Solar Activity Prediction system which can accurately predict a solar flare six hours in advance. ESA says it's confident its satellites can stand up to the approaching solar maximum.