Space Weather Impacts on Ground-based Systems (SWIGS)

Lead Research Organisation: NERC British Geological Survey
Department Name: Earth Hazards & Observatories


Space weather describes the changing properties of near-Earth space, which influences the flow of electrical currents in this region, particularly within the ionosphere and magnetosphere. Space weather results from solar magnetic activity, which waxes and wanes over the Sunspot cycle of 11 years, due to eruptions of electrically charged material from the Sun's outer atmosphere. Particularly severe space weather can affect ground-based, electrically conducting infrastructures such as power transmission systems (National Grid), pipelines and railways. Ground based networks are at risk because rapidly changing electrical currents in space, driven by space weather, cause rapid geomagnetic field changes on the ground. These magnetic changes give rise to electric fields in the Earth that act as a 'battery' across conducting infrastructures. This 'battery' causes geomagnetically induced currents (GIC) to flow to or from the Earth, through conducting networks, instead of in the more resistive ground. These GIC upset the safe operation of transformers, risking damage and blackouts. GIC also cause enhanced corrosion in long metal pipeline networks and interfere with railway signalling systems.

Severe space weather in March 1989 damaged power transformers in the UK and caused a long blackout across Quebec, Canada. The most extreme space weather event known - the 'Carrington Event' of 1859 - caused widespread failures and instabilities in telegraph networks, fires in telegraph offices and auroral displays to low latitudes. The likelihood of another such extreme event is estimated to be around 10% per decade. Severe space weather is therefore recognised in the UK government's National Risk Register as a one-in-two to one-in-twenty year event, for which industry and government needs to plan to mitigate the risk. Some studies have estimated the economic consequence of space weather and GIC to run to billions of dollars per day in the major advanced economies, through the prolonged loss of electrical power.

There are mathematical models of how GIC are caused by space weather and where in the UK National Grid they may appear (there are no models of GIC flow in UK pipelines or railway networks). However these models are quite limited in what they can do and may therefore not provide a true picture of GIC risk in grounded systems, for example highlighting some locations as being at risk, when in fact any problems lie elsewhere. The electrical model that has been developed to represent GIC at transformer substations in the National Grid misses key features, such as a model of the 132kV transmission system of England and Wales, or any model for Northern Ireland. The conductivity of the subsurface of the UK is known only partly and in some areas not at all well. (We need to know the conductivity in order to compute the electric field that acts as the 'battery' for GIC.) The UK GIC models only 'now-cast', at best, and they have no forecast capability, even though this is a stated need of industry and government. We do not have tried and tested now-cast models, or even forecast models, of magnetic variations on the ground. This is because of our under-developed understanding of how currents flow in the ionosphere and magnetosphere, how these interconnect and how they relate to conditions in the solar wind.

In this project we will therefore upgrade existing or create new models that relate GIC in power, pipe and railway networks to ionospheric, magnetospheric and solar wind conditions. These models will address the issues we have identified with the current generation of models and their capabilities and provide accurate data for industry and governments to assess our risk from space weather. In making progress on these issues we will also radically improve on our physical understanding of the way electrical currents and electromagnetic fields interact near and in the Earth and how they affect the important technologies we rely on.

Planned Impact

There are three main interest groups where the proposed research will have impact.

Industry - Geohazard Impact & Assessment
Geomagnetically Induced Currents (GIC) impact the National Grid, pipelines and railways. We will therefore have representation on our stakeholder advisory group from organisations such as National Grid plc (power and pipelines), Scottish Power (power) and Atkins (railways), as well as UK Space Agency (international space weather initiatives and measurements), MunichRe (natural hazard insurance) and the Met Office Space Weather Operations Centre (MOSWOC). By interacting with this stakeholder group the investigators' scientific research into coupled ground-ionospheric-magnetospheric processes will be better tailored to their (and other) end-user needs, for example in terms of forecasts, surface electric fields or GIC model accuracy. For the National Grid our developments will add functionality and improved accuracy in GIC models already in service with them, as part of the real-time 'Monitoring and Analysis of GIC' (MAGIC) project that BGS is contracted to provide. National Grid uses MAGIC to determine where GIC is impacting their network during storms and to help inform their decision-making about the system state and operation. Our world-leading GIC and physical models of near-Earth processes will be adapted and used in other countries, and add to the international influence of the investigators. Understanding of space weather impact on pipelines and railways is a particularly under-developed area with very little in the published literature. We therefore foresee that our research will be world-leading here, likely acting as a stimulus to similar activities in other countries. We plan UK 'firsts' in terms of models of GIC flow in UK pipelines (with National Grid) and railways (with Atkins). Both National Grid and Atkins are keen to investigate the UK exposure to space weather.

Government - Geohazard Impact & Assessment
Space weather is recognised on the UK National Risk Register. Cabinet Office, BEIS, Go Science and other government departments have worked with some of the investigators, industry and industry regulators in the area of impacts on ground-based systems. Cabinet Office established the 'Space Environment Impact Expert Group' (SEIEG) to advise the government Chief Scientist through SAGE during space weather emergencies. Several SAGE 'table top' rehearsals have already been held, involving investigators from this proposal. The UK government, regional governments and assemblies, local authorities and emergency responders will therefore benefit from the quantified accuracy we will deliver from our new and improved GIC-related models. We will use our research outputs to inform discussion papers within the SEIEG group intended for government decision makers. We will also hold two 'information briefing events' to target scientifically aware lay-people from government and other agencies. This should aid information flow and decision making during severe space weather events and emergency planning in general and this will be integrated with MOSWOC daily operations.

Public - Engagement, Public Awareness, Natural Hazard Preparedness, Aurora Observation
Space weather is a topic that has had high prominence in the media over the last few years, prompting public interest in the aurora (what is it, where is it, and when to see it?). The investigators already have a strong track record in outreach activities, including the highly successful AuroraWatch website (Lancaster), public demonstrations (e.g. BGS 'Open Days'), talks and regular media activity in response to alerts of major space weather. We plan to tap into this interest and communicate what we are doing and why it matters by further investigator activities in these areas, including through a Royal Society Summer Science exhibit, where we will showcase our research and demonstrate our significantly improved GIC-related models.
Description Findings from this research inform our semi-annual contribution to a UK Cabinet Office committee of scientists: Space Environment Impacts Expert Group, and could contribute to SAGE in the event of an extreme space weather hazard.
First Year Of Impact 2017
Sector Government, Democracy and Justice
Impact Types Societal,Policy & public services

Description Membership of BEIS 'Space Environment Impact Expert Group'
Geographic Reach National 
Policy Influence Type Membership of a guideline committee
Title Horton benchmark model 
Description In our work on geomagnetically induced currents (GIC) in the UK power grid, we make predictions of GIC at major transformer substations in the grid. However there is very little data currently to validate the accuracy of our models. So we have implemented a test, or benchmark, model due to Horton et al, to validate our modelling methodology and algorithms and for us to demonstrate that we can reproduce the results of the Horton et al paper. The Horton benchmark is significantly simpler than the UK power grid but it contains intricacies in transformer characteristics. Having this validation means that we can be confident that our models are correctly constructed and that potential users of our models, for example in the power industry, can be confident of our approach. 
Type Of Material Improvements to research infrastructure 
Provided To Others? No  
Impact Our validated code is used in 3rd party contract work. 
Title Space weather impact on UK gas pipeline model 
Description The SWIGS team have developed the first mathematical model of geomagnetically induced current (GIC) flow in the UK high-pressure gas transmission pipeline network. This model has been used to study how and where severe space weather may impact this system. 
Type Of Material Improvements to research infrastructure 
Year Produced 2018 
Provided To Others? No  
Impact The model is still in early development and needs refinement. The intention is to share modelling results with the UK pipeline industry (project stakeholders); further refine the model with their assistance, and create maps of risk points in the pipeline system. 
Title Geomagnetically induced current database 
Description Using the technique of 'differential magnetometery' the project team has deployed six DM systems to non-invasively measure geomagnetic induced currents, caused by space weather, in six high voltage power lines across the UK. These data will be used to check and validate our models of GIC throughout the UK power grid. Further deployments of the hardware will occur in later years. 
Type Of Material Database/Collection of data 
Year Produced 2019 
Provided To Others? Yes  
Impact The GIC data will be compared with directly measured GIC, made by our industry stakeholders, to prove the modelling methodology we have used. 
Title Variometer measurements of magnetic field across the UK 
Description Magnetic field data collected by the Raspberry Pi magnetometer network are now freely available online for researchers and the public to download and analyse. These data include, time, three components (X, Y, Z) and sensor temperature. 
Type Of Material Database/Collection of data 
Year Produced 2016 
Provided To Others? Yes  
Impact Maps of the geomagnetic field during the 7-9th September 2018 storm have been created from this rich data set 
Title Differential magnetometer system 
Description The differential magnetometer system (DMS) is currently deployed at six sites across the UK. The DMS is non-invasive hardware that measures the geomagnetically induced current (GIC) flowing in high voltage power lines, which is used to validate and correct mathematical models of GIC flow in the UK power grid. 
Type Of Technology Detection Devices 
Year Produced 2018 
Impact The DMS has been developed and deployed by the SWIGS project team at BGS. Initial results have attracted interest from the power industry. 
Description Lerwick Magnetic Observatory Open Days (Shetland) 
Form Of Engagement Activity Participation in an open day or visit at my research institution
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach Local
Primary Audience Public/other audiences
Results and Impact The Geomagnetism and Seismology BGS teams undertook a series of public outreach events, for schoolchildren (P2 and S3) and the general public in Shetland, based at the Lerwick Museum and the Lerwick magnetic observatory between Wednesday 28th June and Saturday 1st July. These events were intended to involve the local community in the science we do, including within the SWIGS project, and to cement relationships with local stakeholders to ensure the successful continuation of Lerwick magnetic observatory. No such event had ever been held in Shetland before. We had 120 primary and secondary school pupils and 300 members of the public, an impressive turnout of about 5% of the local population (and 3% of Shetland's scattered population as a whole). The event was covered by local news media including the BBC. The event was made possible by financial contributions from a Royal Astronomical Society small grant award, BP, BGS geomagnetism and seismology, and the support of the Met Office, Shetland Amenity Trust, UNESCO Geopark Shetland and the Shetland Nature Festival. Preparation for the event (expertly led by Will Brown and Orsi Baillie) was a major additional undertaking and test for the Geomagnetism and Seismology teams, and was prepared for over several months by staff already fully allocated on other work. Undoubtedly, we made an impact locally and this was down to the hard work, enthusiasm and determination of all involved.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2017
Description NERC UnEarthed Showcase Event 
Form Of Engagement Activity Participation in an activity, workshop or similar
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach Regional
Primary Audience Public/other audiences
Results and Impact A presentation stand on geomagnetic science undertaken by BGS over the weekend of 17-19 November, as part of the NERC 'UnEarthed' showcase event at the Dynamic Earth venue in Edinburgh. The combined footfall over the weekend was over 7,000 people, making this probably the largest exposure BGS geomagnetism science has had.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2017
Description RAS specialist Discussion meeting "Ground Effects of Severe Space Weather" 
Form Of Engagement Activity Participation in an activity, workshop or similar
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach International
Primary Audience Professional Practitioners
Results and Impact Ciaran Beggan on behalf of SWIGS, co-led a Royal Astronomical Society discussion meeting at Burlington House, London in March 2018. The topic was "ground effects of severe space weather" and brought together experts from the UK and invited speakers from overseas. The meeting led to a report published in the RAS journal Astronomy & Geophysics.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2018