Lancaster shares in £3.7m research to help Met Office predict space weather

The UK’s ability to predict solar superstorms and other severe space weather events is being upgraded with two major research projects both involving Lancaster University.

Both these projects will translate research into products for the prediction and mitigation of space weather effects. Turbulent space weather, largely caused by radiation, energetic particles and plasma emitted by the Sun, can cause huge disruption on Earth. Risks include widespread and longlasting power cuts, disrupted satellite, GPS and radio communication technologies, and air passenger and astronaut safety.

The implementation of the models by the UK Met Office will have a huge impact in many industries including aviation, High Frequency radio communications, navigation and satellite operations.

Extreme space weather is now included in the Government’s National Risk Register – an overview of the key emergencies which could cause significant disruption in the UK. The likelihood is currently judged to be comparable to that of an emerging infectious disease.

The research is part of a £20m programme called SWIMMR (Space Weather Instrumentation, Measurement, Modelling and Risk), funded by UK Research and Innovation and designed to deliver improved monitoring capability for the UK’s Met Office.

As part of this programme the Space and Planetary Physics group at Lancaster University is involved in two projects together worth a total of £3.7m – SWIMMR-I and SWIMMR-T.

The first project will explore ways to deliver effective monitoring of the ionosphere, the charged part of the Earth’s upper atmosphere. This region can disrupt communication with aircraft and render GPS positioning systems inoperable.

Professor Farideh Honary, who is Lancaster’s lead for SWIMMR-I, said: “The overarching aim of SWIMMR-I is to better model the ionosphere, with a key goal being improvements in forecasting high-frequency (HF) radio performance.”

The second project SWIMMR-T will investigate the thermosphere, the neutral part of the Earth’s upper atmosphere.

Dr Adrian Grocott, who is Lancaster’s lead for SWIMMR-T, said: “SWIMMR-T is designed to provide a better model of the thermosphere to improve satellite orbit prediction, with Lancaster contributing essential models of the electric fields which heat the thermosphere and produce satellite drag.”

The Met Office’s Space Weather Programme Manager Simon Machin said: “The SWIMMR Programme will be fundamental in bridging the gap between UK academic excellence in a variety of space weather fields and pulling this through to inform operational services, which are vital to inform mitigation strategies for government and industry.”

The SWIMMR consortium (led by Birmingham University) draws together the UK’s principal experts in upper atmosphere modelling from Lancaster, Bath, Leicester, Leeds and Southampton universities and the British Antarctic Survey.

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