United Kingdom – 10.35 Greenwich Mean Time
Cabinet Office Briefing Rooms, Whitehall, London UK
The Prime Minister looked around the room, clearly this was a meeting of heavyweights, the UK emergency response committee, a few ministers, civil servants, the police and a smattering of intelligence officers and the group of specialist weather experts. He knew they’d all have to be careful about what was said about this high level pow-wow, outside of the room, later in the day.
They had called these senior minister get-togethers ‘COBRA’ meetings since the 1970s, in theory just because they were held in the Cabinet Office Briefing Rooms. But over the years it had become a lot more than that. It was hardly a surprise that newspaper editors obviously loved the name COBRA, as it sounded like a venomous snake. It had suitable overtones of acting and striking fast, against some immediate threat to the country’s security. The trouble was, a lot of what they discussed in these meetings was pretty mundane stuff. Robert knew from his public relations advisors that if every time they met up it got called COBRA by the press, then not only would it soon lose its allure for the headlines, but it would also lose its impact on the public when the government wanted them to know they were really on the case of a serious issue. He knew sometimes it was useful just for the government to give an impression of acting, rather than actually doing it.
Today they were talking about the threat of space weather, as the UK Met Office called it, a pretty odd topic he had to admit. Robert was glad someone else had piped up early on to ask exactly what space weather was, and the Met Office had given a definition that still hadn’t shed much light initially. He’d learned space weather was a branch of space physics concerned with all the effects of the various conditions created by our Sun on the Earth and inside the solar system. These included the impact from the solar wind, the stream of charged particles released from the sun’s upper atmosphere called the corona. The sun also could also apparently have a wide range of impacts on the Earth’s own magnetic field and even its temperature regulation. It also affected the ionosphere, the layer of atmosphere latter critical for long distance communications, bouncing radio waves around the globe.
For Robert this was a potentially interesting topic. However, the reality was that they had been embroiled for over an hour in a conversation about the merits of different types of power lines and step-up transformers. This was because these bits of kit were at risk from geomagnetically induced currents that could be created by the Sun. This was exactly the sort of occasion his wife Anne would have been advising him to find his inner Karma. If he heard the words ‘dielectric breakdown’ for the tenth time he would go mad. Robert suspected he was willing to call a halt to the meeting and get them all to go away and provide a decent summary written in plain English, for a later meeting. In fact if he had his way, much later.
Still, the COBRA meeting had started on time, which was pretty rare these days. The reason they had convened this series of meetings was infrastructure risk assessment, in its broadest sense. Defining the effects on health, power and basic supplies like food and water, in fact anything important to the national infrastructure.
With no earthquake fault lines to worry about in Britain, they didn’t need be concerned with a major tremor. But the eruption of Eyjafjallajökull, the small but unpronounceable volcano in Iceland, had caused massive disruption to air travel across Europe for six days in April 2010. And with such natural disaster events occurring somewhere around the world once or twice a year on average, they were right to be concerned about it here too, especially as they could affect any of the 53 British Commonwealth countries and their people, almost a third of the global population.
Then there were external things like terrorist attacks that senior politicians were worried about affecting critical public services, as well as the threat of a deadly influenza outbreak, like in 1917.
Glancing around the room once again he took in the presence of the UK Energy Secretary, senior mandarins from the Department of Transport, and a cohort from the UK Meteorological office based in Exeter, now simply called the Met Office, sitting round the far end of the large oval oak table. Robert surveyed the most senior man from the Met Office who had planted himself at the other end of the table He probably had the most interesting job title in the UK having been appointed Head of Space Weather when the role was created just a few years ago.
Sir Mark Allard, the UK’s foremost power generation and transmission expert, was just finishing his risk assessment summary for Britain’s power infrastructure from the wise ranging effects of space weather.
Robert pondered on Mark’s closing summary on the downsides of the UK moving from a government owned power generation set-up, into one that was now almost completely privatised and sold off to investors and private companies, and all in a quarter of a century. The UK electricity market was currently built on the back of the break-up in the early 1990s of the Central Electricity Generating Board, or CEGB, into four separate companies. All of the UKs power generation capability had originally been transferred to the three generating companies they’d called PowerGen, National Power and Nuclear Electric, with all the transmission side of things handed over to the National Grid Company.
He’d heard the depressing news that, by 2001, all of Britain’s power was privatised, and a large chunk of Britain’s power infrastructure was now owned by German and French energy companies. Still, the relationships with the various foreign companies seemed good, despite what had happened with Brexit. This was particularly important given Britain was now a net importer of electric power from Europe, not to mention natural gas too.
He had been slightly surprised to find out that a fifth of Britain’s electricity was still currently coming from nuclear reactors. The biggest challenge ahead was that the UK’s nuclear power stations were getting to their end of life, and all but one of them was scheduled to close, gradually over the next decade, and all bar one expected to stop running by 2025.
Sir Mark had been very forthright about space weather effects on the UK power supply network. It sounded like that as much that could be done practically to protect it had already been undertaken, or at least within sensible budgets. But it was interesting that he mentioned the emergency hotline number for England, Wales and Scotland as ‘Power Cut 105’. Robert had never heard of this number before, and seriously doubted that most people in the UK would know about it either. This was one time when you needed to get this sort of information out to the general public via the now defunct Public Information Film Bureau. The consummate professional, Sir Mark coughed politely to indicate that he’d come to the end of his feedback to the COBRA committee.
Phil, the Met Office Head of Space Weather stood up to speak next. He oozed confidence, Part of this confidence came from knowing why he was seen as a trusted figure and regular attendee at these COBRA briefings.
He’d recently been on a presentation skills course, just a refresher program for him. Hearing himself back on the course video, he’d immediately recognised why people had a dislike of his odd mid-Atlantic twang. But he’d also had an interesting insight into why most people sat still and listened too.
He’d sat back after his first recorded presentation, seeking to make notes on what he might improve. Most people on these types of course got to see what the audience saw, with the camera recording them placed at the middle or back of the room. What made this course that bit different, run by a gruff ex-marine, was that two synchronised cameras were used, with one in the middle of the room facing the presenter and one sited right behind the presenter’s left shoulder. This second camera gave a clear view of the reaction of the audience to the topic the presenter was covering. The obvious question he’d had when he saw the odd setup was ‘why bother?’ Surely the presenter could see the audience reaction they were getting through their own eyes?
It was somewhat of a revelation to find out that what he thought he knew about the audience’s reaction to what he was covering, was not the full picture at all. As a presenter, you really only got to glance at a few people in the room at any one time, as you said each phrase. But when you watched the ‘audience view’ camera, playing back your presentation in slow motion deliberately, you got a completely different picture of how you came across. It became obvious, watching the results of some of the less able presenters on the course, that they focused their attention on just the few people in the audience that they were comfortable with. This was explained by their course tutor simply as human nature. When you talked to a big group, you looked at the people you thought were like you, spoke in a way that you thought would keep them listening to you and changing your delivery to make sure that they also liked you.
When Phil watched his own recording, he realised that he focused completely on his content and delivery, and really wasn’t concerned at all about how he was coming across. As a result, he scanned the room ore often, looked and talked in an animated way, and turned to face the people in the audience turn by turn. This had the simple effect of making him appear more interesting and engaging, and kept everyone feeling part of his world.
As the course leader explained, some people just came across more naturally than others. Phil had also learnt that by the time we reach adulthood, we have all become specialists in snap-judgement. Like it or not, he’d learnt we all jump to conclusions on everything about a person’s character and status, simply by watching their face for no more than a few tenths of a second. So, as he scanned the COBRA room, he recognised most of the contributors would be subconsciously shunning any considered higher-brain assessment in favour of simple visual cues and shortcuts on whether or not he could be trusted. Whilst he was regarded by most of his staff as a good figurehead for the space weather team and a fair and even-tempered boss, he knew also from the course that a chiselled jaw was associated with dominance. Hey, who was he to complain and go against natural talent? But he’s learnt to keep calm, focus, and remember to keep the science simple.
In the COBRA briefing room, Phil checked his notes and started his introduction with what he suspected was fairly common knowledge. Go for an assumptive close and try to head any awkward questions off at the pass.
‘It’s long been known that the sun’s eleven year cycles affect winter weather all over the northern hemisphere, where about eighty five percent of people in the world live. We now know, from looking back at a century and a half’s historical data that colder winters in in the UK have been found to coincide with the solar sunspot minimum. Higher sunspot activity seems to affect the Earth’s upper atmosphere, weakening the normal south westerly winds that hit us and allowing the colder, stronger winds coming down off the Artic to drive in to hit mainland Britain. Conversely, higher sunspot activity seems to drive in more rain around the equator and tropics, so we get longer rain spells and further south it makes Asian monsoons that much more intense.’
But, and it is a big but for Britain, so far we’ve not found any clear link between the periods of higher sunspot activity and really big solar flares, the ones that you’re all wanting to try and plan for the UK’s National Risk Assessment Register. It’s important to say that the Space Weather team at the Met Office works on four types of space weather, solar radiation storms, geomagnetic storms, solar flares and CMEs. It’s the last three that our new project team has been working on for the last six months. They’re looking at every bit of solar data they can get our hands on and we’re working closely with our counterparts in the US. But I have to say that our final results summary is still about a month away.’
Phil paused to judge the reaction to the disappointing news that he’d just shared with the COBRA room. There was a three second pause. It was the Prime Minster that broke the silence.
‘So, if I’m hearing you right Phil, are you telling us is that not only do we not know when the next really big solar flare is going to hit, but we also don’t yet know how big it might be?’
Phil looked Robert in the eye, ‘Yes PM, that’s about the size of it.’
Robert planted his hands on the table, an action deliberately designed to control the people around him and the loaded atmosphere in the room.
‘OK Phil, let’s take your statement as read that no one knows exactly when the ‘big one’ is going to happen, but perhaps you can give us your best guess guide on how often they happen, how we spot one and what the worst effects might be on UK infrastructure?’
Phil took his time and considered this loaded triple question. Whilst this was exactly the sort of query he’d expected, and planned for, he knew he’d have to play this really carefully. He needed to be clear about the expertise his team could continue to deliver, to make sure he stayed a critical cog in the COBRA ‘wheel’. But he also recognised that both MOSWOC and the special solar flare project team budget might be on the line if he didn’t pitch his answer just right. He coughed lightly.
‘I’m glad you ask that Robert, it’s the critical part I was about to come on to. We believe a large solar flare and solar storm can erupt at any time during the solar cycle, However, we think big solar storms only happen every hundred years or so, but when they do there will be three key questions associated with it that we ask.’
‘When we spot a large solar storm we often see big arches of plasma that start curling off the sun, called sigmoids. The first question is whether the strong magnetic field lines linked with these solar arches can keep it curving back into the sun, or will the arch snap at some point when the flare is further away from the sun. We’re still trying to understand the mechanics of what makes these huge aches break but, if this happens, then a solar flare is created, often together with what we call a coronal mass ejection, or CME.
‘The second question is, which direction is the solar flare and any CME heading in? Not everyone realises it, but the sun rotates counter clockwise, just like the earth and most of the other planets in the solar system. It goes round pretty quickly too, once every 26 days at its equator. So, as we see the sun from Earth, the sunspots and all of the activity on the sun appear to be moving west to east. If we spot a solar flare or CME thrown out about half way between the west side of the sun and the middle, then it’s likely it will be heading right in the direction of the Earth.’
‘Flung out away from the sun into space as part of this CME is all of the high energy material that was in the solar flare, the broken section of the arch. We get to see this solar flare and any CME exiting the sun here on earth just over eight minutes after it happens. We see them both happening in the visible, X-ray and radio wavelengths, as they travel at the speed of light.’
‘After about thirty minutes, if it’s heading our way, we get high energy protons hitting the Earth, what we call a solar radiation storm. If the storm is big, then about fifteen minutes later it starts to affect all high frequency radio communications and any satellites in its direct path. Aircraft flying at high northern latitudes will also get fairly high doses of radiation from the CME.’
‘Which brings us on to the third question, exactly how much energy and matter is thrown out as part of this big blast of energy, the CME? We can get some indication of how big it is by how bright the solar flare is, and how long it lasts, but there are no guarantees.’
‘The slightly good news is that, unlike the light from it, the big chunk of other energy, matter and magnetic field wrapped up in a CME itself travels much slower than the speed of light, but still at one to three thousand kilometres a second. So that means it can take between fifteen and seventy two hours to reach Earth.
‘So we do have some time to get prepared for when a big CME hits, but then there’s another particular complication.’
Robert stared directly at Phil across the large table. ‘Why is it when there are scientists in the room, there are always complications, I ask myself?’
It was a rhetorical statement. Phil paused, then continued.
‘The thing is that each CME has a polarity, like an enormous bar magnet. We can’t tell that from the solar flare what polarity it is. It’s only when it hits one of our outer satellites, stationed about one and a half million miles out from the Earth, that we can get this data. It’s critical that we know the polarity of the CME, because it can tell us what the likely effect of the fourth type of space weather is going to be, and that’s the geomagnetic storm that goes with it.’
‘If the CME has a north magnetic field, in other words the same as the Earth’s magnetic field, then our field will tend to repel the CME, just like magnetic poles on a bar magnet repel each other. But if the CME arrives with a south polarity, opposite to our planet’s magnetic field, then the Earth’s geomagnetic field attracts the CME, and any geomagnetic storm tends to be a lot bigger.’
‘And what happens if there is a really big geomagnetic storm?’
‘Well, there are a whole variety of other effects, and rather than go through all of it, which would take another hour or so, I’ve put it all in the detailed pack in front of each of you. That covers the effects of the solar flare, CME, radiation storm and the geomagnetic storm on transport, satellites, radio, TV etc, and what we can do to offset as many of the effects as possible if the worst happens.’
‘Well, because of the short notice we get on a big CME’s polarity, we have to try and define the effects just before they happen. The important thing to note is that MOSWOC not only has all of NASA’s historical solar data to work with, but that we add our own customised impact disruption scales specific to the UK. In practical terms this means that if we spot anything happening on the sun, you get to know about it as soon as we do. And that’s a warning, together with guidance on how big we think the effects might be, and what mitigation you might be able to take. And all of the MOSWOC data service is provided free and used by British airlines, the CAA, railway networks, satellite owners etc, and they get the same warnings in as close to real time as we can make it.’
‘As far as the public goes, well that’s slightly different. The challenge is that if you announce a CME with a few hours’ notice to all of the four hundred plus local councils, unless they are aware of what a CME is and what effects it might have, it could trigger either panic or inaction from council members. So I’m afraid what you decide to provide in the form of local government or direct public announcements is your call, and we’d strongly advise you to take the fact that very few people understand what a CME is or what it does into account in what you communicate to the wider public.’
‘But we certainly can advise you on any local effects that we think might happen, based on the magnitude of the solar event. That includes things like effects on communication satellites, radio, TV, global positioning and local road and rail signalling.’
‘I’m sorry if we over-ran and that appeared a bit overcomplicated or overdramatic in parts, but hopefully that covers all of the main issues. I’d urge you all to read that document there in front of you, that’s got the timings in it from a solar pulse at time zero to when a CME hits, so we all stand the best chance of keeping UK Plc running.’
Phil stood back from the table, a power pose with legs spread, clearly suggesting he’d wrapped up his part of the COBRA briefing.
‘Any questions? You have my email if you need to know more.’
He’d given them all a lot to take in and, as he suspected, no one was going to risk their reputation by asking an obvious question, or even a less obvious one. This was a big problem with the current senior Ministers, not one of them had a science background.
Sometimes, he wished they would ask a simple question that, at face value, might seem obvious. It would make him feel much more comfortable that the UK Government really understood the hazards the Sun could throw at their fragile Earth, seemingly at any time.