The Met Office and Space Weather

European city lights from space

In response to the Government adding solar storms to the National Risk Register (NRR) of Civil Emergencies in 2011, the Met Office Space Weather Operations Centre (MOSWOC) was created to provide a UK operational space weather prediction centre to help protect the country from the serious threats posed by space weather events.

The Met Office has been working in collaboration with  National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) since 2011 to build knowledge and capability to forecast space weather in the UK, and at the end of 2013 received £4.6 million funding from the Department for Business, Innovation & Skills (BIS) for an operational Space Weather prediction service.

Why is space weather such a threat?

Solar storms are listed as the fourth most serious threat on the National Risk Register and are recognised as having potential significant impact on the UK's critical national infrastructure.

The Sun is in constant flux and the impact of this solar activity is more apparent as people become more reliant on technology. Solar flares, coronal mass ejections (CMEs) and solar wind affect our technology and systems such as satellites, GPS, power grids and radio communications.

Solar flares can cause high-frequency radio and GPS to perform erratically, extreme CMEs can put power grids at risk. Therefore, space weather forecasts are of crucial importance to the Armed Forces, electricity industry, satellite operators and the aviation industry.

For more information please see What is space weather?

The Met Office Space Weather Operations Centre (MOSWOC)

The Met Office, through it's Space Weather Operations Centre (MOSWOC) in Exeter, will now provide the vital information to help build the resilience of UK infrastructure and industries in the face of space weather events, thereby supporting continued economic growth.

Why the Met Office?

The Met Office is at the forefront of science, researching and demonstrating new techniques. This new Government investment in the Met Office space weather prediction capability will help Government and business to prepare for and mitigate the impacts of a high impact space weather event and support the growth and resilience of the UK space industry.

Through our work with other partners in the UK, the Met Office will help to ensure that efforts are coordinated as part of an international programme with the US  National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) National Weather Service Space Weather Prediction Centre (SWPC).

The Met Office is also set to become a member of International Space Environment Services (ISES) - international body for space weather - and will become a designated Regional Warning Centre.

Current space weather services

The Met Office is already providing operational 24/7 forecasts and warnings of the impacts of space weather on UK services and infrastructure into Government and responder communities, and will continue to develop the level of capability the UK requires. A second phase of services to a wider audience are planned for September 2014.

How do we forecast space weather?

Ground-based and satellite instrumentation are used to monitor space weather events. The solar surface and atmosphere is observed in near-real time to detect any new active regions that may become the source of large events. These observations can help determine whether an eruption may be a threat if it is Earth-directed. The Earth's atmosphere is also monitored to detect changes related to solar wind variations, as well as short-term impacts of solar eruptions.

Solar flares are sudden releases of energy across the entire electromagnetic spectrum. The science doesn't yet exist to predict when the Sun will emit a flare and, given they travel at the speed of light, they can reach Earth in 8.5 minutes so cannot be forecast in advance. Instead an alert is issued to advise when one is in progress. Extreme flares can cause outages of radio communications.

CMEs are often associated with flares and are eruptions of large amounts of matter and energetic particles from the solar atmosphere. These can take days to reach Earth, carrying a local magnetic field from the Sun, and their arrival time is the focus of space weather forecasting. We use the state of the art NOAA  'ENLIL' computer model to predict the arrival time of CMEs. This enables prediction of CMEs impacting Earth within plus or minus six hours (at best). While the Met Office can forecast a CME and its direction of travel, the capability to ascertain whether a CME will have an effect on the Earth is limited to one satellite. Depending on the speed of the CME, this observation will give 20 to 30 minutes warning before the CME has an effect on the Earth.

Gusts in the solar wind that blows around the Earth cause disturbances in the geomagnetic field which can result in geomagnetic storms. These can be measured by both ground-based and satellite instrumentation. On the basis of these data the we will issue watches and warnings, forecasting when these events could occur and the possible severity of the impacts.

We are developing forecasting infrastructure to minimise the impacts of space weather. Ongoing scientific research is essential to understand fundamental physical processes involved in driving space weather, such as solar magnetic fields. The more that is known about these processes, the more models can be improved to accurately predict when a flare or eruption will occur.

Met Office working in partnership

We're working to develop space weather capability and share valuable knowledge and create the UK's space weather forecasting centre with a range of partners in the US. We have a formal collaboration agreement with NOAA to strengthen collaborative efforts to protect critical infrastructure from the impacts of space weather.

As part of the agreement we are implementing the state of the art  'ENLIL' computer model that is used by NOAA to predict the arrival time of Coronal Mass Ejections. Our space weather forecasters liaise on a daily basis with NOAA forecasters to exchange views on the expected space weather conditions for the next few days. We also work with and receive solar imagery from NASA.

In the UK, we're working closely with a range of UK partners including Science and Technology Facilities Council(STFC),  British Geological Survey (BGS), University of Bath, RAL Space, British Antarctic Survey and several other universities and research organisations to transfer data, knowledge and models into the Met Office to support our operational forecasting.

Last updated: 20 August 2014

Forecasting space weather
The Met Office is working with partners in the US and the UK, sharing valuable knowledge to develop the UK's space weather forecasting capabilities.