If you had found yourself in Cuba on September 1, 1859, odds are you would have noticed something pretty unusual about the night sky. You'd have found it to be awash with the brilliant colors of the aurora borealis, a phenomenon rarely ever seen so far south. In your excitement, you'd probably try to telegraph your friends in the US about what you'd just seen—the only problem is many of the telegraph lines wouldn't be working. This is probably for the better however, as your US amigos would likely be unimpressed—the auroras were so strong in the Northeastern states that they could read their newspapers by the aurora's light.
Luckily, the largest solar flare occurred at a time in history when humanity was just on the cusp of electrifying everything, thereby limiting the resulting damage of the 1859 event. Yet if such a massive solar event were to occur today, the results would likely be catastrophic. As such, a number of the most vulnerable industries, such as aviation and telecommunications, are making sure they're ready to handle extreme space weather events. Recently the European railways sector jumped on board this trend by hosting a conference to assess railways' space weather preparedness, which they found to be less than adequate.The conference attendees convened in London over three days in September to discuss the intersection of space weather and rail transport at the behest of the Joint Research Council, which just released a report on the conference findings on Friday.The report examines how space weather, in particular geomagnetic storms caused by coronal mass ejections or solar flares (eruptions of high energy radiation), could have disruptive effects on railway systems, as well as what can be done to avoid such disruptions. According to the report, space weather is liable to impact rail systems both directly (via track circuits and associated electronics) and indirectly (via power grid, communications or GPS failures) and as such constitutes an important variable in evaluating the safety of railway infrastructure.
Studying extreme space weather events is a tricky business, largely due to their relatively rare occurrence and the difficulty in predicting just when the next occurrence will be. Nevertheless, the increasing recognition that another 1859-scale event could prove to have devastating consequences for our increasingly automated societies has prompted a number of governments to begin taking the threat seriously. The United States, for instance, has tasked the National Science and Technology Council with developing a Space Weather Strategy to define high-level goals for preparing the nation for such an event.As the report details, this awareness about the potential risks of extreme space weather has not been seen in the railway sector, despite the inherent vulnerability of this particular mode of transportation. Although railways' space weather preparedness varies by country, the report notes the need for international cooperation in establishing response protocols and risk-management solutions. Some countries where the rail networks extend far into northern latitudes (such as Sweden, Canada, Russia, etc.) have already experienced rail problems with space weather and have begun devising means of confronting these challenges within their particular national context.Despite these pre-existing projects and studies, the report noted a troubling global rail industry trend characterized by its increasing reliance on automated systems, many of which do not include the built-in redundancies of their non-automated predecessors. Of particular concern was the growing dependence on the Global Navigation Satellite System (GNSS), which has previously been shown to be very vulnerable to space weather events, yet is becoming a critical aspect of rail systems for rail condition monitoring, train positioning, and communications.Without an alternative to GNSS built into railway systems, the failure of the GNSS during a solar storm could lead to loss of these critical functions as well as command and control systems. According to the report, "the latter is of particular importance because even a short loss of command and control could have impacts that are bigger than anticipated, and regaining command and control can be a lengthy process."Unfortunately the report notes that railways' dependency on GNSS is poorly understood, which means that the magnitude of the effects of a GNSS breakdown on the railway are difficult to determine without further research.Overall, the report concludes that railway operators need to begin to start taking space weather as a serious concern for their operations, despite its reputation as a "black swan" event. The conference report recommends targeted research efforts to understand the extent of the impacts a major space weather event would have on railways, efforts to raise the general awareness of these events within the rail industries, as well as international cooperation to facilitate relevant space weather information exchanges and post-event protocols to alleviate national burdens imposed by rail system failures.