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Space storm studies win prizes for Lancaster scientists

Lancaster University researchers are investigating the threat to electricity distribution grids posed by solar radiation Lancaster University researchers are investigating the threat to electricity distribution grids posed by solar radiation

Lancaster University research into the threat to electricity distribution grids posed by solar activity won two prizes at the UK National Astronomy Meeting held at the University of Glasgow between 12-16 April 2010.

Changes in the space environment driven by solar activity can cause fluctuations in the Earth's magnetic field that lead to Geomagnetically Induced Currents (GICs) in power grids. These currents have previously been blamed for blackouts in Canada and Sweden and are suspected of damaging power transformers in countries at lower latitudes. Large GICs have even been recorded in Scotland.

Department of Communication Systems PhD student Katie Turnbull presented results from a new model that shows the widespread impact inclement space weather could have on the UK. Working in collaboration with the British Geological Survey (BGS), Katie developed a model that takes magnetic field measurements from all over the UK and combines them with the BGS's 3D model of how the ground beneath the UK conducts electricity, in order to estimate the currents induced at over 250 locations in the high voltage national grid.

Results presented at the conference compared simulated GICs in the UK grid model with those actually measured during a geomagnetic storm in February 2003. The simulated and measured currents are similar, but the model suggests that high currents are likely to be induced at several locations in the grid where GICs were not being monitored by the power industry at the time.

At the same meeting, Katie's PhD supervisor in the Space Plasma Environment and Radio Science group, Dr Jim Wild, presented a poster summarising the present day challenges in understanding the geomagnetic hazard to national power grids. The presentation highlighted the outputs of a recent workshop held at the Hermanus Magnetic Observatory in South Africa and funded by the Royal Society that brought together British and South African space scientists and power engineers to assess the state-of-the-art in the measurement, prediction and mitigation of GIC hazards.

Both Katie's talk and Jim's poster won a Royal Astronomical Society Rishbeth Prize. These prizes are awarded annually to the best talk and best poster presented at the meeting, as voted by delegates attending and being judged on which were the most novel, interesting, clearly presented, and influential.

Thu 22 April 2010

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