How space weather could cause TRAIN DELAYS

Space weather could cause TRAIN DELAYS: Solar storms can offset the balance of electrical currents and interfere with railway signals, experts warn

  • Train signals detect whether a train is standing on a particular section of the line
  • Solar storms can offset balance of electrical currents which control train signals
  • But stronger solar storms cause more signals to malfunction, which in turn can increase the amount of time a train can be delayed

They’re the words that any commuter dreads to hear: ‘your train has been delayed due to a signalling failure.’

Now, a new study has warned that those dreaded words could become more common – with space weather to blame. 

Researchers from Lancaster University have revealed how solar storms can interfere with railway signals, turning them from red to green even if there are no trains nearby.

Space weather is a consequence of the behaviour of the Sun, the nature of Earth’s magnetic field and atmosphere, and our location in the solar system

Researchers from Lancaster University have revealed how solar storms can interfere with railway signals, turning them from red to green even if there are no trains nearby

How do solar storms affect railway signals? 

Signals operate like traffic lights and detect whether a train is currently standing on a particular section of the line, in order to stop any potential collisions.

Even moderate solar storms can offset the balance of electrical currents which control train signals, the researchers said. 

But stronger solar storms cause more signals to malfunction, which in turn can increase the amount of time a train can be delayed.

Space weather is a consequence of the behaviour of the Sun, the nature of Earth’s magnetic field and atmosphere, and our location in the solar system. 

‘The active elements of space weather are particles, electromagnetic energy and magnetic fields, rather than the more commonly known weather contributors of water, temperature and air,’ the Met Office explains.

‘Magnetic fields, radiation, particles and matter which have been ejected from the Sun can interact with the Earth’s magnetic field and upper atmosphere to produce a variety of effects.’ 

Research from Lancaster University will be presented this week claiming this solar activity can cause electrical currents flowing on Earth to interfere with signals, turning them from green to red even if there are no trains nearby. 

Signals operate like traffic lights and detect whether a train is currently standing on a particular section of the line, in order to stop any potential collisions.

Even moderate solar storms can offset the balance of electrical currents which control train signals, the researchers said. 

But stronger solar storms cause more signals to malfunction, which in turn can increase the amount of time a train can be delayed.

Cameron Patterson, a PhD student at Lancaster University and one of the scientists investigating the phenomenon, said: ‘Most of us have at one point heard the dreaded words, ‘your train is delayed due to a signalling failure’.

‘And while we usually connect these faults to rain, snow and leaves on the line, you may not have considered that the sun can also cause railway signals to malfunction.’

They’re the words that any commuter dreads to hear – ‘your train has been delayed due to a signalling failure.’ Now, a new study has warned that those dreaded words could become more common – with space weather to blame

The team of scientists investigated the impact of space weather on the South-North line from Preston to Lancaster and a West-East line from Glasgow to Edinburgh.

Mr Patterson added that his next project is to look at how strong a solar storm would be needed to change a red signal, when a train is on the line, back to green to indicate that the line is clear, which he described as ‘a far more hazardous scenario potentially leading to crashes’.

Thankfully, severe space weather events are rare, according to the Met Office. 

However, when they do occur, they can have ‘extremely significant’ impacts to our national infrastructure.

‘The major impacts of a severe space weather event can be divided into two areas – impacts on technology on Earth and threats to equipment and health in space and at high altitude,’ the Met Office explained.

‘They include: Power grid outage, disruption to Global Navigation Satellite Systems (GNSS) / Global Positioning Satellites (GPS), High Frequency (HF) radio communications outages, satellite damage, increased radiation levels at high altitude.’

While space weather events have always occurred, the Met Office says we’re more susceptible now thanks to our modern reliance on technology driven systems. 

‘Different systems are exposed to varying levels of risk depending on technical design, location and the type of space weather that can affect them,’ it added.

‘Our challenge is to ensure new systems are designed with appropriate engineering solutions to minimize the risk posed by space weather.’  

SOLAR STORMS PRESENT A CLEAR DANGER TO ASTRONAUTS AND CAN DAMAGE SATELLITES

Solar storms, or solar activity, can be divided into four main components that can have impacts on Earth:  

  • Solar flares: A large explosion in the sun’s atmosphere. These flares are made of photons that travel out directly from the flare site. Solar flares impact Earth only when they occur on the side of the sun facing Earth.  
  • Coronal Mass Ejections (CME’s): Large clouds of plasma and magnetic field that erupt from the sun. These clouds can erupt in any direction, and then continue on in that direction, plowing through solar wind. These clouds only cause impacts to Earth when they’re aimed at Earth. 
  • High-speed solar wind streams: These come from coronal holes on the sun, which form anywhere on the sun and usually only when they are closer to the solar equator do the winds impact Earth. 
  • Solar energetic particles: High-energy charged particles thought to be released primarily by shocks formed at the front of coronal mass ejections and solar flares. When a CME cloud plows through solar wind, solar energetic particles can be produced and because they are charged, they follow the magnetic field lines between the Sun and Earth. Only charged particles that follow magnetic field lines that intersect Earth will have an impact. 

While these may seem dangerous, astronauts are not in immediate danger of these phenomena because of the relatively low orbit of manned missions.

However, they do have to be concerned about cumulative exposure during space walks.

This photo shows the sun’s coronal holes in an x-ray image. The outer solar atmosphere, the corona, is structured by strong magnetic fields, which when closed can cause the atmosphere to suddenly and violently release bubbles or tongues of gas and magnetic fields called coronal mass ejections

The damage caused by solar storms 

Solar flares can damage satellites and have an enormous financial cost.

The charged particles can also threaten airlines by disturbing Earth’s magnetic field.

Very large flares can even create currents within electricity grids and knock out energy supplies.

When Coronal Mass Ejections strike Earth they cause geomagnetic storms and enhanced aurora.

They can disrupt radio waves, GPS coordinates and overload electrical systems.

A large influx of energy could flow into high voltage power grids and permanently damage transformers.

This could shut off businesses and homes around the world. 

Source: NASA – Solar Storm and Space Weather 

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