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The world will get just 12 hours warning if a huge explosion of high energy particles from the surface of the sun heads our way, a new report has cautioned. 

A plan to help prepare for major bursts of ‘space weather’ has been published by the British government, outlining what needs to be done to cope with such an event. It says that a massive solar phenomenon would disrupt transport networks, cause blackouts and disrupt satellites.  The report warns that GPS systems could go down for up to three days at a time, leaving train networks and shipping badly affected. 

While mobile phones and landlines are expected to be unaffected, satellite communication and high frequency radio communication used by shipping and aircraft, could also go down for several days. Power grids could also be effected, leading to black outs in some areas.

The document warns that the most harmful element of severe space weather is a major coronal mass ejection, where huge eruptions blast high energy particles out into space. It also warns that major solar flares - caused by a build-up of magnetic energy that releases blasts of radiation across the solar system, can also pose a risk. The report states: ‘Space weather results from solar activity. Solar activity can produce X-rays, high energy particles and Coronal Mass Ejections of plasma.

‘Where such activity is directed towards Earth there is the potential to cause wide-ranging impacts.

‘These include power loss, aviation disruption, communication loss, and disturbance to (or loss) of satellite systems.’

While there is a steady stream of particles buffeting the planets of the solar system from the sun - known as the solar wind - flares and eruptions send intense blasts of radiation and particles. These vary in frequency with the activity of the sun and often blast off in directions far away from the Earth. However, severe solar events are thought to threaten the Earth every 100 years or so. The last major coronal mass ejection to hit the Earth, known as the Carrington event, was a powerful geomagnetic solar storm in 1859 and is thought to have been the biggest in 500 years. At the time technology was still relatively underdeveloped, although Telegraph systems all over the world failed and pylons threw sparks.

A large solar flare in March this year knocked out radio transmissions in some parts of the world.

The UK government’s Space Weather Preparedness Strategy said on that occasion it took the blast of energy and particles 18 hours to reach the Earth.

But it added: ‘It is therefore likely that our reasonable worst case scenario would only allow us 12 hours from observation to impact.’

The strategy warns that while the UK power network would likely be able to cope with a major space weather event, other countries are less well prepared.

It said: ‘The GB Power Grid is likely to be more resilient than that of some other countries to the effects of severe space weather for a range of reasons: shorter power lines, a mesh like grid system with the ability to close sections and route power around them and, a more reliant design for new and replacement transformers.’

‘Nonetheless, for the GB grid, our relatively high latitude, long coast line and geology are factors that increase risk.’