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    HomeScienceSolar storms can flip train signals from red to green, study warns

    Solar storms can flip train signals from red to green, study warns



    Whether it’s leaves on the line or signal failures, rail commuters regularly face issues while trying to get to work.

    But things could soon get much worse – thanks to space weather.

    A new study has warned that train accidents could be caused by solar storms switching signalling from red to green.

    ‘Our research shows that space weather poses a serious, if relatively rare, risk to the rail signalling system, which could cause delays or even have more critical, safety implications,’ said Cameron Patterson, a PhD researcher at Lancaster University and lead author of the study.

    ‘This natural hazard needs to be taken seriously.’

    Whether it’s leaves on the line or signal failures, rail commuters regularly face issues while trying to get to work. But things could soon get much worse – thanks to space weather. Pictured: artist’s impression of a solar storm
    A new study has warned that train accidents could be caused by solar storms switching signalling from red to green (stock image)

    READ MORE: Earth will be bombarded by intense solar storms next YEAR: Scientists predict we’ll reach ‘solar maximum’ in 2024

    Researchers have discovered a new relationship between the Sun’s magnetic field and its sunspot cycle, that can help predict when the peak in solar activity will occur

    The sun constantly sheds solar material into space – both in a steady flow known as the ‘solar wind,’ and in shorter, more energetic bursts from solar eruptions.

    When this solar material strikes Earth’s magnetic environment – known as the magnetosphere – it can create geomagnetic storms.

    ‘The impacts of these magnetic storms can range from mild to extreme, but in a world increasingly dependent on technology, their effects are growing ever more disruptive,’ NASA explained.

    For example, a solar storm back in 1989 caused electrical blackouts across Quebec, while the Carrington Event in 1959 sparked fires at telegraph stations.

    Worryingly, the risk of these storms is increasing as we approach the ‘solar maximum’ – a peak in the Sun’s 11-year activity cycle – which is expected to arrive as soon as 2024.

    In their new study, the researchers set out to understand how solar flares could affect the rail industry.

    The team focused on two routes – the Preston to Lancaster section of the West Coast Main Line, and the Glasgow to Edinburgh line.

    Worryingly, their models revealed how solar storms could create geomagnetically induced currents (GICs), which could interfere with electricity transmission and distribution grids.

    ‘Our research suggests that space weather is able to flip a signal in either direction, turning a red signal green or a green signal red,’ Mr Patterson said.

    The sun constantly sheds solar material into space – both in a steady flow known as the ‘solar wind,’ and in shorter, more energetic bursts from solar eruptions. When this solar material strikes Earth’s magnetic environment – known as the magnetosphere – it can create geomagnetic storms (artist’s impression)
    The researchers say that space weather can trigger two types of failure. ‘Right side’ failures cause the signal to switch from green to red, while ‘wrong side’ failures cause the signal to go from red to green (stock image)

    READ MORE Huge ‘sunspot archipelago’ is spotted on the sun

    Scientists have spotted an ‘archipelago’ of sunspots on the surface of our star, which could shoot out violent explosions of energy towards Earth

    ‘This is obviously very significant from a safety perspective.’

    Space weather strong enough to have this effect occurs in the UK every few decades, according to the researchers.

    ‘By building a computer model of the signalling track circuits using realistic specifications for the various components of the system, we found that space weather events capable of triggering faults in these track circuits are expected in the UK every few decades,’ Mr Patterson added.

    The researchers say that space weather can trigger two types of failure.

    ‘Right side’ failures cause the signal to switch from green to red, while ‘wrong side’ failures cause the signal to go from red to green.

    According to their model, ‘wrong side’ failures could be triggered by weaker geomagnetic storms than ‘right side’ failures.

    These weaker storms occur every one to two decades. 

    Based on the findings, the team are calling on the rail industry to consider the risk of space weather and put measures in place to mitigate them. 

    Professor Jim Wild, co-author of the study, said: ‘Other industries such as aviation, electricity generation and transmission, and the space sector are considering the risks to their operations, and exploring how these might be mitigated.

    ‘It’s important that the rail sector is included in this planning.

    ‘As our understanding of the space weather hazard improves, it’s possible to consider how to reduce the risks.

    ‘In future, we could see space weather forecasting being used make decisions about limiting railway operations if an extreme event is expected, just as meteorological forecasts are used currently.’

    WHAT IS THE SOLAR CYCLE?



    The Sun is a huge ball of electrically-charged hot gas that moves, generating a powerful magnetic field.

    This magnetic field goes through a cycle, called the solar cycle.

    Every 11 years or so, the Sun’s magnetic field completely flips, meaning the sun’s north and south poles switch places. 

    The solar cycle affects activity on the surface of the Sun, such as sunspots which are caused by the Sun’s magnetic fields. 

    Every 11 years the Sun’s magnetic field flips, meaning the Sun’s north and south poles switch places. The solar cycle affects activity on the surface of the Sun, increasing the number of sunspots during stronger (2001) phases than weaker (1996/2006) ones

    One way to track the solar cycle is by counting the number of sunspots.

    The beginning of a solar cycle is a solar minimum, or when the Sun has the least sunspots. Over time, solar activity – and the number of sunspots – increases.

    The middle of the solar cycle is the solar maximum, or when the Sun has the most sunspots.

    As the cycle ends, it fades back to the solar minimum and then a new cycle begins.

    Giant eruptions on the Sun, such as solar flares and coronal mass ejections, also increase during the solar cycle.

    These eruptions send powerful bursts of energy and material into space that can have effects on Earth.

    For example, eruptions can cause lights in the sky, called aurora, or impact radio communications and electricity grids on Earth. 

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