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Space Weather Impact on Ground-based Systems (SWIGS)

Project plan for SWIGS

On 1st May 2017 the Geomagnetism Team will lead the kick-off of a major new space weather project called 'Space Weather Impacts on Ground-based Systems', or SWIGS. This is a £3M, four year NERC-funded consortium of ten institutes, 21 researchers and 7 post-docs, under the Highlight Topic funding stream. This is a major investment by NERC in space weather and the consortium led by BGS comprises many of the major UK players in the subject.

One novel aspect of SWIGS is the bringing together of space physicists and geophysicists studying the solid Earth and upper atmosphere. Together with project partners in the US, Canada, Europe, New Zealand and China, as well as industry stakeholders, we will develop our understanding of how space weather and geomagnetic activity drives electric fields in the Earth and quantify the impacts of this on power grids, as well as pipeline and rail networks.


Severe space weather is known to pose a significant hazard to ground based technologies, such as electrical transmission systems, pipelines and railways[1][2]. Space weather is a consequence of solar magnetic activity that is carried to Earth in the Solar Wind, where it impacts the electrical currents and electromagnetic fields in near-Earth space and in the upper atmosphere. As a result of Faraday's law of induction, varying electrical currents in space cause a varying magnetic field at ground level, which induces a surface electric field in the Earth. This electric field acts as a 'battery' between earthing points in conducting structures, causing Geomagnetically Induced Currents (GIC) to flow to and from the ground through such networks.

GIC are a documented hazard to the continuous, safe and efficient operation of high voltage power transformers, as well as a cause of increased corrosion rates in metal pipelines and a disruptor of safe signal operations within railway networks. Estimates of potential economic loss from severe space weather run into billions of dollars per day[3][4]. This is a result of our interconnected society's increasing dependence on various technologies, including electrical power, and the impact that, for example, power loss can have on economic and other activities within and between nations.

Existing models of GIC in UK ground-based networks are inadequate in the details (e.g. only the highest power grid voltages are modelled; networks are only connected at the substation level; no models or studies of impact on UK pipelines or railways exist). Models are also incomplete in terms of source field specification or modelling (e.g. measured magnetic data from sparse networks; limited forward modelling of magnetic variations; dependence on poorly-known sub-surface electrical conductivity). Models in operational use in the UK have limited validation against surface electric field or GIC measurements and contain no forecast capability.

Project Plan

We will develop better physical understanding of electromagnetic fields and currents in near Earth space and in the upper atmosphere, focussing on the couplings between the Solar Wind and geo-electromagnetic processes on the ground and in the ionosphere and magnetosphere (under Work Package 1).

We will also make surface electric field, subsurface conductivity and GIC measurements - creating legacy data sets - to validate existing and new models and to provide estimates of uncertainty in estimated GIC, for example at the transformer level (WP2).

Industry requires better and timely forecasts of GIC and our proposal will seek to improve forecasting of Earth environment and solid Earth processes and extremes (WP3).

This will all lead to a new generation of solid Earth and space environment models that quantify how space weather, rapid magnetic variations, sub-surface conductivity and surface electric fields impact surface conducting infrastructures such as the National Grid (WP4).

Each of the WPs has a lead (bold, below) who will work with the PI to manage deliverables, reports, meetings, outreach, and interaction with project partners and with an industry stakeholder advisory group (WP5). WP1-WP3 will make the scientific advances that feed through WP4 to deliver impact.

  • WP1: Magnetospheric-Ionospheric Sources (MIS) of GIC (BAS, RAL, UCL)
  • WP2: Solid Earth Response to MIS (BGS, Edinburgh, Southampton)
  • WP3: Forecasting MIS and GIC processes (BAS, BGS, Imperial, Lancaster, Leeds, RAL, Reading)
  • WP4: Infrastructure Impact of GIC (BGS, Lancaster, RAL)
  • WP5: Management of Outputs, Reporting, Coordination and Outreach (BGS, WP leads)


Principle Investigator: Dr Alan Thomson1
Co-Investigators: Dr Ciaran Beggan1, Dr Yulia Boganova6, Prof Jeremy Chittenden5, Dr Mark Clilverd3, Prof Malcolm Dunlop6, Dr Emma Eastoe4, Dr Jonathan Eastwood5, Dr Robert Fear7, Dr Mervyn Freeman3, Prof Mike Hapgood6, Dr Andrew Kavanagh3, Dr Phil Livermore8, Prof Mike Lockwood9, Dr Jon Mound8, Dr Matthew Owen9, Dr Jonathan Rae10, Dr Gemma Richardson1, Dr Fiona Simpson7, Prof Katherine Whaler2, Prof Jim Wild4

1. British Geological Survey, 2. University of Edinburgh, 3. British Antarctic Survey, 4. University of Lancaster, 5. Imperial College, 6. Rutherford Appleton Laboratory, 7. University of Southampton, 8. University of Leeds, 9. University of Reading, 10. University College London

Project Partners

Dr Antti Pulkkinen (NASA Goddard, USA), Dr Ari Viljanen (FMI, Finland), Dr David Boteler (NRCan, Canada), Prof C. Trevor Gaunt (University of Cape Town, South Africa) Prof Craig Rodger (University of Otago, New Zealand), Prof Peter Gallagher (Trinity College Dublin, Republic of Ireland), Dr Jesper Gjerloev (John Hopkins University, USA), Prof David Jackson (UK Met Office), Prof Karsten Bahr (University of Gottingen), Prof Andreas Junge (University of Frankfurt), Prof Jin Bin Cao (Beihang University, China), Prof Lianguang Liu (North China Electric Power University)


For more information please contact Dr Alan Thomson.


  1. UK National Risk Register, 2015.
  2. Canon et al, 2013. Extreme space weather: impacts on engineered systems and infrastructure. Roy. Acad. Eng.
  3. Oughton, E. et al, 2016. Helios Solar Storm Scenario; Cambridge Risk Framework series. Univ. Cambridge.
  4. Baker et al, 2008. Severe Space Weather Events-Understanding Societal and Economic Impacts. NSF, USA.