Solar Superstorms – a storm in a tea cup, or a global risk?

On Thursday 6 November 2014 Professor Paul Cannon, President of the International Union of Radio Science and member of the Defence Scientific Advisory Council, delivered the second EPS Distinguished Lecture.

The event featured a roundtable discussion hosted by Dr Peter Gardner, Head of School Electronic, Electrical and Systems Engineering, where students from across the College of Engineering and Physical Sciences had the opportunity to ask questions to Professor Cannon on topics relating to his research and his career. The lecture itself discussed the potential global impact of solar superstorms on engineered devises. The evening closed with an intimate dinner with senior academics, students and alumni continuing the discussion. 

The lecture was recorded in full for your enjoyment:


Minor explosive eruptions of energy from the Sun that cause small solar storms on Earth are relatively common events. In contrast, extremely large events (superstorms) only occur very occasionally – perhaps once every century or two. Since the start of the space age, there has been no true solar-superstorm, but there have been a number of large storms and some of these have caused major technological damage, for example the partial collapse of the Canadian electricity grid in 1989.

Through their associated X-rays, solar radio bursts, relativistic velocity particles and perturbations to the solar-wind, solar-superstorms can have detrimental effects on a wide range of technologies – and potentially also health. Areas of concern include the electricity grid, satellites, avionics, air passengers, signals from satellite navigation systems and mobile telephones. Moreover, in a ‘perfect storm’ a number of technologies will be simultaneously affected which will substantially exacerbate the risk.

Not surprisingly, solar superstorms have been identified as a risk to national economies and global society. Mitigating and maintaining an awareness of the individual and linked risks over the long term is a challenge for government.

This lecture will explore the scientific background to these events, the likely impact of solar superstorms on a variety of engineered systems and will identify ways to prepare for these low-probability but randomly occurring events.

Professor Paul Cannon Biography

Paul is the Professor of Radio Science and Systems at the University of Birmingham. Until recently he was concurrently the part-time Director of the Poynting Institute at the University of Birmingham and a Senior Fellow at QinetiQ. Prior to this Paul served as Chief Scientist and Technical Director of the Communications Division and as the University Partnerships Director of QinetiQ. Paul is currently the Editor-in-Chief of the US journal “Radio Science” and was recently elected President of the International Union of Radio Science. He is a fellow of the Royal Academy of Engineering and in January 2014 was awarded an OBE for services to engineering.

Paul initiated the UK Ministry of Defence (MOD) ionospheric space weather mitigation programme in 1986 and he led and nurtured it for over 25 years. This he did both as a civil servant within the MOD and, for ten years, on behalf of the Ministry whilst working both in QinetiQ and latterly also at the University of Birmingham.

Paul currently serves on the UK Cabinet Office, Space Weather Project Board, has been an expert witness to the House of Commons Science and Technology Select Committee and has supported the Government’s Chief Scientific Advisor (GCSA) through the Prime Minister’s Committee on Science and Technology (CST). He was recently appointed to the Defence Scientific Advisory Council. 

Learn more about the EPS Distinguished Lecture Series at