Space weather, with its origins on the sun, can heavily influence our day to day operation and that of airlines and others involved in the aviation industry.
Occurring as a result of magnetised plasma and radiation from the sun impacting the Earth’s magnetic field and upper atmosphere, the most recognisable example of space weather is probably the Northern Lights.
In order to minimise the impact of space weather and prepare for its effects, NATS works closely with the Met Office and their ground-breaking new space weather centre, which opened in October 2014.
We receive regular information from the Met Office to inform us of current solar activity and a four day forecast about the risk of solar flares or emissions. This enables us to alert our customers and ensure the air traffic management network is prepared for any likely impacts.
Ultimately, it is up to each of our airline customers to decide how to react, according to each company’s procedures. But the information we receive helps us at NATS to react quickly and efficiently to any changes that customers decide to implement.
For example, solar activity can impact upon the high frequency communications used over the ocean, so if we get an alert indicating that may be likely we let our oceanic control centre – Prestwick – know. In that instance, they can ensure that other means of communications are available and inform the airlines that the risk is there.
If the airlines choose to alter routes across the North Atlantic on the basis of the information, perhaps to optimise use of fuel or mitigate against problems such as having to cancel flights at the last minute, NATS needs to know so we are able to meet any changes in air traffic demand, such as more traffic coming from a different direction than was originally planned. This really helps with our service delivery and allows us to optimise the efficiency of the network we provide.
This is a new area for NATS, and the aviation industry as a whole, but space weather forecasting is already proving to be a valuable tool to help improve our resilience.
[Header image by d33pan via Flickr]
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