Space weather and maritime transport

There are risks of a low probability but high impact. A pandemic. An Icelandic volcano. An Indonesian tsunami. A Portuguese earthquake. They are not unpredictable risks, but there is a certain degree of avoidability of the possible damaging consequences, if sufficient preparations are undertaken. This article is concerned with one possible risk which arrives from outer space and can cause chaos in international maritime commerce: solar storms.

Drivers of change

Maritime law evolves in response to navigation techniques, as do maritime risks. The intrepid explorers of Columbus would never have feared solar radiation as they relied on the maritime compass and their astronomical knowledge to try to survive the risks of maritime adventure.

But with the advent of “e-navigation” and autonomous navigation, the naval technological dependence on systems of satellite positioning (such as GPS) creates new sea risks which require the reinforcement of the “e-seaworthiness” of the vessel.

Maybe one of the largest risks, together with cyber-attacks, are those that make up extreme solar phenomena. Space weather, together with cyber-attacks, forms part of the “new risks of maritime navigation” which goes beyond the traditional gales or the unpredictable “rogue waves”.

Ignoring them is not an option, even more so after suffering the effects of a global pandemic for which we were obviously not sufficiently prepared.

Solar storms

The first contemporary “extreme solar phenomenon” (solar storm) was registered by the reputed English astronomer Richard Carrington in 1859.

Carrington observed various solar explosions which scorched the telegraph wires, leaving many Europeans and Americans without the “internet of the Victorian era”.

Similar episodes, much less intense than the Carrington event, have continued to occur:

  • 1882 - paralysing the Chicago Stock Exchange.
  • 1903 - rendering cross-ocean telegraph cables useless and plunging Switzerland into darkness.
  • 1938 - terrifying Republican fighters in the Spanish civil war who thought that Hitler was using his feared “death ray”.
  • 1967 - activating the US early warning system for the missile launches for a presumed Soviet attack, almost starting a nuclear war.
  • 1989 - paralysing the Hydroelectric Station in Quebec, leaving six million people without service for nine hours at a cost of US$6 billion.
  • 2012 - when a potent solar storm merely brushed Earth to the relief of NASA, which subsequently revealed that it had escaped a loss of US$2 trillion.

Solar storms are constantly observed in real time by a fleet of sentinel satellites oriented towards the sun and monitored by specialist agencies in Space Weather (such as the “National Oceanic Atmospheric Association Space Weather Prediction Center” in the US).

Satellite risk

Solar storms have a lethal effect not only on actual satellites but also, of more concern to us, on the family of satellite navigation systems, known as “Global Navigation Satellite Systems” (GNSS).

Solar storms are capable of affecting this family of GNSS, made up of the North American system (GPS, which has become the most popular reference), the Russian (GLONASS), the European (GALILEO) and the Chinese (BEIDOU).

The operative loss of the GNSS is critical to many different sectors, including maritime, due to our high dependence on GPS. It is calculated that a loss of GPS for a period of five days would cost more than £1 billion to the UK alone.

For the maritime sector, solar storms may cause:

  • Uncontrolled drift of vessels and platforms
  • Vessels running aground and blockages of port access channels
  • Collisions in tight straits such as Gibraltar
  • The voiding of the global maritime salvage system
  • Loss of container cargo
  • Paralysis of port operations.

If the scenarios described above – all of which have severe economic consequences - appear alarmist, consider the impact of the recent COVID-19 pandemic. A little more than one year ago, the British National Risk Register of Civil Emergencies declared a “very high” risk of a solar storm or pandemic. The catastrophic prediction has proved to be surprisingly correct.

Are such events unpredictable and irresistible force majeure? Not at all. A network of sentinel satellites monitor solar activity in real time. The risk is foreseeable. Moreover, the risk is avoidable, but only if the risk is taken seriously.

E-seaworthiness of the vessel

New navigation methods, such as e-navigation, bring to light new risks like cyber-attacks or solar storms. They are new risks because the technology that the navigation currently depends upon is vulnerable to the same. For that reason it is necessary to consider a new concept of “e-seaworthiness” of the vessel and its ability to be resilient against these new risks.

In times gone by, sailors were unaware of the influence of space weather and old sailors could sense storms merely by looking at the turbidity of water, or navigate thanks to their astronomical knowledge. E-navigation, on the other hand, produces less skilful sailors who are more dependent on technology.

If a solar storm disables the GPS system of a vessel, can it be arguable that the vessel has lost its e-seaworthiness? In our opinion, yes and precisely because of this it is necessary to reinforce classic or traditional seaworthiness, by putting in place back-up systems to GPS.

Systems which alleviate GPS-dependence for the determination of course and position of the vessel will allow resistance to the drastic consequences which could arise from their absence.

Options include having at least an E-Loran system available (although this may seem like replacing an IPad Pro with a ZX Spectrum from 1982) or to opt for other resources such as a taximeter, a sextant, compass, astronomical navigation, the nautical needle, or the “lodestone”.


Solar storms, like pandemics, are not “black swans”; they are not, to coin the phrase used by Donald Rumsfeld, “unknown unknowns” but rather they are known events for which we are either prepared or not.

The insidious COVID-19 virus should teach us to never take anything for granted. Anything, including the unthinkable, can happen.

It is, therefore, advisable not to underestimate the high impact, low probability risks. Together with the weather forecast received by sailors via NAVTEX or AEMET, maybe it would also be advisable to add a section for space weather, to enable us to see the daily threat of our solar storms.

Read others items in Marine Brief - July 2020