A SPACE weather expert based in Didcot is working to help protect the Earth from a magnetic storm that scientists fear could cause worldwide disruption next year.

Professor Mike Hapgood, based at Rutherford Appleton laboratory, says the Earth needs to be better prepared for solar storms which could knock out national power grids and Global Positioning Systems.

Early next year, the sun will reach the peak of its 11-year activity cycle, which puts the planet at greater risk of such storms.

Prof Hapgood said: “A big magnetic storm can permeate the Earth’s crust, which can drive electric currents through aluminium or copper wires in the National grid, which could cause a national blackout.

“Interactions with Earth’s atmosphere can also affect any radio signals.

“If you had a big storm, GPS might be unavailable for a couple of days.

“On July 21 this year there was a very large event on the far side of the sun, if it had intercepted Earth we would have had a very large magnetic storm.”

Prof Hapgood, who studied at Oxford University , has worked at Rutherford for 30 years.

He now chairs the Space Environment Impacts Experts Group (SEIEG) which advises the Government on space weather.

He said: “My main interest is to study the likely extremes in these scenarios.

“These are enormous events that could have a very significant effect on GDP.

“The National Grid now relies on warnings from space craft carrying equipment built at Rutherford and they are developing plans on how to evolve.”

Magnetic storms on Earth are caused by Coronal Mass Ejections (CMEs) on the sun, where large clouds of gas held in place by the sun’s magnetic field are suddenly released.

When magnetic storms permeate the Earth’s crust, the direct current can meet with the alternating current in the National grid and over power transformers, causing them to malfunction.

On March 13, 1989, a severe geomagnetic storm stuck Earth. It caused northern lights to be seen in Texas, and tripped circuit breakers on Quebec’s national grid leaving the Canadian province without power for nine hours.

And that was before the world relied on the internet and GPS to function.

Prof Hapgood explained there is currently one possible defence.

He said: “It sounds counter-intuitive, but actually the National Grid could switch on the whole grid, to block the effect of extra currents.

“At the moment we rely on one American aircraft called ACE which measures the speed of solar flares, plasma coming towards Earth, and its speed and density, but even that can only give a 20 minute warning.”

Prof Hapgood warned that even though next year would bring a peak of solar activity, the Earth is always under threat. He said: “Next year is a peak in activity.

“However, we can’t find a link between these peaks and the major events like CMEs.

“You shouldn’t breath a sigh of relief and think you are safe, this is a constant risk.”