The sun might be 93 million miles away, but its flares cause blackouts and GPS to break down here on earth. Get ready. We are approaching the solar maximum.
Passengers on the MS Trollfjord watch as an aurora covers the sky along the Norwegian coast on 19 October 2019. (Credit: VWPics via AP images)
What do racing pigeons, spacecraft and power grids all have in common? They are all vulnerable to disruption from the power of the sun.
The sun connects us all and makes life on earth possible. But scientists are still learning about our local star, the most powerful force in our solar system. That’s not surprising as the sun contains 98.86% of all the mass in our solar system.
The sun has 11-year cycles as it moves from solar minimum — when solar activity like flares is at its lowest — to solar maximum, or peak activity. In the current cycle, solar maximum is expected in 2025.
Solar activity is already on the increase.
Solar flares, which are an intense burst of radiation, are an international problem. They can disable satellites in space, wreak havoc with power grids and interfere with the ability of migratory birds, which use the earth’s magnetic field to navigate their way home.
Maximum mayhem on our magnetic field
As the solar maximum approaches, there has been an increase in powerful geomagnetic storms caused by flares from the sun which buffet the earth’s magnetosphere — the space around our planet which is affected by our magnetic field.
One result has been spectacular auroras, usually only visible as the Northern Lights, seen as far south as the southern United States. Sky watchers have been delighted but there is a downside for technology.
Forty Starlink satellites owned by Elon Musk’s SpaceX corporation fell from orbit in 2022 after they were hit by a geomagnetic storm. Telecommunication networks have also been adversely affected.
Space scientists are now expecting to see more frequent and greater solar activity from both solar flares and the much larger events known as CMEs — coronal mass ejections — when large amounts of plasma and magnetic fields erupt from the sun. When CMEs burst out from the sun in the direction of the earth, the impact on our planet can be significant.
The most dramatic case of a massive geomagnetic storm, believed to be a CME, was in 1859. Known as the Carrington Event, after the British astronomer who recorded the flare, it took place just weeks before a solar maximum.
Auroras lit up the night skies as far as the tropics and were said to be bright enough to read newspapers. But telegraph stations, then the cutting edge of technology, were damaged as electric sparks caused shocks to telegraph operators and even ignited fires.
Satellites and solar winds
Since the Carrington Event we have become heavily dependent on satellites for communications and navigation. And vast electric grids power the planet.
A single extreme solar event could have a massive impact on our planet and cost an estimated $16 billion dollars in damage to space-based and civil infrastructure according to a study by the European Space Agency (ESA).
Back in 1989, a medium-level solar storm knocked out the Quebec power grid and left homes and businesses without electricity for some days and caused an estimated $6 billion dollars in damage.
Strong solar flares can cause blackouts of the radio signals used for GPS and other forms of navigation. So how do we protect earth from the star that made life on earth possible?
NASA, the ESA and other international space agencies monitor the sun with a fleet of satellites that observe the sun in different spectrums, including ultraviolet and X-ray, to help to predict what is known as ‘space weather’ —conditions created by activity on the sun.
Space weather forecasts
The ESA launched a Space Safety Centre in 2022 to monitor and respond to space weather. The Centre monitors the satellites which provide navigation for land, sea and air transportation and provides data to help protect civil infrastructure on earth such as power grids.
The many satellites observing the sun enable space weather forecasts that are issued daily. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) in Boulder, Colorado is regarded as the most authoritative predictor of space weather.
William Murtagh is the program coordinator for NOAA’s Space Weather Prediction Center. He’s essentially a space weatherman. “When flares erupt we immediately notify everyone including satellite companies and aviation to provide the situation awareness,” Murtagh said. “Then we turn our attention to solar energetic particles which may reach earth later, in several hours or more. Airlines start changing routes or lowering altitude as GPS accuracy is affected. Power grid are also big customers of NOAA.”
Power grids can be put in safe modes and some satellites can be shut down or re-oriented to protect them. Astronauts in spacecraft, who are particularly vulnerable, can retreat to more protected areas of their spacecraft for greater protection from dangerous doses of radiation.
It’s not only airlines, power companies and satellite operators that subscribe to NOAA for space weather predictions. Geomagnetic storms also affect the activities of migratory birds. Pigeon racing groups are also clients of NOAA’s space weather predictions. They won’t fly their pigeons when even low-level solar activity is predicted.
Pigeons are big business with top racing pigeons changing hands for serious money. According to PigeonPedia, a Belgian-bred female called New Kim sold to a Chinese breeder for $1.9 million dollars in 2020. That broke the previous sale record held by a male pigeon called Armando who fetched a cool $1.3 million dollars.
Pigeon owners keep careful watch on geomagnetic conditions because even a pricey pigeon can’t navigate home when the earth’s magnetic field is distorted by powerful surges of solar winds from flares and CMEs.
Three questions to consider:
- Have you experienced any telecommunications problems that might be due to solar events?
- Have you been able to view an aurora in your area?
- What do you think it would be like to be a space weatherperson?
Tira Shubart is a freelance journalist and media trainer based in London. She has produced television news and trained journalists across four continents for international broadcasters, including BBC News, Canadian Broadcasting Corporation and Al Jazeera, over several decades. She is chair of The Rory Peck Trust and a Fellow of the Royal Astronomical Society as well as Ambassador for the Science Museum in London.
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